For nearly 20 years, Sue de Beer has been searching for what she calls an “inhumanly beautiful moment,” a constantly surprising and staunchly punk mission, exactly because it seems to stand at odds with what is deemed “countercultural.” This is not to say that she does not take on weighty topics. Violence, religion2, and love3 all find a place in her creative output. But what is more important to de Beer is how these complex elements of life interact with beauty in its many forms—collaboration with creative individuals, the rare happiness of living an artful life, the way a strand of hair glows in green light, the chance to see an actor achieve things on screen they never thought possible.4 For each project she undertakes, de Beer mines every last drop of the extraordinary from the simultaneously humdrum and terrifying depths of our lives. Substance is not antithetical to visual pleasure for de Beer. In fact, she thrives on the understated and revolutionary potential of beauty by finding it in unexpected places, which is perhaps the most distinctly punk act of all. From a body cleft in two, to a distraught phone call and a waltz with a wild animal, the fantastic stories de Beer tells are bursting with a sexy, biting, and generative pathos.5
Raised in New England, de Beer moved to New York to study at Parsons, and later received an MFA from Columbia University in 1998. She spent six years in Berlin, during which time she made a startlingly innovative set of films: Hans & Grete (2003), Black Sun (2005), and The Quickening (2006). De Beer quickly became recognized for her skill and conceptual nuance, and was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Her work, which is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum, has been shown at the Park Avenue Armory, the High Line, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, among other international venues. De Beer has always been willing to share this deeply personal journey with others. “I’ve always had a strong interest in collaboration with people with strong identities because my films become a mix of those identities,” she says. “Getting a breadth of life experiences has to involve culling from other people’s lives,” a process that transforms her actors from characters to fiercely independent subjects. In the same way that she works with a variety of people, de Beer is dedicated to a multimedia approach. By combining photography and video with immersive installations, de Beer aims to implicate our own bodies in her ongoing experimentations with the human form.
De Beer told me, “I’ve always been attracted to radicality,”6 a bold stance in today’s artistic landscape ruled by cookie-cutter canvases whose biggest dream is to grace the lobby of some corporate monolith. This radicality, however, is not borne solely by the subject matter she investigates, leading us to question how, in this age of transgression for the sake of hipness, we might envision punk subversion in new ways. In The Quickening, which de Beer says encapsulates “everything I find beautiful,” we are thrown into a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of suicide and Puritan drama, which might lend itself immediately to some heavy-handed social commentary. More interesting, however, is de Beer’s loving attention to detail that creates a flamboyant visual sensorium, a fertile ground from which to build previously inconceivable psyches and stories. Raking lights gently accentuate the features of the protagonists of The Quickening, and deftly executed shots from a variety of angles lend a feeling of uncanny reality to the film’s makeshift sets. De Beer’s work is punk, not because it forces us to confront uncomfortable imagery,7 which it certainly does. It is punk because it gives us a deliciously novel window into human experience. In this way, de Beer enables us to see the magic in the props and sets that comprise the scaffolding of our lives.8 It should be no surprise that, next September at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, de Beer will be showing the product of her recent residency in Abu Dhabi, which, she revealed, involves Christmas and burlesque, of all things.
1. Sue de Beer: I love this. So much.
2. SB: I don’t make art about religious oppression. The sermon I quoted in The Quickening was this one that made Jonathon Edwards’ congregation go crazy in some kind of mass sexual ecstasy, and fall on the ground having visions. I picked that sermon because it was the most poetic one. I mean I’m not religious, but in that moment I would more be imagining being a puritan getting off on the idea of a hell-mouth opening than someone being oppressed.
3. SB: Loss isn’t that overwhelming for me. It has its own beauty to it. Like Morrissey—a good Morrissey song. It’s similar to living in a hotel. Grandly disorienting.
4. SB: I like this.
5. SB: Yay. I love this.
6. SB: Is that true? It’s so depressing if it’s true. If it gets repeated a lot doesn’t it make it stronger???
7. SB: Oh no. I don’t really care about injustice. Or it isn’t a theme for me in my work—I care about it in life but I hope it isn’t in my work. And I don’t know about pain and despair. It isn’t so important to me—or maybe to put it another way, the difficult parts of life always have a soundtrack and a great pair of shoes, which again, would make it more McQueen, or Morrissey. Or Bourdin. Like when Alexander McQueen did Highland Rape, and you could wear it. Not cold, not insincere, but not filled with despair either.
8. SB: Love this.
Installation view of The Ghosts, (2011). Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery. Photo by James Ewing.
Installation view of Depiction of a Star Obscured by Another Figure, (2011). Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery. Photo by James Ewing.
“Untitled (Still from The Ghosts),” (2011). C-print. 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
“Untitled (Still from The Ghosts),” (2011). C-print. 16 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
“Untitled (Still from The Blue Lenses),” (2014). Digital metallic c-print. 14 1/2 x 20 3/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.
“Untitled (Still from The Blue Lenses,” (2014). Digital metallic c-print. 27 x 22 inches. Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.