The metamorphosis of Susanne Deeken
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“I like creating universes and hopefully being able to take the viewer out of their headspace, as I enjoy being taken out of mine too,” says polymath artist, designer and filmmaker Susanne Deeken. “It is quite an experience.”
She’s speaking of her gloriously bizarre art films, which reveal enigmatic female figures in symbol-laden worlds morphing into animals, trees and flowers, floating in and out of painted and digital mediums. Their titles, such as The Hairy Notion of a Green Afternoon (reflective of the loneliness of lockdown); Heiopei (an old German word for a do-no-gooder) and Glad You Candy (a journey through and out of depression), share the same magic realism beloved by Roald Dahl and Tim Burton, while their stylistic roots lie in absurdism and surrealism. And they are rapidly collecting accolades at showcases including the London Short Film Festival, Toronto Film Magazine Fest and Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan, near Detroit, North America’s oldest experimental Film Festival.
“I felt like an imposter, but when Heiopei and The Hairy Notion of a Green Afternoon debuted at the London Short Film Festival and won awards, that felt wonderful,” says Deeken in her wisteria-clad home in Islington, north London; the décor of vintage finds, expressionist oils and outsider-art ceramics is as sensorial as her work. ”It was exciting to have my name connected to my work, as in fashion I was always under the radar,” she says, referring to a previous life where she worked for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Valentino.
Deeken was born in northern Germany and began drawing, painting and composing music as a young child. “Escapism is a central theme. I grew up near a forest talking to the trees and animals – it was my habitat and an escape from the boredom of small-town life and sense of alienation from my family setting.” Nature’s powers and capacity for metamorphosis remain a constant in her work, as do the bewitching female protagonists that project both vulnerability and supernatural strength. She cites ground-breaking Czech animator Jan Švankmajer as an influence, as well as female surrealist artists including Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo, Hannah Höch, and Eileen Agar. Feminist artists such as Ana Mendieta and Birgit Jügenssen made an impression too.
“In the Surrealist movement these amazing women were kept in the shadows at the time, never receiving the acclaim or exposure of their male surrealist counterparts. [But] I have always been drawn to their use of symbolism and extreme imagery.”
After studying fine art in Copenhagen, Deeken moved to London to train in fashion at Central Saint Martins, working full time as a designer from the mid-1990s. Martine Sitbon and Marc Ascoli were among the first to spot her talent, recruiting her at their design studio in Paris; contracts with stellar brands, including Marc Jacobs in New York (for 14 years), Valentino, Maison Margiela and Givenchy couture followed. She continues to design for several luxury brands on the side.
“I tend to gravitate more towards mystical, darker, romantic or even perverse subject matter. Anything in front of you can be taken in so many different directions, and I enjoy twisting things around, taking them out of context and hopefully coming up with something fresh and not seen before from that angle – all depending on the client of course.”
Her meticulously crafted films offer parallels with Dadaist films of the 1930s, 1970s psychedelic animations and 1980s avant-garde film, capturing that weird, interstitial space between virtual and real worlds, inner and outer identities. The work is painstaking. “I might draw or paint 15 to 20 pictures with tiny little differences to create just one second of film.” Self-taught, she “watched hundreds of YouTube tutorials in lockdown – which is such an extraordinary and generous community.”
That period also inspired her in other ways. “The Hairy Notion of a Green Afternoon was born out of the isolation of lockdown and the salvation I found through my creative work,” she says. “I discovered walking to be so therapeutic and really opened my eyes to my immediate surroundings – you see amazing, inspiring things in the park, on the street… You just have to keep your eyes and mind open.”
She is now is working on storyboards for her fifth film. “With this one I’ll face new challenges, technically and emotionally, but I can’t wait to see where the journey takes me. The Germans have this expression called ‘walking pregnant with an idea’ – it means that something is ‘cooking’ in your head until it is ready. And that is how it feels,” she laughs.
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