"I don't really like museums much. I find them kind of stifling. They're a bit like graveyards; full of these things that are being kept for a reason that is important, but the way that they're kept is somehow off limits, so you're not able to interact with them." --Eve Sussman
Eve Sussman creates in a conundrum. The only venues where she can preview her video installation art are the very ones she finds most stifling: museums. Perhaps this contradiction fuels her success. In her rebellion against the static of museums, she is beginning to be known for bringing famous paintings to life.
Animating the master works of painters is becoming a bit of a calling card for Sussman. Her previous work was a 12 minute looping film imagining the story behind the creation of the painting "Las Meninas" by Diego Velasquez. In keeping with this process, Sussman's new work tells the possible story leading to the climactic scene depicted in the painting, "Intervention of the Sabine Women" by Jacques-Louis David.
"The Intervention of the Sabine Women" is a scene from the Roman myth of the Rape of the Sabine women. In this myth, Romulus realizes that more women are needed to propagate the Roman line. He rallies Roman troupes to abduct the women of the neighboring Sabine city. Once acclimated to Roman life, the Sabine women fall victim to what we would now label Stockholm syndrome. They fall in love with their captors and accept their role in Roman society. In fact, they refuse to leave when their brothers and fathers come to their rescue. What is interesting about Sussman's piece is that she deviates from the original myth. While David's painting accurately depicts the Sabine women intervening between the two tribes, Sussman changes the battle so that the Roman men are warring with each other in a mounting frenzy of combative jealousies.
Sussman shifts her enactment of this myth to the 1960s, using the life depicted in glossy magazines and advertisements to remind us of the era's complacent atmosphere regarding gender and societal roles. She recasts the Roman warriors as corporate G-men, and replaces their shields and armor with slim-tied business suits and polished shoes. Instead of Rome, the Sabine women of Sussman's piece are initially found working amongst the clanging knives and bloodied carcasses of a 1960s Athenian meat market. Once captured, they easily assume their new domesticated roles as Stepford housewives, trapped in the ennui of a lavish summer home while colorful caged birds eerily perch over their heads.
Despite the fact that this film has no dialogue, it is rich with visual metaphor. Butcher's daughters are equated to the meat they are selling. High society women are likened to caged birds. This allows the wordless feature to work. The loose narrative is propelled by Jonathan Bepler's intricate score of atmospheric sounds. His symphony of clanging butcher's knives, coughing and market screams acts as a Greek chorus. The choreography by Claudia de Serpa Soares enhances the wordless telling of this story. A guard moves his foot left and then right. Men walk in a frenzied pace among stone statues. Slight gestures are elevated to the realm of dance, suggesting the intent of Sussman's actors in this grand myth.
All in all, it's a gorgeous picture; stylistically eloquent, well executed, and intricately edited to perfection. By shooting the action of this piece in Greece and Berlin, we're treated to a spectrum of colors afforded by droll set locations like the Berlin train stations to the high, lush blues of the Aegean Sea. The film's color palette is extended by costume designer Karen Young's use of 1960s high fashion, treating us to the vibrancy of tangerine oranges, lime greens, and daffodil yellows.
Perhaps Sussman's destiny to show this major work only in museums has allowed her to utilize the screen more as a canvas than other filmmakers. She uses a range of film mediums as brushwork, capturing the animal-like nature of men in textured super 8 pixilation, and at one point painting a Sabine woman in yellow, manically laughing in a crystalline high def lens.
Sussman's film work traverses the lines of cinematic and art world From the onset, she gives the viewer's visual clues to ensure that all is not what it seems. We're given a clean view of the actor's backstage, only to have a hand suddenly appear, cleaning the glass of the camera. The camera angles sometimes forces you to turn your head sideways, almost forcing you to consider the screen as painting, tilting your head this way and that. Throughout the piece, the camera pulls away to show the directors testing the lighting, the actors adjusting their costumes and waiting for their cues, or even Sussman herself as a journalist in the mix. At one point, the actors are filming us and taking pictures of the viewer as we move through them. Sussman is both forcing you to consider what is real, what is film, and what is art.
Beginning in the silent halls of Berlin's Pergamon Museum, the suited men gaze at the armless statues of beauties, whose stone lips remain somehow plump and sexual though frozen in time. The men are directed in a crescendoing frenzy among the statues by simple museum headphones, their faces revealing little thought or emotion. Directed by some indiscernible will, they find themselves in the Greek market, not even forcefully taking the women, but assuming their role as these women's captors. Evenly, the women accept their fate with indifference. Their complacent facial expression and obviously rehearsed movement show that both they, and everyone involved, understands their role in the re-telling of this myth.
If everyone is so complacent in the re-telling of history, then why does Sussman revamp the ending of the myth? Why have the Roman men turn inwards and fight themselves instead of the Sabine men? Why the imagined internal combustion of Roman civilization? It is curious that she has chosen this moment in time to invert history.
Perhaps Sussman has made a similar choice as Jacques-Louis David's in creating a work based on this myth during a period of political unrest. David's piece, "The Intervention of the Sabine Women," was painted in 1799 and seen by some as plea for people to unify after the bloodshed of the French Revolution. Sussman changes the story into one of a society doomed to repeat their history, and does so at a time when many would say that American society is stagnant in a pattern of not questioning authority. Her piece shows how the accepted action of complacency leads to the self-destruction of a society, and is perhaps her way of giving a warning.
The Rape of the Sabine Women is an incredible departure for Eve Sussman from her prior work. "89 Seconds" was an effective installation art piece: a12 minute looping film that proved her unflinching hand at lifting the curtain and revealing the small actions behind the grand displays. In this new work, she has not only established her directorial mastery, but her voice as well.
Does The Rape of the Sabine Women work as an installation art piece? Of course. These are beautiful images, each worthy of their frame. However, to get the full effect of this work, the viewer must watch the piece in its cinematic entirety. Unfortunately, this brings Sussman back to her conundrum: she is most comfortable working in a medium where her viewer's are constantly allowed to leave when they want, but has created something truly worthy of a captive audience.
- by Sabrina Chapadjiev
The Rape of the Sabine Women will be a part of Project Space 176 inaugural show in London in September. Project Space 176 is a new contemporary art space, created by Anita Zabludowicz.
In January 2008, it will be presented at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago as a sound and video installation, part of the group show, "Adaptations," curated by Stephanie Smith.