The bittersweet tale of Heidi, the little orphan girl, has been interpreted countless times since it was first published in 1880 by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri. Most accounts of Heidi's life begin with the death of her parents while she is still an infant and finish before she has grown up. In Sue De Beer and Laura Parnes' version, however, Heidi has given birth to Heidi 2, who becomes the main protagonist of the story. Heidi 2 (1999) revolves around a matriarchal relationship, a shift from the original story, in which the young Heidi's attachment to Grandfather is central. Nonetheless, the book's central themes of nature versus culture and the determining role of the family have not been forsaken.
Heidi 2 was billed as a sequel to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy's Heidi (1992). It is not uncommon for a sequel to be handed over to a new director, often a hack who takes the original's most salient features and then exaggerates them. This is especially the case in the horror and sci-fi genres, in which the sequel promises more abundant gore, updated technology and cameo appearances by current or fading celebrities. De Beer and Parnes make overt references to this paradigm. Aside from the pressures of re-telling a familiar story and following in the footsteps of a recent film, they confront the anxiety of influence that is particularly pronounced in the art world - it could be said that Kelley and McCarthy are contemporary art's equivalent to film directors such as Wes Craven or David Cronenberg.
In Kelley and McCarthy's Heidi, Grandfather is a raging, abusive character who controls the household and trains Heidi in the lessons of life. The dull-witted shepherd boy, Peter, is the frequent object of Grandfather's sadism. Perhaps concerned about an oedipal take-over of the family, Grandfather keeps him helpless and mute. De Beer and Parnes turn the tables and portray the old man as a couch potato who seeks male companionship from Peter. Despite one scene in which Grandfather (played by Guy Richards Smit) spanks Heidi - launching her into a flight of fantasy - his role has been reduced to that of a struggling has-been. Are Kelley and McCarthy meant to be equated with Grandfather? If so, Heidi 2 is more than a sequel: it takes on the quality of a revisionist history. In this extension of the Spyri narrative, Heidi 2 (performed by De Beer) gets her education from her mother, Heidi 1 (performed by Parnes), who teaches her to perform an auto-abortion, a scene which satisfies the bloody requirements of the sequel. Yet by preventing the birth of what might have turned out to be Heidi 3, De Beer and Parnes seem to pre-empt the possibility of a trilogy.
De Beer and Parnes' commentary on the film industry targets movies like Disney's Heidi (1993), which starred Jason Robards as Grandfather and Jane Seymour as the nanny. It takes good actors to enliven out-dated roles and so de Beer and Parnes cast Eric Heist as Leonardo Di Caprio (Heist wears a Leo mask), who in turn plays the part of Peter. The shepherd is now Heidi's love interest and apparent father of the aborted child. Having removed the threat of an offspring, Heidi 2 and her mother fill the void in her belly with a television monitor - just like the Teletubbies. Unlike the Heidi of the novel, who rejects big-city life in favour of a healthy rural existence, Heidi 2 wholeheartedly embraces the trappings of culture.
De Beer and Parnes bring the saga further up to date through a Hollywood-style merchandising campaign. Accompanying the movie are blood-red posters and grotesque knee-high dolls and accessories that come in vacuum-packed containers. It's an approach which has a parallel in the art world, since it is now common practice for artists working in film and video to produce multiples and sell photographs in order to fund their large-scale projects (Matthew Barney is the undisputed king of this strategy). By 'branding' their product, the artists seem to be attempting to usurp the terrain formerly occupied by Kelley and McCarthy. Firmly ensconced in the gallery and art school systems, these established artists have come to represent for De Beer and Parnes the repressive authority figures who have to learn to accept the presence of youthful exuberance - just as Grandfather learned to love Heidi.
First published in Issue 52