Susanne Deeken: “Creation protects me from internal and external harm”
I met Susanne Deeken in Berlin in the early 90ies. Back then I was very much integrated in the early Techno scene, having initiated the Love Parade together with Dr Motte and working in influential clubs like the E-Werk and Tresor. I met Susanne in the Tresor club as a sudden and frequent guest, later on I enjoyed working together with her. Even as a young woman she had a special aura. One that would make heads turn. It was not only her beauty (which by the way the young Wolfgang Tillmans reacted to immediately, taking one of his first best known photos of her). There are people that just radiate charisma and Susanne made me think of the women depicted in Modigliani paintings or black and white photos of Anne Sexton. She did not stay in Berlin for very long and I lost sight of her.
The rumor was that she had moved to London to study art and fashion. Over the years I heard that she was doing impressive art-direction, concept development and design for fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs, Galliano and Valentino. In 2022 the Tresor in Berlin hosted a huge exhibition of its history and whilst participating on a panel, speaking about the early years, I was delighted to be sitting next to Susanne. We caught up and she told me that she had gone back to her art roots ten years ago and started producing stop motion films during the pandemic, which to her surprise, immediately began winning awards. As soon as I could, I looked at her work online and was blown away by the beauty of her moving images. In the fall of 2022 she initiated a fascinating project in which she rented a neglected house in Detroit and painted her way through its rooms, using the resulting images to create new stop motion films. Her dedication in working through this project, on her own, in one of the most dangerous cities of North America, was astounding and the results even more so. I cannot wait for her new movie to be done, she is currently editing the images and I am delighted she could take the time to answer a few questions.
Danielle de Picciotto: Watching you over the years I am always impressed how you seem to forge your way in a very individual process. What is it that motivates you? The red thread throughout everything you have done?
Susanne Deeken: The drive is survival, I guess. This sounds more dramatic than it is. From a young age I have recognised the power that creation has for me. It is keeping me on a mentally stable path most of the time and protects me from internal and external harm.
You work in the different mediums of fashion, design, and art. What are the main differences for you between these mediums or are there none for you?
For me the fashion work is very separate from my art practice.
Fashion might be creative or even artistic but it isn’t art. It is a craft and is ultimately driven by commerce and sales.
Even though I might not approach my fashion work with this in mind it eventually boils down to that.
In my art practice, with my paintings and my films, the approach is coming from a completely different angle and motivation.
I guess I am trying to answer questions and resolve problems utilising the different mediums I work in. The work is instinctual and intuitive and I am trying to make sense of questions and issues that I am attempting to resolve.
During the pandemic you started producing art movies. They consist of your art, design and music, combining all of your talents. Before this you were working in fashion, together with Givenchy and Maison Margiela, Marc Jacobs, Galliano and Valentino.
Will you continue working in fashion or is this a completely new phase for you? Do you plan these kind of changes or do you let change happen to you?
Oh, this was not planned. The pandemic halted a lot of my fashion work and in combination of me losing someone close to me I started making films, almost as a means of survival. Neither did I plan to make the kind of films I am now, nor did I expect to have any success with them by no stretch of the imagination.
I originally studied fine art in Copenhagen and then went on to do fashion at St. Martins in London. I had a lot of good years, even decades, where fashion has been very kind to me.
However, around 10 years ago I felt the urge to paint again and instead of just fantasising about it I actually took the plunge, got a little painting studio in Hackney Wick and have not looked back since.
The sense of joy and fulfilment I experience sometimes when painting is very addictive, it’s almost like when you first fall in love with someone, that butterflies in the tummy feeling…
Don’t get me wrong, it is not always easy and lot of doubts and insecurities pop up, but as a whole it has really renewed and invigorated me. I had been travelling so much for my fashion work and to actually take the time to paint and to be less distracted was very important in my artistic development. I suddenly felt like a teenager again, discovering a whole new world with all its possibilities and opportunities. I have not tried to exhibit my paintings and am not really selling them, this was just something for me, that I needed to do.
With the film work it is a little different. The films combine all of my different practices, painting, drawings, collages and even music. Because of lockdown circumstances I started composing my own music and sounds for the films. Quite a few festivals picked up my films and I actually won a considerable amount of prizes, which I did not anticipate at all. It is a great feeling to see your own work in the cinema.
My name has always been behind the scenes, having worked as a kind of ‘ghost-designer’ for many design houses, so this was a real first for me.
When my film ‘The Hairy Notion of a Green Afternoon’ was selected at Ann Arbor Film Festival, close to Detroit, to be screened there in March of 2022, I just knew that I had to go. There I met some locals who drove me around Detroit and I felt this instant connection to the city.
I was struck by how the atmosphere and energy that I experienced coming across the endless amounts of abandoned houses in the city reflected, almost to perfection, the essence and spirit of the kind of site that I had imagined for a new film that I had started working on. After endless searching I found the perfect house on a visit in June of 2022. On this trip I also collaborated with various experimental and jazz musicians from Detroit on the music for the film. From mid August I spent three months there, using the whole house as a canvas to physically interact by stop motion painting in succession over the walls, floor, ceiling, furniture and stairs, whatever was there.
For me the paintings, the films, drawings, collages and even music are all part of the same body of work and I view it as one entity and not separate practices.
