I have a confession to make: I love reading articles about Vanessa Beecroft. Having first viewed her work in the early aughts, I have been fascinated by it. Here were these nude women, stretched, long and lean standing at attention, appearing both aloof and highly alert. Not necessarily sexualized but objectified, these bodies are put on display, becoming something other than women, but rather sculpture. At the time, I remember thinking about living, breathing sculpture along with performance. The bodies while varying in skin tones and hair types, have also always been thin, small waisted with an exposed tuft of pubic hair. Her work conjures a diverse range of emotions and reactions often resulting in the question; is it fashion? Is it art? Are the models being exploited?
Whether believed to be interesting or banal, I have always been intrigued. This level of interest was further peeked upon reading an article in The Guardian (Dare to bare, Saturday 12 March, 2005) by Nick Johnstone. The piece, candidly written finds the author visiting Beecroft, then living on the East end of Long Island, at her home. Johnstone vividly discusses the artist’s numerous quirks including her abundant issues with consumption stating, “The spectre of anorexia haunted her teens and twenties, too, when she smoked to keep her weight down, attempted crash-dieting with amphetamines, undertook damaging fasts, exercised beyond any sensible limits of endurance, and kept a diary —The Book of Food (VB1)— detailing every single morsel that passed her lips between 1983 and 1993 (for example, if she ate an orange, she’d note the date, time and how it made her feel). Even now, a decade after she stopped keeping the food diary, there are still days when she longs to note what she eats, such was the power of this coping mechanism.” It was the ‘Book of Food’ that landed in her first art exhibition, a group show organized by a former professor from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera Scenografia in 1993. Once the book was exhibited, she chose to know longer use it for daily food notations.
The artist, having suffered from an eating disorder since her early teen years, has never fully ‘recovered’ from her body dysmorphia. As many artists have done and continue to do, she has exposed her personal experiences and transferred them into various avatars starting with the book and then utilizing the bodies of others. In the years that have followed since that first revealing exhibition, Beecroft has continued to rely on women of her choosing to appear in various installations. Often as a painting can be thought of as a type of human body, a memory, a frozen in time, yet once living —as paint moved and was pushed across the surface— her dramatic performances talk about her own world but also tap into the larger, broader insight into what it is not only to be cis-female or female identified, but also human.
More recently, Beecroft has reappeared in the media after another well-written exposé, this time by Amy Larocca (The Bodies Artist, Fall Fashion issue, Aug. 8-21, 2016) was published by New York Magazine. Similar in many ways to the previously mentioned text, this article finds the artist living in Los Angeles and just coming off of an eight year stint of working closely with rapper, fashion designer and artist Kanye West. In the last several years, the two worked together regularly a in collaborative effort to produce the visual resolution of how to best reveal the collections of his eponymous Yeezy line, now in its fourth season. According to the article, Beecroft is no longer part of the West payroll, but will still be brought on as a consultant. From the article, “It was Kim Kardashian, she cut everything out.”
While the initial thought of Vanessa Beecroft working with Kanye West might sound appalling, revisiting the way they’ve chosen to represent his collections actually makes a lot of sense, until it doesn’t. Years ago, the artist said that she wasn’t interested in fashion, however Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, is a longtime friend and mentor and according to a 2013 article from Complex Magazine, (12 Things to Know about Vanessa Beecroft Kanye West’s Visual Collaborator, by Raka Sen and Vanessa Castro) “…Beecroft claims to never have consciously decided to use fashion as a subject of her work, stating that she ‘doesn’t know fashion,’ [yet] the presence and influence of the medium is prolific in her productions. Although she started out with cheap theater costumes, her reputation, and close friendship with the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue Italia, Franca Sozzani, has allowed Beecroft to increase her costume budget.” If someone is ‘truly’ not interested or knowledgable in fashion, why collaborate extensively with such high-end brands? The obvious answer is that she is interested in fashion and as models walk runways, these same models are a medium within her compositions. The difference being that if one plays a game of chess, the chess pieces do not bleed and are not associated with a particular culture of oppression.
Erupting within the digital realm, West and Beecroft were able to cause quite a stir after the Madison Square Garden début of Yeezy 3 recreating a photograph by Paul Lowe from 1995. The original photograph documented survivors of Rwandan genocide after over 4,000 people were massacred. In the recent New York Magazine article, Beecroft states to author Amy Larocca, “The image came out of one of my books, and I thought, Perhaps this is Woodstock, because it looked really fashionable and glamorous, but no. That was a refugee camp…I wanted the people to look poor. Poverty and elegance were the key words. Poverty and elegance. No trends, no fashion. Real poverty, what you encounter when you travel to Africa, Mexico, those countries where people wear their clothes with dignity and they look elegant and they look like they have intelligence.” She continues to state that her advice during casting was, “Please don’t have anyone who looks stupid. Or fancy. Please. Classical, poor and elegant.”
Can someone please pass the popcorn?
As a journalist myself, I know that when conducting an interview, one never really knows what the subject will say. However, most phrases of weight or a particular non-politically correct stance, are usually preceded with, “This is off the record.” That being said, I’m wondering if Beecroft’s unabashed candid vulnerability is the result of her not having boundaries or exuding a certain form of ignorance, or if after years of nutrition deprivation she actually has been damaged. Earlier in the same text, Larocca says, “Nothing feels off-limits with her, and you also get the sense that she has never read a magazine or watched a television program.”
