Suzanne Banning:  the real woman under the lens


After the previous editions of “Art World”, I have continually introduced “Art for Society” art in America.  Today I want to quietly go back to the domain of the kind of “for life and for appreciation” pure art.  Perhaps Suzanne Banning is the one who is more typical, worthy recommending.

As an audience or a critic, since seeing her work for the first time, I have been led into a strange, mysterious and completely female world.  In addition to being beautiful, they are so philosophical, illusory, fatalistic, and fragile, like epiphyllum, transient, and brilliant, and spectacular.  Sharon Kopriva, a sculptor whose expertise is expressing religious and life-death themes, made an installation assembled from animal bones, human skeletons and Suzanne loved it and took a picture with it.  I got the picture from Sharon (picture 1): reader can tell that Suzanne is a beautiful woman with a sunny disposition.  This is indeed the exterior feature of Suzanne.  But her appearance cannot represent her whole person; her art is the more important part of her.  But in her works people will never see this kind of near-perfect appearance, even though she uses herself as model.  Even so, this very occasional daily life pictures reflect through images the ideas Suzanne tries to express all along: beauty and the contrast and dependency of death, and the transience of beauty and the fragility of life.

We cannot use traditional criteria and terminology to judge Suzanne.  Almost all images in her work are unfocused, blurred or twisted and improperly exposed.  Most professional photographers like to use expensive cameras, because the lens has a high resolution, the focus system is precise, or when picking digital camera always select the kind with the biggest resolution and CCD, the clarity, delicacy, richness of layers of pictures are what they are after.  Although in special expression vocabulary of modern photography as, photographers will occasionally use borderline-blurred image to emphasize the photographed subject.  But in most cases it is just a highlighting or complimentary method.  To Suzanne, it is the whole idea.  In recent few years, all her works were taken by digital cameras, and most of them are self-portraits.  The Camera and the subject (very often the artist self) are always in the state of mutually moving, she pushes the shutter almost randomly and spontaneously, but also confidently captures the instantaneously disappearing moments.  She watches the immediate feedback on the expandable display screen and continuously adjusts the angle, speed, and direction; her body and the lens are always moving in relation to each other like an organic whole.  When the picture is blurred, she will move slower, when the focus becomes too focused, she will move the lens faster.  Consciousness and meditation are the inspiration source in the process of Suzanne’s’ creation process, they are also the required course of deeper self understanding and self-discovery.  Sometimes, some strong emotions, covered by and suppressed by daily life, are recovered this way.  That may be the true self of an artist.


When Suzanne is creating art, music is never absent.  Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, K’s Choice and Bjork are her favorites.  Irresistible melodies and tempos guide her into semi-awake state, which is her deeper self.  Listening to music, she sings and dances while being totally wrapped in the vortex of emotions.  When creating a series with a theme, she will dress herself up according to her plot, even being naked; sometimes plays the pertinent video, let projectors send the lights with kaleidoscopic colors on her body.  When she moves her body slowly and moves the lens quickly or suddenly stops it, she astonishingly discovers how one person can have so many faces and the existence of limitless possibilities.  “When I saw how my method can change the shape of reality and even create a completely new reality, I cannot help feeling stunned”, she told me.


In addition to her self-portrait series, Suzanne has two more famous series, and each has been shown as a solo exhibition.  One is “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, the other one is “Pele, Goddess of the Volcano”.  The former is based on a poem with the same name by nineteenth century great British Poet John Keats.   This poem is well-known and I have read it in my youth.  It’s about how an over-romantic knight was trapped by the love for a beautiful witch and became her prisoner without complaints or regrets.  She was so beautiful, strikingly gorgeous, very perverse, unpredictable and ruthless that almost every man was driven to despair, was overwhelmed with love and hatred, but still could not leave her.  In the West, there has been a lot of literature and art expressing this charming witch and that pitiful knight, this is a story that should be passed down.  Suzanne told me that she also started reading Keats’ poems at age fifteen, and immediately loved them.  Suzanne was originally from the Netherlands, which is the birthplace of oil painting and J. Vermeer, and an occasional English class in high school planted the creative fountain lasting this future artist’s lifetime.  But in Suzanne‘s series she never includes the knight.  She just wants to express the charming witch in the knight’s mind. That is the mix and switch of beauty and evil, also a very philosophical life sentiment:  beautiful things are not reliable, things in human life change instantaneously and life is so fragile, only with a tolerant and generous heart, one can accept it all.  Suzanne thinks that our continuing moving forward in life depends on it.


