Scratching the Awful Surface
In one of the universe’s weird moments of synchronicity, Vanessa Beecroft appeared in two different works I was reading for entirely unconnected reasons. The references were tantalizing–was Vanessa Beecroft awesome or awful? After some research into her work, I have to say now that I cannot think of a single living artist whom I find more repugnant than Vanessa Beecroft.
Beecroft was born in Italy in 1969 and is currently based in Los Angeles; she has exhibited her work internationally throughout her career. Her artistic practice consists, for the most part, of staging live performance art pieces using models. Working since 1993, Beecroft has staged more than sixty-five of these performances, with most of the performances involving nude or partially clothed female models posed in gallery spaces.
The performances are documented through photography and video. Sometimes, the models wear nothing but stockings and high heels, or nothing but hats, or nothing but bikinis and chains. When viewing Beecroft’s oeuvre, extensively documented on her personal website (www.vanessabeecroft.com), the few occasions when her female models are wearing more elaborate costumes (that might actually be considered proper clothing) stand out as highly unusual. One does get the sense that Beecroft needed to work up to full nudity in her performances; her very earliest works involve clothed models. Then, as Beecroft continues to stage performances, her models wear less and less, until near or full nudity is the norm, punctuated only occasionally by full clothing–the long dresses in vb51 or the red and nude-coloured outfits in vb60.
It is worth noting that men appear in only three performances by Vanessa Beecroft, and all her male models enjoy the privilege of being fully clothed: crisp military uniforms in vb39 and vb42, and suits in vb65.
The female models selected by Beecroft are (with few exceptions) all very thin, and have physical attributes such as long legs and flawless skin that are typically associated with the models of haute couture runway shows and advertisements. Beecroft also works primarily with white models, sometimes covering them with body paint to lighten or darken their skin.
Overall, Beecroft’s work is a series of variations on a single theme–that of (mostly) nude white women standing in gallery spaces. While there are exceptions to this rule, the exceptions are so notable that they seem to only reinscribe the dominant veins in her work.
In Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (my first introduction to Beecroft), Johanna Drucker notes Beecroft’s affinity to fashion. It is an easy parallel to draw. Certainly the models cast by Beecroft in her performances look, as I have noted, like traditional fashion models. Beecroft also deploys partial nudity in a manner often used in editorial fashion photography, on runways and in advertising. She even worked directly with a fashion house when she arranged models on shelves next to handbags at a Louis Vuitton store in Paris in vb56. (It is also interesting to note that Beecroft has collaborated with Kanye West, a rapper whose career has crossed over into the world of haute couture.)
Unfortunately, Beecroft’s alliance with the fashion world simply transposes the exploitative nature of high fashion modeling into the gallery space. High end designers have been criticized for inadequately compensating models who often work in grueling conditions with few labour protections. Beecroft’s models, according to Andrea Hoff, are hardly treated much better. In her piece “How Vanessa Beecroft Taught Me to Meditate While Standing Naked in the Middle of Berlin” (my second first introduction to Beecroft), Hoff describes her experience of posing for Beecroft. She is compensated with a “measly sum of money” for a job that involved “the most terrifying three hours of [her] life” (27-29). The punchline of her essay tells how Beecroft has failed to provide Hoff with a photograph of the performance, promised as part of the compensation for the models. Hoff performed in vb55, staged in Berlin in 2005–a show which Luke Harding, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, found fascinating for “its almost calculating cruelty” with regards to the models.
In addition to these sorts of labour abuses, Beecroft is also participating in the same objectification and hyper-sexualization of women that the fashion world has long perpetuated. Just as fashion models are reduced to visual objects, as hangers for clothes and bodies to be envied and ogled, Vanessa Beecroft turns her models into living sculptures for the titillation of an audience.
Looking at Beecroft’s oeuvre–staring at nude woman after nude woman–I have wondered if it is possible to view her whole body of work as feminist, while at the same time finding individual performances to be anti-feminist (and even anti-woman). Each performance places the models in a situation where they can be disrespected by the public; for Andrea Hoff, the experience of standing in the gallery and listening to assembled spectators comment on the models made her feel as though “every primordial instinct in [her] body” was telling her to flee (28), and she only survived the experience by mentally and emotionally dissociating with it.
