“He never talked about where he was from. At the funeral, that was the most I ever heard about his life.” So begins the spoken narrative of Sue de Beer’s new two-channel video The Blue Lenses, 2014, which tells the story of Daniel, a con artist, in part through the account of a young Arab woman. Borrowing the title of a 1959 short story by the British author Daphne du Maurier in which a woman’s eye surgery mysteriously causes her to see people with fearsome animal heads in place of their own, de Beer’s beguiling tale also deals in confused appearances and assumed roles.
The work’s abutted projections are sometimes identical, at other times divergent; often the action of one trails that of the other by a moment, presents a different perspective, or shifts from a moving image to a sequence of stills. It’s a familiar enough device—in de Beer’s oeuvre and those of countless other artist–video makers—but is applied here with effective restraint. Less judicious is the artist’s superficial gesture toward installation: Beanbags, a shag-pile carpet, and two room dividers cut into Islamic-style patterns do not a “site-specific environment” make. The sapphire tinting of the gallery’s front window was a neat but minor touch, while the inclusion of a set of framed stills was surely inspired by the need for a readily collectible component.
This window dressing and accessorizing does a disservice to the subtlety of the video itself, a kind of Middle Eastern post-noir set in Abu Dhabi. De Beer’s work acknowledges a debt to Hollywood’s black-hearted subgenre, but its darkness is more gradated than its model’s, and is driven by more oblique motivations. In the first of five chapters, we follow the narrator (voiced by Iranian-Parisian singer Lafawndah) into an abandoned building in the dusty interzone of Al Jazirah Al Hamra, in search of an elusive party. There’s a focus on architectural space throughout The Blue Lenses that evokes noir’s shadowy corridors and backstreets (we rarely see the futuristic buildings typically invoked in association with Abu Dhabi). But again, the atmosphere in de Beer’s work is harder to parse, the Hollywood influence filtered and refracted through multifarious regional and personal histories.
In the second chapter, Daniel recounts his experiences working in—and shoplifting from—a department store while high on psychedelic drugs (“The most beautiful clothes lit up like Christmas lights”), and in the third, the narrator discusses her increasingly frequent but always frustrating encounters with him: “He was obviously this person, doing this job, but for whatever reason I was struck by a sense of fakeness, like watching a person on a stage.” In subsequent chapters, Daniel appears as a “fake vagrant” and a magician. In the final section, no longer playing a role, he seems to vanish into his surroundings: “I was in the ceiling and in the walls. I was waiting for you. But it wasn’t me anymore.” While The Blue Lenses thus ultimately tells us little about the Abu Dhabi in which it is set, its elision of stereotype—and even of clarity—only adds to its quiet power. De Beer’s achievement is to make us more keenly aware of the extent to which we continually devise and participate in social and cultural fictions, as unknowable as those with whom our orbits intersect.