Eve Sussman seems to be hedging her bets. The 90-minute version of the video artist’s new work, The Rape of the Sabine Women, currently on view at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, is in a state that has been carefully described as a “preview.” Myriad changes could transform the work by the time of its “official” international premiere, scheduled for this fall in Greece. The pressure is on for Sussman, whose previous work, the 10-minute 89 Seconds at Alcazar, was a critical success at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. This subsequent piece is decidedly more ambitious in scale, and hopes are high for TRSW–not only for Sussman, but for the Nasher as well.
As a corporate sponsor of TRSW, the Nasher has a substantial stake in the project. This is art as big business, with museum sponsorships running a minimum of $20,000. The Nasher’s sponsorship (for an undisclosed amount) earned it the honor of previewing the yet-unfinished video. The artist, at least, is defended against potential criticism with the “work in progress” stance even while releasing the work to public scrutiny. For the museum, a successful gamble on a potential contemporary masterpiece could make an indelible impression on the international art world. As museum staff worked through technical difficulties on opening day, Sussman’s entourage, including actors affiliated with the Rufus Corporation collective, was poised on the stairs of the Nasher’s Great Hall, a contingent from the New York art world christening the museum’s hopes.
There is enough information available in the 90-minute cut from which to make some reliable assessments about the structure, direction and imagery of the work. A series of improvisational, non-linear episodes numbered and titled one through 12, TRSW is best read as an interweaving, an accretion and progression of images. Richly informed by cinematic and art-historical sources, TRSW pays homage to the French New Wave cinema. The images cluster loosely around the narrative of the Roman myth transposed into a 1960s setting in locales in Greece and Berlin, chosen for the historical and visual layerings that they immediately bring to the video. But apart from the exquisitely crafted references, Sussman’s work offers little more than a self-proclaimed critique of “better living through design”–a critique already delivered decades before.
The disjointed narrative begins at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Designed by Alfred Messel in the neo-classical style and built from 1910 to 1930, it houses a formidable collection of antiquities, including the reconstructed Pergamon Altar, which rises to full glory atop its 27 stairs within a museum wing. The Pergamon is filled with ancient Greek figural sculptures and friezes whose action depicts the battle between the Titans and the Olympic gods. This setting registers the warring subject of the Roman myth of the rape of the Sabines, as does the complex history of the museum itself–including an ongoing dispute over sculptures now located in Russia, saved from the Berlin air raids by the Red Army after 1945. These Russian-held works represent a kind of abduction, as does the colonialist attitude that claimed such archeological treasures in the first place. In Sussman’s work, a wolf sitting in the museum courtyard conjures the story of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf. The animal trots inside the museum itself, underscoring man’s ever-present animal nature in contrast to the marble ideals housed inside.
A man in a 1960s-style suit and tie wanders through the galleries of the museum and is gradually joined by other men in suits–secret agent types–who add intrigue to the setting. Here, Sussman achieves a grayed tonality that drains the setting of color and references the Jacques-Louis David painting “The Intervention of the Sabine Women,” from which Sussman drew inspiration. We are in a world of monochromatic marbles and objects in vitrines, cold and impenetrable. Jonathan Bepler’s wintery score of intermittent coughs, footsteps and echoes heightens tension.
The scene then changes to a subway ride where the men, looking out of the windows, catch only blurred glimpses of the women, viewed below the waist as skirts and legs, seen first in a golden light contrasting with the dim interior of the men’s world in the subway train. (The men, too, are often seen cut off below the head, visually rhyming with the fragmented body parts of the ancient sculptures.) A choral strain begins in the music, building in intensity, swelling to something of a siren’s song as we see close-ups of women singing, their hair perfectly coifed in bouffants. The next location is Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, completed in 1941 during the height of Nazi glory under the direction of Albert Speer. The men appear in the waiting area of a terminal where shots of a clock indicate the time frame of an organized plan: the abduction of the women.
