November/December 2005

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ISTANBUL 2005
9th ISTANBUL BIENNIAL:
ART AND POLITICS AT THE EDGE OF EUROPE

Sabine Modern:
On Location with Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation

By Cleo Cacoulidis

The meat market in central Athens is a vision of sublime chaosųa European souk. Petite, intense, and half-hidden by the camera she is holding, Eve Sussman stands on a ladder in the midst of this cacophony, rehearsing with her company, The Rufus Corporation, the abduction scene for their latest piece, a video-cum-opera/musical tentatively entitled The Rape of the Sabine Women.

Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women (© 2005 Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation; photo: Ricoh Gerbl)

Some two dozen Greek and American actors dressed in funky 1960s vintage clothingųthe men in dark suits and skinny ties, the women in mod dressesųare walking in tight concentric circles below her, pausing in front of butcher stalls, and then continuing. Some of the women pretend to be market sellers, joining in the singsong cadences of the real butchers, who are shouting out the attributes of their goods. The men stalk the women, as if they were on a hunt. One by one, the women disappear.

Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, Marilisa Reflected, Marilisa Chronea in a production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women (© 2005 Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation; photo: Ricoh Gerbl; courtesy of Roebling Hall Gallery)

Added to the mix are the musicians who, led by the composer Jonathan Bepler (who worked with Matthew Barney on the Cremaster series), improvise with butcher blocks, meat cleavers, knives, and metal hooks to create a musical choreography of rhythmic clanking and scraping sound. Patrons of the meat market, laborers, street peddlers, trash collectors, and even one of Athens‚ ubiquitous stray dogs also pass through the rehearsal space, becoming part of the scene.

Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, Annette with Rabbits, Annette Previti in a production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women  (© 2005 Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation; photo: Benedikt Partenheimer; courtesy of Roebling Hall Gallery)

Watching the rehearsal gave me a glimpse of Sussman and The Rufus Company‚s theatrum mundi, a place where they adroitly bring together the seductive intimacy of videoųSussman would often dive into the fray to film close-upsųthe narrative power of theater by way of gestures and expressions, and the explosive emotions of full-scale opera.

Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, Helen and Toni in the Kitchen, Helen Pickett and Antonis Spinoulos in a production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women (© 2005 Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation; photo: Ricoh Gerbl; courtesy of Roebling Hall Gallery)

Blurring the boundaries between art and the „really realš is something she finds fascinating:

There is the real life of the actors, the group dynamics and the little love triangles that come about during a shoot, and then there is the theatricality of the project that the actors as characters are trying to play out. And these two stories, in the end, are really telling one similar story, and that‚s what I find super interesting. That‚s the thing I could film the rest of my life and never get bored.1

The seeds of her eventual fusion of cinema, theater, and opera are evident in some of Sussman‚s earlier work. Although she studied photography and printmaking at Bennington College in Vermont, she never considered herself a studio artist. A residency at Skowhegan, in Maine, pointed her toward sculpture and installation artųshe has at times described herself as a „sculptor who shoots film.š For the last ten years, many of her projects have enlisted large, outdoor installations and the use of video surveillance cameras. In a piece for the 1997 Istanbul Biennial, Sussman placed twelve live-feed video cameras around the Sirkeci train station and later fashioned random stories out of the collected images. Her 1997 solo debut at Bronwyn Keenan Gallery, the video installation Ornithology, featured live projected images of pigeons in an air shaft. Born of the juxtaposition of live footage, this interactive aspect of the installations projects them into the realm of performance, which, as in live theater, is more open to chance.

The transition from keen observer of everyday movements and expressions to director came when Sussman made 89 Seconds at Alcazar, a ten-minute high-definition video, with her newly formed Rufus Corporation. Featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial to critical acclaim, 89 Seconds at Alcazar is an otherworldly improvisation of the imagined moments leading up to and following the depiction of the Spanish royal family in Velazquez‚s masterpiece, Las Meninas. The piece was shot in a garage space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, designed to double as the room where Velazquez painted. The saturated colors, the Baroque costumes made by Karen Young, and Bepler‚s minimalist soundtrack of rustling silk and whispers produce an enigmatic behind-the-scenes glance at what chance occurrences may have led to the moment that appears in the painting.

