— CNP

Eve Sussman

Rape of the Sabine Women

Video artist Eve Sussman brings her latest work, The Rape of the Sabine Women, to the Melbourne International Arts Festival this month. Based on an eighteenth century painting by Jacques-Louis David, it is an example of the artist’s ongoing use of canonical paintings as sources of inspiration.

Sussman was born in London in 1961 to American parents. Her mother was an interior designer with a talent for historic restoration, while her father, a chemical engineering professor, took travelling sabbaticals, which allowed Sussman to grow up not only in Massachusetts but also in Turkey, India, Israel and New Zealand. Having studied photography and printmaking, Sussman moved into sculpture and installations in 1989, but maintained an interest in the reflective qualities of materials as much as in their spatial dynamics. On the phone from her studio in Brooklyn, Sussman explained to me how she had played with surveillance cameras since high school and that her interest in sculpture had always been closely related to this fascination with observation, reflection and projection. An effortless consequence of this fascination was Sussman’s move into video art.

However, the categorisations that one inevitably falls into in succinctly verbalising an artist’s career can too easily elide the details. Sussman’s apparent departure from photography towards the moving image is not so clear-cut. She herself is adamant that her work and her interests cannot be pinned down to one mode of communication or representation. She is as likely to create a sculpture next, as she is a photograph, as she is a video. Moreover, the very attaching of the nomenclature “video” immediately differentiates and establishes a tension between Sussman’s work and that of “filmmakers”. This is clearly no small matter. Much of the history of video art has seen it deliberately drive itself in opposition to the film industry. That is not to say that there haven’t been many exceptions, but the subject is clearly important to Sussman, who distances herself from this culture of video art by affirming her cinematic influences.

In The Rape of the Sabine Women, Sussman’s attention to her cinematic and artistic predecessors is abundantly clear. The initial catalyst for the work came haphazardly when Sussman was flicking through an art book and chanced upon Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women from 1799. She had been looking for a reason to once again work with choreographer Claudia de Serpa Soares and the painting provided the perfect starting point, with its vividly populated battle scene lending itself to Soares’ abilities. Based on a Roman myth, The Intervention depicts the efforts of the Sabine women to make peace between their fathers, the Sabines, and their husbands, the Romans, who had kidnapped the women for wives. In the end, Sussman and her team of regular collaborators, known as Rufus Corporation, decided to work more from the original myth than from the painting. They brought the story into the aesthetics of the 1960s and with that came the concomitant cinematic references of that decade. Foremost among these is the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose distinctive visual style utilised long focal-length lenses to produce abstract graphical compositions with flat areas of colour, in the tradition of painters such as Barnett Newman. Sussman readily admits to having rewound again and again across “millions” of frames of Antonioni’s films for inspiration, as well as those of Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes.

The work of Cassavetes is an important touchstone here because of his legendary use of improvisation in the creative process. Sussman and her team rehearse thoroughly, but within the framework of rehearsal there is scope for creative license. In a method developed during the filming of 89 Seconds at Alcázar, Sussman’s reimagining of Las Meninas by Velázquez, certain rules or necessary points of action might be established and then it is left to the actors to realise the scene. The nature of the work is always non-verbal, so the improvisation is in the languages of gesture and proxemics. Yet for someone who speaks freely of an “organic” process of improvisation and collaboration, Sussman seems to hold the authorial reins much tighter with the rest of the crew. Though some reports suggest that Rufus Corporation is a democratic body with Sussman as a benevolent mediator, the tone she adopts in speaking about working with her director of photography implies that the vision of the work—the eye of the camera—remains very much hers. However, in discussing the music, by composer Jonathan Bepler, it is clear that the collaborative democracy of the process does sometimes lead the piece in directions that Sussman might not have chosen herself. Indeed, the sheer pluralistic scale of the work is something that Sussman was evidently happy to leave behind when it came to the editing, which she did herself with the help of Kevin Messman, the editor on Todd Solondz’s Palindromes.

Trawling through almost 200 hours of footage, Sussman cut the final film down to 83 minutes, but she makes use of the discarded footage on side projects, or “postcards”, that form a sort of halo of works around the main feature. Along with these shorter sequences of film are still photographs taken on set that are distinct from the film and not to be mistaken for film stills. The effect is a collection of works that feels much more like a gallery exhibition than a movie. Nevertheless, The Rape of the Sabine Women is just that, a movie. The shorter works, in their use of vérité time and brief, looping gestures, allow the viewer to engage with them in the way one might with a painting or photograph—Sussman also likens them to fish tanks and has called one of the pieces Aquarium. But the film, in its traditional feature length, its narrative structure and its dramatic aspirations, is a work of cinema with all the corresponding audience expectations and, in this regard, Sussman is breaking new ground for herself as an artist and opening herself up to a whole new array of viewers, fans and critics.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 87, October-November, 2008, page 2, and is reproduced with permission.