But as I viewed Beecroft’s work as a whole through images online, I grew disgusted with myself for looking. At my darkest moment, I even found myself speculating as to whether or not Beecroft required models in a certain piece to remove their pubic hair, or if I was simply seeing the changing trends in personal grooming playing out over the course of Beecroft’s career. While at first I was inclined to censure Beecroft for exploiting her models, I became increasingly uncomfortable and disgusted with myself–I started to feel complicit in the exploitation and was repulsed by my own act of looking. So I wonder if this is Beecroft’s aim: to take a problematic aspect of society, and place it in the gallery, amplified, to draw attention to issues of the gaze and objectification.
Certainly Beecroft has said that her work (speaking here specifically about vb55) is about “embarrassment, shame, violence and abuse” (Harding). She considers her work to be “self-portraits” (Johnstone), and her history of disordered eating is well-known. She does consider herself feminist. There can be a vast gap, however, between an artists’ stated intention and what actually happens once that artwork is out in the world. How an audience receives Beecroft’s work is not guaranteed to line up with how Beecroft wants the audience to receive it. I keep thinking back to those spectators who commented on Hoff and the other models around her: “‘No. That one there, with the tattoos.’ ‘You can see them through the makeup.’ ‘Do you think they’re real?’ ‘She looks nervous.’ ‘Look at that one next to her, she’s hot.’ Laughter” (28). I doubt that the people who had this conversation went home after viewing the performance to consider Beecroft’s work as a whole and to consider its place in the world. I doubt they felt any remorse or considered themselves changed by the experience. The embarrassment and shame of which Beecroft speaks was surely only felt by the models. All the audience did was go look at some naked girls in a gallery–it was pure spectacle.
This leads me to conclude that we cannot and should not read Beecroft’s work as feminist or empowering in any way. Instead, we should see it for the spectacle-generating controversy-creating emptiness that it is.
Beecroft’s use of women of colour and skin darkened with body paint aptly demonstrates this emptiness, because it is in these works that her stunts are at the most offensive and most meaningless. Of particular note is vb61 from 2007, which is alternately titled Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?. In this piece, models in skimpy black binikis, with skin darkened by black body paint, are arranged face down in pools of fake blood. Beecroft, as elsewhere, uses thin women as models–working within a set of conventional beauty standards even when casting models meant to represent the victims of genocide. While the alternate title speaks to the political aims of the piece, ultimately this work does nothing but translate genuine tragedy into horror film campiness. The piece offers no healing, no solution, no meaningful political action. It is an empty gesture that simply calls attention to Beecroft as a “provocative” artist, without calling attention to human rights injustices in any way.
vb54, in which models–once again clad in bikinis and black body paint–are chained together and arranged in lines, betrays a similar insensitivity to issues of history and race, as it does nothing to speak to the long, continuing history of violence against and oppression of black women in the United States of America. It is a stunt that is entirely lacking in any genuine engagement with issues that women of colour face in the world today. Instead, Beecroft’s use (once again) of female models who meet conventional beauty standards works to fetishize image of enslaved black women.
Having spent some weeks contemplating Vanessa Beecroft’s work and reviewing images of her performances, the only inclination I am left with is to turn away–although in this essay, I must acknowledge that I feel I have only begun to scratch the awful surface of Vanessa Beecroft’s art. The sole impetus behind Beecroft’s work seems to me to be a desire for notoriety and fame. Even the titles of her performances–vb, vb, vb, vb, vb, vb, vb–only serve to draw attention back to Vanessa Beecroft The Controversial Artist. Galleries love her, surely, because controversy generates media attention and brings in visitors, which brings in money for the galleries. Personally, I will never attend (or model for) a Vanessa Beecroft performance; she is only attempting to provoke for the sake of being provocative, and I refuse to be provoked. Instead, I will champion and support artists like Rebecca Belmore and Susan Schuppli, who create works that engage deeply with the types of issues that Beecroft treats as a punchline.
Kathryn Hepburn is a filmmaker, visual artist and writer living in Dawson City, Yukon. She wonders what art that encompasses the whole of human experience would look like.
Beecroft, Vanessa. [personal website]. Web. 2013/04/18.
Drucker, Johanna. Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
Harding, Luke. “Ruthlessly Exposed.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2005/04/08. Web. 2013/04/18.
Hoff, Andrea. “How Vanessa Beecroft Taught Me to Meditate While Standing Naked in the Middle of Berlin”. Room. 35.4 (2012): 24-29. Print.
Johnstone, Nick. “Dare to Bare.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2005/03/13. Web. 2013/04/18.