Startlingly transposed to the Athens Meat Market, the men in suits infiltrate the throng of shoppers as carcasses hang from meat hooks and butchers clang their cleavers together, suggesting the macabre images of painter Francis Bacon. A seduction scene, in which one of the men overtakes a woman in a kitchen of steaming pots, evokes Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. A room where rabbits hang by their feet–a visual allusion to Joseph Beuys’ performance with a dead hare–becomes the chilling setting of an inferred rape. One of the suited men forcibly attacks the woman in the room, who appears dressed in peasant-style garb, pinning her to the ground amidst her anxious cries. Afterward, he is shown breaking down in tears, perhaps haunted by the brutality of his own actions.
A quintessential ’60s house designed by Nikos Valsamakis in the sleek International Style becomes the next setting. The house itself is a time capsule, with fashionably dressed players decked out in vintage ’60s apparel lounging amidst the minimalist geometries that circumscribe their lives. This ennui, exquisitely expressed by Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, is echoed in the prominently featured motif of the bird cage. The men cluster together and smoke cigarettes while the women are consciously posed as odalisques. Reflections of faces superimposed upon glass windows are emblematic of this relationship–the men and women see one another, but cannot really touch one another, and if they do, violent possession threatens to ensue. Shots of an interior–an empty kitchen, an unmade bed stacked with pillows–suggest a domestic life dreamed for but not achieved.
TRSW ends in a grand orchestration of more than 700 people at Athens’ Herodion Theatre, built after A.D. 160 by Herodes Atticus as a memorial for his wife. A crowd gathers, the grayed attire of the men contrasting against the colorfully dressed women. Choral strains again gather in intensity as singers appear on the stage. We see footage of the director and choreographer giving instructions, as we had previously seen the director making a video of the video as seen through the video monitor–Sussman turns the video inside out and shows us its seams, which take on a narrative reality of their own, separate from the video’s purported action. The men begin to interweave between one another and a fray gradually breaks out, slowly involving the women and children. Soon, all are helplessly engaged in the operatic, histrionic melee that degenerates into clawing and tearing at clothing–all filtered through a cloud of dust or smoke that visually softens the slow-motion image, limning the flattened space of the Jacques-Louis David painting, which itself partakes of the Greek frieze.
Sussman’s “Roman” men turn in upon themselves as the result of their hostage-taking, their proprietary mindset exacting a toll on their well-being. The men’s colorless world, constantly pitted against the warmth and literal color of the world the women inhabit, admits no bridge between the two, save occasional flashes of passion or, at worst, rape.
The theme travels down to us all the way from antiquity–the constant battle between the sexes and the yearning for the unattainable ideal–filtered through the Renaissance and restated by Neoclassicism, most dangerously manifested in Fascism (a form of leadership shared by both Germany and Greece in the 20th century) and manifesting in the post-WWII world as a desire to perfectly control one’s surroundings through technological advancements. But running underneath all of this desire for control is the unmistakable strain of man’s animal nature, which will always undo the most rational of plans. Sussman’s video ends with a solitary, boxed-in image of the island of Hydra: We are ultimately alone.
TRSW points out these universals to us with an exceedingly visual intelligence, but is it enough? Does our immersion in these labored, self-conscious, postmodern references, though delivered in a vehicle of laudable cinematic ambitions, really give us substantial nourishment, or just empty calories?
Sussman’s conclusion seems to reiterate the flawed nihilism of Steiner in La Dolce Vita, the character who asserted Marcello’s misery might indeed be preferable to “an existence where everything is perfect.” Arrival at that realization is hardly worth the effort of TRSW‘s uncomfortable journey. Apparently, many visitors to the Nasher felt the same way, as the handful of gallery-goers watching throughout the hours I viewed the video filtered in and out of the room, some lasting only a few minutes, none going the full 90-minute distance.
The Rape of the Sabine Women is on view through Sept. 24. The Nasher Museum of Art is located at 2001 Campus Drive on the campus of Duke University. For more information, call 684-5135 or visit www.nasher.duke.edu.