In “Pele Goddess of Volcano”, she played the role of Pele, and in some pictures she added her specially-invited supporting actor.  Three pieces from this series were displayed in 2006 at the Shanghai Art Museum in “Houston Contemporary Art Exhibition” and they caused very strong reactions among young audience.  Pele is a Hawaiian Volcano Goddess in the local legends.  Suzanne has been to the main island several times and she felt the mystery and marvel of Pele.  This Volcano Goddess lives in Kilauea, one the most active volcanoes in the world.  In the last twenty years, it has erupted almost every day.  But she also has moments of calmness, when she is so alluring and gentle, but when she erupts, she is as powerful as a thunderbolt and makes people tremble with fear.  In this series of Suzanne’s work, she once again searches and interprets the complex female character, with some bewilderment, doubt, and introspection.  Tori Amos, known as “Witch with red hair“, is one of her most favorite singers.  Because she has experienced a series of traumatic events, the early works of Tori always show a mysterious and fleeting temperament, and often involves the emotional confusion between men and women and investigation of the violent cases existed among women.  The CD “Boys for Pele” is considered to be Tori’s darkest album.  When it was created, Tori was the same age as Suzanne now, early thirties, but that was the darkest time in her life.  She came to Hawaii to seek instructions from a Shaman to learn the native legends and folklores, and began to re-evaluate her character and values.  When Suzanne listens to “Boys for Pele”, she always deeply and strongly feels the pain and anger from Pele, she cannot help but feel sympathetic, and thus the fountain of inspiration springs up.  She puts a documentary by National Geographic, “Volcano”, in the DVD player, and projects it onto her body, unpredictable colored lights add a layer of variation and complexity between moving lens and moving subject.  With this hard to capture uncertainty, Suzanne lets herself melt into the burning lava, freely expresses Pele’s calmness and elusive sadness in sleeping and wildness and unstoppableness when erupt.


In social modernization when women have gradually entered the main stream, the female rights movement and feminism trend have never stopped, nevertheless they mostly stopped at the exaggeration of the legality and reasonableness of female’s being acknowledged as social gender and the elevation and expansion of social status; there was rarely anyone like Suzanne, who introspectively, profoundly, even subconsciously searched and expressed the characteristics of the female self from a female angle, then looked for females social position and life value.  To Suzanne, women’s beauty, kindness, caprice, and even evil are all innate, arranged by the creator.  Men and society must learn to accept these qualities, just like stated in the preface, this is a kind of Mercy, just like that sentimental knight had for that beautiful witch, the true love and tolerance.  I think most men lack this kind of “Chivalry”, and most women don’t admit that innate traits (especially negative ones), even consider chivalry as discrimination and prejudice; maybe they don’t understand, it’s possible that this kind of denial is just the fatal obstacle to the struggle to obtain and develop social rights.  Social progress and liberation, or women’s liberation in the true sense, do not depend on how rich, successful, or commanding significant social influence but in whether is it possible to realization of rights and freedom of a true woman.


On this, her view is unique.  In her work, she neither involves the serious social-political topic like social identity confirmation of woman and social value standard of women nor fanatically proposes how women should go into society to compete for profits and equality.  She is more inclined to use introspective and anatomical methods to study and understand the complex and genuine women’s world and their human characteristic from below the social appearance as a woman, then obtain the maximization and internalization the realization of female self value.  At the beginning of this year while I was in Houston, Suzanne invited me to go to Houston Contemporary Art Museum to view Pipilotti Rist’s visual art special exhibition.  She had seen it several times.  I could not wait and ended up going alone.  I finally understood why Suzanne loved her.  In her series, Pipilotti, an internationally renowned visual artist, has unusually deep revelation and uniquely insight on contemporary women.  In many ways, she is similar to Suzanne.


The whole exhibition hall is divided into many projection rooms with huge screens occupying three walls, several projectors played simultaneously from different locations, plus special audio effects, the imposing momentum are breathtaking, completely flooded you with the world she constructed.  I was especially impressed with several pieces: one has a theme related to ocean and sky: pounding waves and open blue sky, occasionally dive into ocean floor, watch the world of fish and sea weed; this is a symphony of unrestrained, total freedom.  The other one is an assembled art work: a tall tree branch of an old tree shaped like a fawn’s antler stretching from the corner of the wall and children’s toys and gifts hung all over the branches, and several movable projectors intermingledly played author’s work of photographed scenes with special meanings.  Moving visual pictures, branches, and hanging gifts projected images weaved into each other, overwhelmed a person’s eyes, it is full of dreamlike temptation and pure childlike fun.  Next to it is a documentary of behavior art: a tall slender beautiful young lady, holding a big baseball bat and beating on the windshields of parked cars on the street.  She is so careless and cynical, sometimes taking pleasure in other’s misfortune and with expression full of anger.   Passerby and policemen, some with confusion and some with sympathy, but nobody stopped her.  Through special effect, every strike of deafening noises of glass breaking forcefully impacted audience’s heart.  The walkway led to individual rooms was a big open space and was also unlit.  I constantly heard a woman’s voice off and on, sounded like wailing, sometimes pleadingly crying, but it was not clear where the sound came from.  Following the sound, I eventually saw an egg-sized hole on the floor with lights coming through, and under the hole there was a display screen, a naked female was yelling at the hole, fireballs were shot towards her, burnt toward her but she did not make any attempt to avoid them and insistently stood there crying for help and pleading towards the hole.  I could not make out which language she was speaking, but I could hear a few English words, like “help”, “save me”.  I guess that is “Hell” to expressing “fear” and “saving of the soul”.  The overall theme for the exhibition is “Wishing for synchronicity”.  Synchronicity in English often means “sound and image in sync” in video-audio work, but here, what the artist “wishing” for apparently was not only the minimum art requirement but also a double meaning, very possibly being the simultaneously happening of all unrelated aspects of a woman.  Suzanne agreed with my interpretation and told me that she like the last one the best, the title is “Selfless in Lava bath”.