I still work in fashion now. It is a happy marriage to do something creatively and to finance my art practice. Also the fashion work benefits greatly from the influence my artworks have on it.
Your film work has surreal, dadaist, dark elements. What interests you in these fields and what are you looking for in your art?
All my life, even as a little kid, I have been attracted by a certain melancholy or darkness and a sense that I must create my own world in order to survive. Back then, I felt very alienated by my surroundings, I never felt that I fit in and was always looking for a way out. I escaped into composing tons of music on the piano, and managed to dive into my own little world. Also I literally kept running away into the nearby forests, imagining parallel worlds and scenarios. This kind of set the tone for a lot I do now.
In a way I am still that little kid running into the forest. I am still looking for this parallel universe, still looking for a world that is my own and feels protected. However, I am not a victim, more like a warrior maybe, crafting a survival kit.
Surrealism obviously tabs very much into the sense of looking for another level of reality, another way of perceiving things. It comes very naturally to include these elements in my work.
I am interested in art that ‘hooks into you’. This happens a lot with music, it can be so powerful in transporting you to different places and mind sets, in a way the most immediate and direct of the arts. It has always played a big role in my life, having been a nerdy collector of experimental and off beat music since my teens. The same can happen for me with visual art, if you allow yourself to open your mind and surrender. It can really change your perceptions and views and deeply move you.
What programs do you use when you work? Do you work digitally or analog, which one do you prefer? Do you use pen and paper ?
My paintings are oil on canvas.
For my films I mix analogue and digital elements, which I enjoy very much. I paint, make collages, draw traditional stop motion drawings etc, but I like to twist things around and manipulate them with digital renderings.
As I mentioned earlier, for my latest film project I hired an abandoned house in Detroit where everything was painted inside the house, using stop motion technique.
At the moment I am editing the film and am creating digital sequences to work alongside the stop motion work from the house. I like juxtaposing the very raw painting elements with the more slick notions of the digital. I am also enjoying not respecting the way things are done traditionally. I never went to film school and am just finding my own way of working. I do all the editing myself, sitting for days on end with the digital programs. It’s all self-taught with a lot of help from the amazing YouTube community.
For the programs I use After Effects and Premiere Pro.
Danielle: Who is your favourite painter, poet, filmmaker, music style? Are you influenced by other artists?
There are so many inspiring artists, it is very difficult to reduce it too just a few.
I look at a lot of art and it definitely inspires me. As you pointed out yourself I like a lot of the surrealists, and with research I found so many female artist in surrealism that had been overlooked for far too long, the likes of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Eileen Agar, Méret Oppenheim, Gertrude Abercrombie to name just a few.
I also admire a lot of the feminist artists from the 60’s and 70’s, like Ana Mendieta, Judy Chicago, Birgit Jürgenssen, Annegret Soltau, Eva Hesse, Marisa Merz, Hannah Wilke, Annegret Soltau & Mary Beth Edelson, also the works of earlier artists like Hilma af Klint I find very inspiring.
Then there are the big guys, Edvard Munch, Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, A.R. Penck, the list is endless
I also enjoy a lot of outsider art.
Then, as mentioned before, music has a great role in my life. Starting off with punk, post punk and new wave, I gradually became a lot more open to other styles, Reggae, ska, Hip-Hop, Blues, anything that gets under my skin. Music is so important to me.
I realised it working on the films, the sound and music can totally change a film and guide the viewer into completely different directions.
You have been traveling the world quite a bit, living in London, Copenhagen, Germany, and the US – does your surrounding influence your work? Do you have a certain city or country that is especially inspiring to you?
Moving to Copenhagen at a very young age influenced me a lot. I was there for only three years, but learning the language and really immersing myself into the culture changed my outlook on life. It gave me a lot of confidence. A short stint in Berlin, then London, which back then was still very gritty and had a great subculture, which was very inspiring.
I lived in Paris for my first proper fashion job, which was a little difficult, but in hindsight I learned a lot and met some great people.
I never lived in New York but spent a week a month there for 16 years, so I got to know it pretty well. I loved spending time there and always found it much ‘lighter’ than Europe, which was very refreshing.
Very recently, spending so much time in Detroit, has been very inspiring for me. It’s a tough city, and full of contradictions and difficulties, beauty and ugliness, hopefulness, but also very forgotten and abandoned, an amazing complicated history and cultural richness. For my current headspace, I find Detroit a good place to be. There are few commercial distractions, and its rawness sits well with what I am searching for. Also, I enjoy the actual abundance of physical space you have there, compared to London that seems like a real luxury.
But in the end you could lock me in a dark room and I would still want to create something.
You lived in Berlin during the early 90ies – what do you remember most of all from that time? Any influences?
For me Berlin was very important. Even though I only really lived there for five months I found a whole different self. It was in the early 90’s I worked at the clubs UFO and Tresor and had the most amazing night life fun. The wall had just come down, it was so free and anarchic, but almost kind of hippy. I have never before or since experienced anything like it.
What are you working on momentarily and what are your plans for the future?
I am editing the film that I worked on in Detroit. At the moment I am trying to make sense of it all. This is interlaced with a few fashion gigs.
My dream for the future would be to have an exhibition where I show some of my paintings, drawings, collages etc along side the films, to bring it all together and invite people into my universe.