Bo Bjerggaard

Eve Sussman

12 May - 21 Aug 2010

Pylon, 2010
C-print by Simon Lee for Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation
112 x 160 cm
White on White. A random thriller [+other works from the expedition] / Photos by Simon Lee

12. May - 21. August 2010

White on White. Black on white

White on White. A random thriller [+ other works from the expedition] is the title of Eve Sussman's exhibition at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard. The title refers to the famous white square from 1918, by the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich. At the time, this work was an expression of the most radical abstraction: a white square on a white canvas. A more unequivocal rejection of the descriptive function of painting could scarcely be imagined. 'Suprematism' was what Malevich called his own style, which he first manifested in 1915 with a similar black square at an exhibition in St. Petersburg. White. Black. White. White on white. It could be so simple.

In the case of Eve Sussman, however, nothing is that simple; neither in relation to White on White, nor in her work in general. If Malevich presents abstraction, Sussman stands for summation. Where Malevich subtracts, Sussman adds. This can be seen at its most explicit in her large-scale video productions, where references, associations and fragmentary stories pile up, layer upon layer, in a pictorial language so packed with texture, materiality and visual surplus that it can seem completely dizzying.

The video installation 89 Seconds at Alcazar, which was exhibited in 2004 at the Whitney Biennial in New York and brought Sussman's name to everyone's lips, is the first of its kind. It was created by Sussman together with the loosely-associated group of actors, choreographers, filmmakers, etc. who since 2003 have gone under the name of the Rufus Corporation. In a 12-minute loop, they recreate the genesis of the famous painting Las Meninas (1656) by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Using sound, images and movement, Velázquez' frozen moment is transformed into a living tableaux vivant, with actors playing the role of the king, queen, dwarf and princess and their whole entourage, all getting ready to pose for the painter. Glittering surfaces and glowing red colours dominate the visual side, while rustling silks and whispers in the corners occupy the audio dimension. While the painter in Velázquez' painting paints what we cannot see, because it lies outside the space of the painting, Sussman makes all of this visible.
The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007), offers an even more violent and long-lasting visual explosion. On the basis of the painting Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) by the 18th-century French artist Jacques-Louis David, this almost ninety-minute-long film depicts the Sabine women's mythological and highly dramatic intervention in the battle between their Roman captors and their own men, who now, many years after their abduction, had come to take them home. Whereas 89 Seconds at Alcazar is quite faithful to its model, the plot of The Rape of the Sabine Women has been brought forward in time to the 1960s, and recorded on locations in Berlin and Greece. A cool modernist architecture and lots of Jackie Kennedy-styled women are present in the carefully harmonised images, which despite their sometimes violent and gory content still appear tightly composed, with the same sense of posture and compositional tension that we find in the painting by David.

Against this background White on White is no exception, neither in its visual surplus nor its narrative complexity. It is without doubt the artist's most complex work to date: a film in six parts, produced simultaneously as a feature film, a television series and randomly-generated film, which, in addition to evoking the ghost of Malevich, also draws upon world politics, science fiction and the crime novel genre.

The film was recorded in Kazakhstan, during an "artistic expedition", as Sussman describes it [1], through the post-Soviet part of Central Asia. The film's action takes place in the fictional A-City at the close of 2016. The main character, Michael Holz, is a émigré geophysicist employed to transform the algorithms used to model geological formations. The problem, however - and hence the narrative fulcrum - is that Holz does not know what his work will be used for. Together with David, a journalist, he goes in search of the truth about his employer, and it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems. The company for which Holz works is involved in the secret extraction of lithium from water - a substance that can be used, not only in A-city's badly-needed batteries, but also to control the population's internal clocks.