In real life every man has the opportunity to meet women, but almost no men can claim that he really understands women.  I am afraid that even women, for the most part, don’t understand their own kind.  This is why there are so many artists and writers, including scholars in the world are working diligently on this.  When I was writing this article, Suzanne discussed on the net with me about the connection between Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and Nabokov’s “Lolita”, she also told me the news of her creating a new series “Lolita”.  She sent me pictures of some of her work finished but not exhibited yet.  I chose three pictures to share with readers.  I believe this series will become a very important series in her career.  Therefore, I want to spend some ink to talk about the literature “Lolita”, I am sure it will be very helpful to understand Suzanne’s thought process and the meaning of all her works.


American author Vladimir Nabokov, originally from Russia, wrote this novel in 1940s, and it was published in Paris 15 years later, immediately created a sensation.  The new edition was published three years later after he came back to America and it became the best seller of that year.  The story was about a love story between a middle-aged man and a 12 year old precocious young girl. It made the top ten banned book list in the 20th century for its “offensive to public decency”, yet at the same time, it was considered one of the greatest novels in the century.  It was published the first time in China in 1989, more than 10 years after revolution liberation, after overcoming many obstacles.  Including Taiwan’s publishers, there have been eleven different editions by eleven publishers.  The word count ranged from 220,000 to 350,000, the word count in most recently edition published by Shanghai Translation Publisher.   Consequently, there was serious public discussion of how 130,000 words coming out of nowhere suddenly.  Conjectures are that the discrepancy is due to abridgement, avoidance of pornographic descriptions, etc. and opinions vary.  In fact, regardless whether it’s due to abridgement or leaving out the pornography, or the big interest of different editions, I am afraid there is only one issue, that is a lot of Chinese set their eyes on one word “obscenity”.


Few years ago, English literature professor Azar Nafisi, originally from Iran, published a novel causing a sensation.  The novel is “Reading Lolita in Tehran” which narrates a story in which the author led seven girls secretly to read eight banned Western novels under the regime of Khomeini in the eighties.  Lolita is one of the eight novels.  To author it is to protest against violence, since she viewed Lolita as a helpless sheep swallowed by a big sex-pervert, just like Iranian people being brutally trampled on by the centralized government… When I was reading the above message, I could not help protesting the injustice against Nabokov.  Can it be the whole meaning of this great literature work?  Can Nabokov, who has deep thinking about the complexity of human nature, be so boring and shallow?  Or is it the unique dark and narrow psyche in Oriental race originated from sediment accumulated from history?  Or more generously is it a cultural barrier?


When I met Suzanne and discussed on the net the above issue, she sent me a lot of useful information, including the scanned draft of the most complete English edition of Lolita’s relevant chapters.  I discovered that the information includes the voluminous detailed annotations from an expert in “Lolita”, Professor Alfred Appel, Jr., one of Nabokov’s old students.  This is the most authoritative edition and before it was published Nabokov had personally examined, approved and confirmed it.  These annotations provide great help to the understanding of many deep meanings in double-meaning and rhyming with style in the book.


