Two videos made waves in June 2004. One, Andrea Fraser’s one-hour tape of her having sex with a collector had people arguing. The other, Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcazar, a dreamy 10-minute reenactment of the events leading up to Diego Velázquez’s towering masterpiece Las Meninas, took the art world by storm as part of that year’s otherwise only OK Whitney Biennial.
Sussman had been around the art world for years, but 89 Seconds deservedly made her an overnight sensation. Now she’s back with a massively ambitious new work, The Rape of the Sabine Women (screening at the IFC Center during the Armory Show). Like 89 Seconds, Rape takes a famous painting as a starting point, here Jacques-Louis David’s crystalline neo-classic 1799 canvas of the same name (although the film looks more like Poussin’s more turbulent version). While 89 Seconds was elaborate, mysterious, captivating, and avoided the gimmicky hokeyness that usually surrounds re-staging famous paintings, Rape is an over-the-top, over-produced 80-minute hodgepodge that borders on portentousness, cliché, and artiness.
Sussman, a control-freak’s control-freak, essentially made four or five different films, all of them promising. The last 12-minute segment is ravishing, although quite reminiscent of 89 Seconds. Together, Rape is an unraveled tapestry of influences, effects, and high-styling. Sussman’s amazing feel for texture, sound, color, slo-mo, and blocking is present. Her sense of scale, timing, and mystery, however, are eclipsed by overblown schmaltziness. With a cast of as many as 800, Rape was shot in fantastic-looking locations and features men in black suits and women in A-line shifts. There’s a lot of pensive looking around, standing about, and struggling, and enough telegraphed angst to fill five high-school productions of
Our Town. Unfortunately there’s also a lot of unprocessed references to and borrowings from Bill Viola, Matthew Barney, Sharon Lockhart, Stanley Kubrick, New Wave Cinema, Shirin Neshat, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone. Sussman is talented. Rape is merely a failed experiment, albeit an insanely expensive-looking one. She just needs to regain the concentration, internal scale, and exquisite enigma of 89 Seconds and steer clear of this kind of directionless spectacle.