In The Rape of the Sabine Women, The Rufus Corporation considerably heightens the emotional charge they employed in 89 Seconds at Alcazar. The piece is loosely based on the ancient Roman myth, and visually inspired by the illustrious portrayals of the battle between the Sabines and the Romans found in the paintings of David, Poussin, and Rubens.

Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, Disintegration at Hydra, production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women (© 2005 Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation; photo: Ricoh Gerbl; courtesy of Roebling Hall Gallery)

The myth is only a catalyst for artistic revision and improvisation, however, as Sussman and her collaborators subvert its narrative, so that the Sabine men no longer go to war with the Romans over the return of their women. Instead, the captors turn on each other. The story is set in Greece during the 1950s and 60s, and a civil conflict erupts. One of her work‚s underlying concepts is the connection between ancient and modernist art and architecture, which are both cultural productions of historical moments that, according to Sussman, share „an idea of perfection in design, in architecture, in life, and a sense of culture. The idea that you can create a perfect lifestyle and the way this notion plays out in relationships between men and women.š

The drama begins in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where the ancient Greek Altar of Pergamon foreshadows the abduction of the women. The men walk through the Museum, find themselves in the Tempelhof Airport, realize they are going on a mission, and then appear in the agora in Athens. After the seizure of the women, the scene shifts to a summer home in Anavyssos, designed by architect Nikos Valsamakis in the sleek International Style. Fight scenes were shot in the Herodes Atticus Theater and on the island of Hydra. There is no dialogue; music and sound are the only counterpoints to the visuals.

The operatic qualities of Sabine Women reach an apex in the Herodion where the renowned Greek vocalist Savina Yannatou appears as a soloist.

Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women (© 2005 Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation; photo: Bobby Neel Adams)

Using hundreds of extras in addition to their cast of two dozen actors, Sussman, Bepler, choreographer Claudia de Serpa Soares, and D.P. Sergei Franklin orchestrate a sequence that seems to burst forth organically from the floor of the ancient theater. Dark suits and white shirts, the male actors are arranged in clusters on the tiered seating of the amphitheater. Wearing colorful dresses, the women form a small dagger point at their center. The actors then shift places and regroup, repeatedly. Underlying the action is a contrapuntal soundtrack of vocalizationsųthe players doubling as the chorus. One man‚s simple push of another begins the battle scene, and gestures escalate until men are toppling over one another and clothes are being torn.

Set up on a crane, the camera swoops across the scene taking in both the staged production and the crew fabricating it. Yet another reflexive plane in a work, which is virtually a mobius strip of reflexivity: the project‚s endless layers calling back and forth to one another, from the ancient architecture to the modern, from myth to performance, from reality to fiction.

„There is a powerful dramatic and emotional energy that evolves when you combine music with improvisation,š Sussman noted when talking about the theatrical aspects of Sabine Women. „When it works, this sort of half documentary, half fiction type of filmmaking can lead you to things you might not otherwise have discovered.š

Sussman is now in the process of editing the 140 hours of footage shot for The Rape of the Sabine Women, and she expects to finish the piece by the time you read this article.

NOTE

1.    All quotes are from the author‚s telephone interview with Eve Sussman, July 17, 2005.

Cleo Cacoulidis is a freelance writer and journalist living in New York. Her articles have appeared in Cineaste, Bright Lights Cinema Journal, Release Print, and DOX, among others.

Eve Sussman‚s project received production funding from Hauptstadtkulturfonds, The JF Costopoulos Foundation and The New York State Council on the Arts. The 140 hours of footage and 100 hours of music will come together to form the video musical, The Rape of the Sabine Women, and a multi-channel installation, Cliff House, which are expected to premier in early 2006.

 

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