Lolita definitely is neither an image of pure and gullible girl, nor a coquettish and precocious seductive woman.  This is a “primary model “with a long historical origin, it has been reflected in different formats in a lot of literature.  Aforementioned Suzanne’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” originated from English poet Keats’s namesake poem “la Belle Dame sans merci”.  The poem’s title is in French and the content is in English and Keats borrowed the title from a namesake poem by a French poet Alain Chartier in 1424.  According to Alfred’s explanation, Lolita is the mutated entity of the “La Belle Sans Merci” in Keats’ poem, and just “wearing an American-styled mini-skirt”.  Nabokov translated Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” into Russian in 1923 and published with his “Road to Heaven” collection.  Apparently “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” has been an attractive topic in West from the beginning of time.  It can be traced to ancient Greek legends three thousand years ago and in the stories of even earlier the primitive people.  What is a woman?  Who dares to say that he can state it clearly?  To men, it is always an unsolvable puzzle.  She mesmerizes men, so that no matter how ruthless merciless she treats “him”, just like the “knight” in Keats’ story who was tortured to become “haggard” and “death-pale” from Char Lon Jen’s interpretation, “he” still loves her to death.  Infatuated by the twenty-year junior Lolita, Humbert was turning life upside down.  To avoid the worldly suspicion and criticism, he had to take her all over the country, never stay in one place for long.  And eventually, he killed for her and was sent to prison.  And Lolita was often stubborn and messing things up, overbearing, and rough with him, but Humbert had no complaints.  Even in desperate situations he still sentimentally cared about Lolita’s childhood happiness.  What kind of human feeling it is?  And what kind of magic power Lolita has?  Nabokov thinks Lolita is a type by herself which cannot be explained by human nature.  Lolita is a “Chosen Creature” created by God and he used a special term to call her “Nymphet”.  I looked it up in Oxford English-Chinese dictionary, the definition is “sexy (especially precocious) young girl”, other English dictionary all have very superficial definitions, for example “an amoral woman”, “ a very young, sexy and attractive girl”, etc.  In his annotations, Alfred made a lot of textual research from the angle of word roots.  He declared “Nymph” means the “most original, basic and primitive thing” in mythology and zoology; In Greek mythology, it means “a half-human, half-goddess beautiful girl living in the mountains and river, they seduce men, but can also kill men, if men peek at their bodies, men will go blind”.  According to the legend, there are several thousand Nymphs, and they can live over nine thousand years, etc.  So it is never sufficient and very superficial to understand the image of Lolita from the realm of sociological or moral layer.  The meaning in Nabokov’s novel could suggest that we should search the complexity and uncertainty of female gender traits from the origin of human history and hidden human nature; and hold the mentality of acceptance and inclusion, this is helpful to understand Suzanne’s special angle to analyze and express women.  The series of “Lolita” she is working on, provides significant support for her previous work (like “Pele, Goddess of the Volcano and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”).  It is also a logical development.  Suzanne is extremely excited about it.   She said that she used a lot of butterfly images in the “Lolita” series.  DVD projectors project all kinds of moving, unpredictable and ever changing butterfly patterns on her body, in the mean time she dances like a butterfly herself.  Because “Nymph” has another meaning” – chrysalis; and its extended word “Nymphalid” means “nymphalid butterfly".  In Chinese “Nymphae" means “labia minora“.  You cannot help but remember that through the ages many famous literature and folklores butterflies are always associated with women, sex and love, like Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly “, “Lian San Bau and Ju En Tai’s ending when they died for love and turned into butterflies, etc.   In entomology publication and dictionaries, mentioning of butterflies always indicates hidden sexual meaning: temptation, seduction, and sexuality; a butterfly also symbolize “attractive fairies and witches”, “They are shape-shifters.  The difference is that butterfly mutated as a phase of growing process, but witches can change at will”.  Therefore, In “Lolita”, Nabokov described butterflies in many places, Suzanne understands tacitly on this point.


In every piece of Suzanne’s work she uses same women, but with different face.  They imply the multifaceted world of women.  This is why Suzanne asked me to see Pipilotti Rist.  She is the key to our understanding Suzanne.  Maybe Suzanne, like Freud, his special interest in human subconscious and hidden desire even they are hard to appeal to other people or denied by other people, but it exists and has profound cause and effect in human science.  In her works, we can clearly see her genuinely, sensitively and delicately capturing that top layer’s flow of feelings and awareness, they don’t have direct connection with human reasoning and social theories.  It is possible that Suzanne is intentionally avoiding the incompatibility of both.


In Suzanne’s “Artist’s statement she wrote the following paragraph: “Plato said that our soul is trapped in our body, our body is the prison, and the soul is always trying to escape.  Most the time, the jailed people always hope to escape to a free place because only in there your “self” can be expressed.  For this, I have established a principle for myself, that is, let things develop naturally and safely in the realm of this state and I walk with the tempo I felt.  Luckily, I did not lose myself in the end.  In real life, people always try to categorize things and affairs, then by understand them or consider to accept them …“   After reading this, we seem to see Suzanne’s helplessness (resignation) and loneliness, and feel certain kind of sadness, cannot help but remembering French great  thinker Rousseau’s statement ”Man is born free, but everywhere he is in shackles.