By Ciara LaVelle
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Peter Dinklage has earned global fame, not to mention Emmy and Golden Globe honors, playing the brilliant, conniving Tyrion Lannister on HBO's Game of Thrones. So it's a shock to walk into the Bass Museum of Art to find Dinklage's familiar face onscreen — as a 17th-century courtier in drag.
Dinklage took the part — as "Mari Barbola," a German dwarf made famous in Diego Velázquez's enigmatic opus Las Meninas, a scene from the Spanish court of King Philip IV in 1656 — before he gained Hollywood stardom. It turned into one of the smartest casting decisions Eve Sussman made for 2004's 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a 12-minute film that's one of two works headlining her stunning new exhibit at the Bass, "Eve Sussman: Rufus Corporation."
"We shot the movie in 2003 before Peter's breakout role in The Station Agent," Sussman says. "At the time, Peter lived in the same neighborhood near my studio in Brooklyn, and I really wanted him for the role. So I left a note in his mailbox, and he called me after a couple of days."
The resulting movie, which re-envisions what transpired between the Spanish royal family, their servants, a dog, and the painter at their summer palace more than 350 years ago, marked a breakthrough for the artist at the 2004 Whitney Biennale. The film pointed to Sussman as a major contemporary artist to watch.
Isolated in a darkened room near the entrance of the museum's second-floor galleries, Sussman's evocative film places viewers squarely in the moment when Velázquez painted his immortalized scene. It offers a sensational behind-the-curtain peek at the daily trappings of royal life, with opulent costumes, sinuous choreography, and a shadowy atmosphere.
Sussman's interpretation of the painting is remarkable and alone worth a visit to the museum. But the real box office draw is her feature-length video-musical, The Rape of the Sabine Women, which reinterprets the founding of Rome with a sensory-jarring opulence that leaves an unforgettable impression on viewers. Originally shot for the big screen, the 80-minute movie has been transformed by Sussman and editor Kevin Messman into a five-part installation at the Bass.
It also takes a classical masterpiece as its departure point, in this case Jacques-Louis David's painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women, created during a five-year span between 1794 and 1799. But whereas 89 Seconds places viewers as flies on the wall while Velázquez paints his masterpiece, Sussman's take on Sabine Women transforms spectators into actors in an epic production. Simultaneously presented in five distinct acts in separate gallery spaces within the exhibit, the work delivers a totally immersive approach to film, engulfing the senses as one walks through the museum.
The movie was shot in Greece and Germany and features choreography by Claudia De Serpa Soares, costuming by Karen Young, and an original score by Jonathan Bepler — all regular contributors to the Rufus Corporation. The film is staged in iconic locations such as Berlin's Pergamon Museum and Tempelhof Airport, an Athens meat market, a seaside home built in 1961 by architect Nikos Valsamakis, and the Herodion Theatre near the Acropolis.
Sussman reimagines the legend of the founding of Rome as a Cold War-era period musical in which the Romans are government agents and the Sabines are butchers' daughters. The action unspools on upward of 30 screens, including sprawling wall projections; a stand-alone, house-like construction near the rear of the museum; several postcard-size video monitors; and a massive installation of TV sets piled randomly on the floor, reminiscent of a technological junkyard.
The inspiration for such a globe-trekking project might date back to Sussman's well-traveled childhood with her parents, who taught her an appreciation for design and antiquity. Her mother, Jeanne Fowler, was an interior designer, and her father, Martin Sussman, was a professor who taught chemical engineering and dabbled in photography.
"I wasn't exposed to a lot of contemporary art as a child," Sussman says. "But we traveled a lot as part of my father's work, and I was exposed to ancient cultures. They dragged me through a lot of ruins as a kid."
Sussman, who was born in London in 1961 and raised in the States, also lived in India for a while and later in Istanbul, where she attended high school. She studied at New Zealand's University of Canterbury before returning to Vermont, where she graduated from Bennington College.
For her Sabine film, Sussman chose to move the Roman legend to the Cold War to convey notions of the mid 20th-century ideal of "better living through design" juxtaposed against the timeless themes of "power, longing, aggression, and desire."
In the first act, which is projected onto a massive wall inside the Bass, young men clad in dark suits and narrow ties walk amid classical ruins at the Pergamon Museum while an old guard Sussman calls "the Witness" observes them.
The action picks up in the third act, presented in a stall-like environment, where the suited men spy on women in a traditional Athens meat market before dragging off the butchers' daughters one-by-one to form a perfect society.
After their capture, the Sabine women are integrated into a modern version of utopia where they are forced to marry the Roman men and where a love triangle ratchets up the tension in projections on four walls of a house-like structure. Viewers enter a room where surveillance monitors on a solitary desk suggest that the modernist dream of a utopian society is about to implode — setting the stage for the final act's massive battle.
Outside the structure, dozens of TV monitors jumbled across the floor offer a fractured view of a climactic fight between the Roman and Sabine men over the kidnapped butchers' daughters. The eroticized scene of a society in decay unfolding at the ancient Herodion Theatre mesmerizes, as does Bepler's haunting score echoing throughout the galleries.
"I chose the 1960s as the period setting because of the well-defined gender roles typical of the era," explains Sussman, who employed a cast of 40 actors and more than 500 extras. "We researched a lot of pop cultural information from the era, including copies of Life magazine, fashions worn by Jackie Onassis and Maria Callas, the whole style of the era."
More than re-creating famous works from art history, however, Sussman's pieces are highly cinematic, mirroring works by filmmakers such as Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard.
"It's a lot about the decay of society and the myth of a perfect life — a perfect house and the perfect hairdo — crumbling apart," Sussman says.