Sue de Beer’s art is a mature reflection on the complex interior lives of disaffected suburban American teenagers. Her video installations, photographs, and sculptures are littered with references to the pop culture detritus central to our adolescent search for identity. This combination of horror films, underground bands, underground heroes, and video games animates but does not define the psychological territory it haunts. The props and sets in de Beer’s videos are handmade and deliberately imperfect: the action, such as it is, resides not in the (constructed) world but in the muddled hearts and minds of her protagonists. With that transitional period’s trademark uncertainty, her characters muse on loneliness, aspiration, memory, sex, and fate.
De Beer made the forty-minute Hans und Grete (2002) while in residence at the American Academy in Berlin, and it is perhaps the most remarkable piece in her small but growing body of work. The two-screen video installation splices together elements of German culture—the title references the Brothers Grimm as well as nicknames chosen by Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, ringleaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang— with a cognitive pathology of the shootings endemic to American high schools in recent years. It sounds heavy, but that heaviness is modulated: four revealing monologues written by Alissa Bennett (one per character) are set adrift amid scenes of classroom boredom, furtive sex, a ritual animal slaying, and a lot of amateur guitar wizardry. Perhaps indicative of divergent forces acting upon each teen, doubles proliferate across the two screens. The video has two actors (who each play two roles), two bedroom sets, two classroom scenes, two sex scenes, two scenes of violence, and so on. Kip, embodying Kip Kinkel––who in 1998 killed four people (including his parents) and wounded two dozen classmates—paradoxically explains his own massacre fantasy as an opportunity to “close down the space between us all” and “pull all the threads back to [himself.]” He’s paired with Kathleen, who home-records a four-track song about the suicide of Ulrike Meinhof yet opts out of the finality of that act as her own fate. Seth and Sean, “normal” counterparts to Kip and Kathleen’s “gothic” teens, find more appropriately conventional outlets for their feelings: he wants to be a rock star while she’s worried that he might leave her (and the baby he doesn’t know about). De Beer does not pass judgment on these characters, instead allowing them the space necessary to reach for an uneasy eloquence. The juxtaposition of conversational tics—the everpresent “likes” and “ums” of youthful speech—with a disarming self-awareness makes her portraits of lives in limbo uncommonly convincing.
De Beer’s characters are not only concerned with their futures. Disappear Here (2004) looks back: The video focuses on the porous border between memory and desire by looking at a teenage girl who recalls a third-grade field trip and takes a Polaroid self-portrait. Dark Hearts (2003) features a young couple immersed entirely in the fleeting moments of presentness that anchor all fumbling romances. De Beer’s theatrically stylized videos round out our understanding of the jumbled episodes we’ve all lived through, humanely outlining their intricate mental and emotional sphere.
Assorted images from Disappear Here, 2004, and Dark Hearts, 2003, courtesy: Postmasters Gallery