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Antiquity and the modern

Eve Sussman discusses her latest video, which world premieres at the Nasher Museum of Art this week


"Disintegration at Hydra," production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women, video by Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation - PHOTO BY RICOH GERBL
  • Photo by Ricoh Gerbl
  • "Disintegration at Hydra," production still from The Rape of the Sabine Women, video by Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation

On Thursday, July 6, Triangle museum-goers will catch the first glimpse of a much-anticipated event in the international art world. The Nasher Museum at Duke University will host a new work of video art by Eve Sussman. The artist, who lives in Berlin, arrives this week to personally deliver her most recent cut of The Rape of the Sabine Women. Roughly 90 minutes in length, this "work in progress" will play on a continuous loop on a large screen in one of the Nasher's galleries through Sept. 24. Meanwhile, Sussman will continue to make the final edits for its official international premiere, time and date yet to be announced.

Sussman's previous work, 89 Seconds at Alcazar, was a favorite of the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York. Both works are explorations of non-linear narrative rooted in art history. Based on Velázquez's "Las Meninas," 89 Seconds spent 10 suspended minutes in a single room with actors in 17th-century costume. The Rape of the Sabine Women takes as its point of departure Jacques-Louis David's 1799 neoclassical painting, "The Intervention of the Sabine Women."

According to myth, Romulus, the founder of Rome, unable to find brides for his men by fair means, invited the people of the neighboring Sabine tribe for a feast. Having lured the Sabines, the Romans waged unexpected battle against the men, taking their women as spoils of war. The Sabines led several small, unsuccessful battles against the Romans in hopes of winning their women back. But by the time they could mount a substantial attack several years later, the women had accepted Roman life as wives and mothers. The Sabine women interceded with their brothers and fathers to spare the lives of their husbands.

As she did with 89 Seconds, Sussman created her new work in collaboration with an international collective known as the Rufus Corporation, which includes composer Jonathan Bepler (who also composed music for David Dorfman's world premiere of Underground at the American Dance Festival this year), costume designer Karen Young and choreographer Claudia de Serpa Soares. A cast of hundreds plays out Sussman's interpretation of the eponymous Roman myth, which is transposed to modern times and locations in Germany and Greece.

The video is conceived as a 1960s set piece. An uneasy soundscape accompanies juxtaposed images. In the Athens Meat Market, cleavers are sharpened against one another; a man in a suit peruses classical Greek marbles in a light-drenched gallery; a tangled crowd simmers into violence; languid bathers lounge poolside; and a wolf trots outside Berlin's Pergamon Museum.

Sussman recently spoke to the Independent about her new work by e-mail from Berlin.

INDEPENDENT: What are your feelings as you prepare to unveil The Rape of the Sabine Women in Durham?

EVE SUSSMAN: The Rufus Corporation is presenting a work-in-progress at the Nasher, not a final cut, which is why it is being called a "preview." We still have a lot of work on the edit and the music. The final cut will premiere in Greece at the Thessaloniki Film Festival in November. The Berlin premiere will be at the Hamburger Bahnhof in February. We will start working again when I get back to Berlin on July 10.

What final preparations are you making to the video at this point? How long will it be?

We're still editing picture and sound. Jonathan Bepler is composing music from the 100-plus hours of music recorded on location. The current cut is 90 minutes.

Are you satisfied with what you've accomplished? What are your hopes for the new video's reception?

We hope everyone will be awe-struck!

Your last project was considerably smaller. This one spans several countries and multiple locales, with a large international cast and set of collaborators. Why the jump in scale?

Why not the jump in scale? I think the subject matter and the piece demanded it. It was clear to me from the first moment that the piece should be shot in Greece.

89 Seconds was based on the Velázquez painting and remained set in that period. In The Rape of the Sabine Women, why have you transposed the time period to the 1960s?

The design, architecture and photography from the '60s is cogent and iconic in the way it exists in the collective memory of anyone from my generation. Period dramas set in eras that no one in living memory actually can remember are always, on a certain level, campy

You have also deviated from the storyline of the Roman myth. Doubtless you have a specific purpose in doing so?

Seeing the myth as an endemic love triangle that moves inward and attacks the men who propagated it seemed like a more interesting and more modern interpretation, devoid of moral, fable, or happy ending.

Why have these specific paintings been the inspiration or point of departure for your videos?

The Velázquez was interesting because of the humanness of its subjects. The David was interesting for the opposite--the cartoon version of history that it represented, and the choreographic potential it allowed Claudia de Serpa Soares, our choreograper.

You have spoken of the importance of a certain spontaneity and improvisatory character to the work. How has your process evolved between the two projects?

The work has always been built around improvisation. Improvising is a craft that needs to be honed like any other type of process. As a company we can only get better at it by doing it.

In an interview with Amanda Coulson, you stated that "this piece is totally about the desire borne of loneliness and consumption ... nothing but unrequited longing is witnessed, and calling this The Rape of the Sabine Women is perfect poetic justice to the era [the 1960s] and its underlying structure." Do you relate this theme to its source in antiquity? Do you feel it pertains psychologically to today's culture as well?

I am much more interested in the psychology and culture of the last half century. That is what's real to me.

Writing about this project has noted your entwining of antiquity, neo-classicism and modern fascism. Would you elucidate the connections you want the viewer to experience vis-à-vis these themes?

I don't really want the viewer to do anything the viewer doesn't want to do. These connections have been made by specific writers. Obviously they are there--but are for the most part quite academic and do not require further comment.

Would you like to talk about some specific artistic influences? What are you paying particular attention to at this moment in time?

I care most about the work of great filmmakers: [Michelangelo] Antonioni, [Jacques] Rivette, [Jean-Luc] Godard, [John] Cassavetes, [Werner] Herzog, [Robert] Altman, [Stanley] Kubrick, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, [Alexander] Kluge ... the list goes on.

At the moment the Rufus Corporation's Rape of the Sabine Women is most influenced by Out 1: Spectre¼by Jacques Rivette, a film that I saw at the suggestion of our dramaturg Ricoh Gerbl and which we both recognized as something we had--completely unwittingly--remade in Athens and Berlin.

Since there is only one existing English subtitled print of Out 1, it rarely screens in the United States--you might want to read about it at

The Rape of the Sabine Women opens Thursday, July 6 at the Nasher Museum of Art, located at 2001 Campus Drive on the campus of Duke University. Admission is $5, $4 for seniors, $3 for non-Duke students and free for Duke employees and Durham residents. For more information, call 684-5135 or visit

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