This, in brief, is the plot. At first glance, it might sound like an everyday science fiction crime novel: a tension-filled tale of the struggle of the honest man against a corrupt system. And maybe it really is that simple - but it does not seem so. Firstly, because the story is related in fragmented parts, the sequence of which is controlled by a randomly-generated code. And secondly, because the images are more suggestive than explanatory. Clues are laid. An atmosphere is created in sound and images. Visual tropes, such as a half-empty hotel corridor and a night-darkened city, create a suggestive scene which in reality it is mainly up to the viewers to fill out, with their own desire to discover and their need for explanation. In this way, Sussman breaks with both Hollywood films and the narrative structure of the classic crime novel, as the investigative work is largely the responsibility of the viewer, rather than being served up by an omniscient narrator. The fact that the narrative structure is quite literally left to chance does not make this task any easier - quite the contrary.

You may search in vain for a clue in the work's title to help in the investigation, for, although you may be able to trace the title's origin, this does not answer the question of what it has to do with Malevich's White on White. Or with surface, abstraction and non-figuration. The answer is not at all obvious, and you may suspect that this reference is yet another red herring designed to lead us astray, and that this evocation of a painting is above all a reference to 89 Seconds at Alcazar and The Rape of the Sabine Women, created to complete the trilogy and deliver a perfectly rounded full stop to the 20th century. Perhaps it is all three things. But in that case, there is also a fourth and a fifth possibility.

The fourth deals with utopia as a concept and idea. Here we return to Malevich again, as his radical abstraction is not just a formal matter, but should also be seen in the context of the utopian ideas of a better and more spiritually-conscious world that motivated the Russian avant-garde and permeated its radical idiom. This is where the threads of White on White anno 1918 become entwined with those of White on White anno 2010. The journey of Sussman and the Rufus Corporation through post-Soviet Central Asia is also very much an encounter with the same utopia - or rather with its decline, manifested in the film by the many discarded monuments to forgotten heroes, and in buildings which, despite their futuristic exteriors, still appear to be part of the dream of another century. A fall and restoration, one might add, inasmuch as the communist utopia is now being replaced by its capitalist equivalent, expressed through the dream of prosperity and expansion. It is here, between utopia and reality, that painting meets film - and Malevich's Russia meets Sussman's post-Soviet Kazakhstan.

The fifth aspect deals with abstraction. I wrote that Malevich's white painting stands for a rejection of the descriptive function of painting; a break with representation. In fact, Sussman's White on White does something similar; for it is precisely not 'white', if we ignore the empty cities and landscapes that we pass by, and the sense of absence and loss that endows the film with its own special dystopian tone. It is not a direct representation of Malevich's painting. The relationship between the two, painting and film, must be sought at a much more abstract level - or, to put it another way, the relationship between them has itself been turned into an abstraction.

The point may seem cryptic - like the film itself - but in reality, it tells us a lot about Sussman's method in general. Instead of simply 'translating' the chosen paintings, Velázquez' Las Meninas, David's Intervention of the Sabine Women and Malevich's white square, into moving images, she makes her motif the very manner in which the images are images. There is in other words a shift from picture to performance, which not only has to do with the fact that Sussman in a certain sense presents the pictures in a theatrical production, but also, in a far more fundamental sense, with the fact that, as in 89 Seconds at Alcazar, she does not reveal the real motif, Velázquez' painting, but rather the way in which the motif comes into being. As in The Rape of the Sabine Women, she does not directly reproduce David's painting, but in a more abstract sense re-stages its basic tensions and structure-creating desire. Or, as in White on White, she does not reproduce the white square with a white screen, but fills the screen with all the dreams, longings and failed utopias the abstraction seems to hold. Sussman's video work could perhaps best be described as a kind of performative visual practice (generic terms are in any case inadequate - is 89 Seconds at Alcazar, for example, a painting, a performance or a video?), the primary aim of which is presentation rather than representation. Instead of revealing what the picture represents, Sussman shows how it does so. White on White. Black on white.
[1] Kate Watson, interview with Eve Sussman, Glasstire: Texas visual art online, October 2009, 5

Camilla Jalving
Translated by Helene Heldager - Wordmaster

Tags: Kazimir Malevich, Eve Sussman