“I like to create universes and I hope to be able to take the viewer out of their mental space, just as I like to be taken out of mine,” says polymath artist, designer and filmmaker Susanne Deeken. “It’s quite an experience.”
She talks about 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 (reflecting the loneliness of confinement); Heiopei (an old German word for a benefactor) and I’m glad you’re Candy (a journey through and out of the Depression), share the same magical realism dear to Roald Dahl and Tim Burton, while their stylistic roots lie in the absurd and the surreal. And they’re quickly collecting accolades at showcases such as the London Short Film Festival, the Toronto Film Magazine Fest and the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan, near Detroit, North America’s oldest experimental film festival.
“I felt like an impostor, but when Heiopei and The hairy concept of a green afternoon debuted at the London Short Film Festival and won awards, it was wonderful,” says Deeken in his wisteria-covered home in Islington, north London; the decor of vintage finds, expressionist oils and art brut ceramics is as sensory as his work. “It was exciting to have my name linked to my work because in fashion I was always under the radar,” she says, referring to a past life where she worked for Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Valentino. .
Deeken was born in northern Germany and started drawing, painting and composing music at an early age. “Escape is a central theme. I grew up near a forest talking to trees and animals – it was my habitat and an escape from the boredom of small town life and the feeling of alienation from my family surroundings. Nature’s powers and shapeshifting ability remain a constant in her work, as do the bewitching female protagonists who project both vulnerability and supernatural strength. She cites revolutionary Czech animator Jan Švankmajer as an influence, as well as female surrealist artists such as Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo, Hannah Höch and Eileen Agar. Feminist artists like Ana Mendieta and Birgit Jügenssen have also left their mark.
“In the Surrealist movement, these amazing women were kept in the shadows at the time, never receiving the praise 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 by recruiting her into their design studio in Paris; contracts with flagship 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 alongside.
“I tend to lean more towards mystical, darker, romantic or even evil subjects. Everything in front of you can be taken in so many different directions, and I like to twist things, take them out of their context and hopefully come up with something new and never seen before from that angle – it all depends on the client of course.
His meticulously crafted films offer parallels to 1930s Dadaist films, 1970s psychedelic animations and 1980s avant-garde films, capturing that strange interstitial space between virtual and real worlds, inner and outer identities. . The work is laborious. “I can draw or paint 15 to 20 images with tiny differences to create just one second of film.” Self-taught, she “watched hundreds of YouTube tutorials in lockdown – which is such an amazing, generous community.”
This period also inspired her in other ways. “The hairy notion of a green afternoon was born out of the isolation of confinement and the salvation I found through my creative work,” she says. “I found walking to be so therapeutic and really opened my eyes to my immediate surroundings – you see amazing and inspiring things in the park, on the street… Just keep your eyes open and open minds.”
She is currently working on storyboards for her fifth film. “With this one I will take on 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 ‘cooks’ in your head until it’s ready. And that’s how I feel,” she laughs.