This brings us back to the larger question at hand. In numerous articles, tweets and Instagram posts about the artist, the collective authors all tell us the same tale as far back as 1998, Vanessa Beecroft has ‘exercise bulimia’ and uses the figures of others to tell her personal story. Yet this started to change in 2007 with her 52nd Venice Biennale performance, “VB61, Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?” where the artist arrange 30 Sudanese women on a large white surface and ‘painted’ their bodies with a blood-like substance. The women were nude and had make-up applied to their skin to appear darker. There is video documentation online of the artist, the sole white inhabitant of this scene, walking through the bodies, applying the blood-like substance and it is for lack of a better word, disturbing. There is a collective sensitivity that can be utilized when it comes to race relations and Beecroft is not concerned with this. Something can be said about the power of a personal statement. Such is the case with the numerous installations Beecroft has made directly referencing her own limitations and issues with an eating disorder and the results are unabashedly strong. However, once this same artist chooses to make a physical statement by making black bodies blacker, and then ‘killing’ said bodies as a statement of artistic prowess, one cannot help but cringe at the crux of this visual dilemma. This narrative continues in a documentary titled “The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins” a film by Pietra Brettkelly. Focusing on Beecroft’s nearly obsessive compulsive behavior and narcissism, she is portrayed as someone completely entitled but naïve to their own exceptionalism due to white privilege. It’s quite disturbing to watch. The film doesn’t portray the artist in the best light, similarly to the articles. Each straightforwardly reveal an egoist out to forcefully fulfill her own agenda, but under the guise of good will. In the documentary, her presence in the village was very upsetting to the villagers and yet she tries to adopt two previously abandoned newborns (with complete disregard to their culture), the result is a photograph of the artist wearing a customized Margiela dress, breast-feeding the children, all this while villagers try to break into the location where she is shooting without their permission. The scene is disturbing to watch, however proves that sometimes the process of making art is neither right or pretty. The film was part of what lead to her divorce and a decline in her popularity, however it hasn’t slowed down her distorted sense of self. Returning to her discussion with Larocca, “I even did a DNA test thinking maybe I am black? I actually wasn’t. I was kind of disappointed, and I don’t want to believe it. I want to do it again, because when I work with Africans or African-Americans, I feel that I am autobiographical. If I don’t call myself white, maybe I am not.” Someone needs to tell her that while we are entering a groundbreaking moment of post-gender, we have yet to enter a world of existence that is post-race. Anyone who knows the hashtag #blacklivesmatter will know first hand how much this rings true.
I’ve often stated that being an artist is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Vanessa Beecroft has taken numerous chances and made work that is extremely impactful. Yet, each time she speaks to a journalist, she reveals parts of herself that are not only undesirable but damaging and it’s as if she does not have the wherewithal to be anything else. Stating also to Larocca about her minimally decorated home, “Kanye has a similar approach to life. One song says ‘Couches couches couches.’ because for one year it was, Which couch should I get?, because it’s a big deal! How long, the proportion – he got this master from Belgium who studies proportion. He’s serious about it. he would lose years of life thinking, Which is the couch? I don’t have the financial power to follow my instincts, but I am like Visconti; even if you are shooting a film scene, you have to have the stuff in the drawer so that the actor feels it. It’s the same with me. In our house, everything has to be authentic. I was just born like that,” she says. “My mom was very causal. If she wanted to read a book, it didn’t matter which edition, but she really read the book. For me, I buy the edition and then I don’t really have to read the book, but then I have to have the cover a certain way and if it’s wrong, then I throw out the book. I have to get rid of it immediately. I put it in a bag in the street, and I just have to get it out.”
There is no doubt that this work raises questions about spectatorship but in these more recent cases, attached to the vision of a wealthy white woman recreating the suffering of black and brown bodies. The end result may have been visually stunning, even channeling the timelessness of the Mannerist tradition, but was it tasteful, no. Thinking about Vanessa Beecroft and her world is something that continues to fuel my love of art and the drama of the art world. But each time an article is published with her starring as the protagonist, I can’t help but think of reality television, in particular the shows that have featured Anna Nicole Smith (1967-2007) and Whitney Houston (1963-2012). We collectively watched these women dissolve and while Vanessa Beecroft doesn’t seem to be in the same place regarding substance abuse, she does seem to have a shared and fearless need for attention without the filter that society regularly requires. It’s almost as if each of these women (Smith, Houston, Beecroft) have had a physical detachment from their own bodies. In each instance, rather than turn in to work on these deep-rooted issues, they project onto others. The revelations spoken through these articles is similarly construed via the concept of finding amusement in watching the addict entertain. In truth, I find myself both captivated and having suffered with an eating disorder in my early twenties, empathetic. This also emerges from the full understanding that when it comes to high-profile interviews, both the subject and the journalist alike have some say or perspective into the final result. My hope is that the way she is portrayed in the media is also on the performative level and that in the quiet and comfort of her own home, Vanessa Beecroft is able to turn the performance off.
From the New York Magazine article:
Beecroft does each much of it herself, particularly if the children are not around. She relies on powders, briefly including a protein powder that a nutritionist told her would help ground her to the Earth; she’s since given up on protein entirely. “I realize I am a bit floating around in the sky,” she says.
Katy Diamond Hamer is the Founding Editor in Chief of Eyes Towards the Dove. She has been writing on contemporary art and culture since 2007. For more, follow her on instagram @katyhamer