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Vanessa Beecroft
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Performance that Makes Itself, by Jeffrey Deitch

by Jeffrey Deitch
While sitting in her figure drawing class at the Art Academy in Milan in 1993, Vanessa Beecroft had a simple, but radical insight. She decided that the live models were more interesting as art than the drawings for which they were posing. Beecroft noticed that there was something unusual about the drawing studio. It was the only room in the academy where the windows were blacked out, but people were constantly trying to peek inside. A strange tension existed in the classroom as the students looked at the nude models in front of them and at each other. Conventional reality was suspended.

When one of Beecroft’s teachers asked her to participate in a group exhibition, she gathered a group of girls who she had observed near the school and asked them to come to the gallery where the exhibition was being held. Beecroft brought a large bag of her own clothes and asked the girls to change into one of her outfits. She asked the girls to just stand around the gallery, and to sit or lie down if they were tired. This was VB01.

By acting on her unexpected insight, Beecroft had created a conceptual reversal, making the model into the art, rather, than someone’s interpretation of the model. She was probably not the first art student to think that the live models were more interesting the drawings of her fellow students, but she was the first artist to turn this insight into an aesthetic system and to articulate it into an ongoing body of work. Beecroft’s conceptual reversal of the model and the art relates to Kirk Varnedoe’s analogy between the improbable invention of the game of rugby and innovation in modern art. Varnedoe described how a student at the Rugby School, one William Webb Ellis, “who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game.”

A Beecroft performance is at the same time real and unreal. It has the strength of color and composition of a grand figurative painting, but it is not a painting. It has the spatial presence of a sculpture, but it is not exactly a sculpture. The work can be classified as performance, but it is apparent that there is no narrative, perhaps not even any direction. Everything in a Beecroft performance is familiar, but it is something that one has never seen before. The contrast of intimacy and detachment, composition and chaos, banality and exaggeration, all within a compact moving image, makes for a riveting vision.

Even though the execution of VB01 and other early performances appear casual, there is very little that is casual about their concept and preparation. Each performance is constructed around a concept that involves form, color, costume, and the relationship between the models, the space and the audience. The works reference art history, film history, and fashion, often in relation or reaction to the space where they are presented. Some of the performances reference specific Old Master paintings. VB 25, for instance, which was presented in Eindhoven, featured models wearing black wigs and black turtlenecks, an abstract reference to Rembrandt group portraits. Others reference films, especially those of Rosellini and Fassbinder, whose work Beecroft knows well. The works also reflect Beecroft’s own personal history, often becoming conceptual self-portraits.

People who have seen Beecroft’s work only through photographs are often not prepared for the stunning image they encounter when they confront one of her live performances. The work creates an uncanny effect where the artificial and the real are confused. The models and the audience seem suspended someplace between the two. With their body makeup, their colored hair or wigs, and their mannered gestures, the models at first look more like sculptures than live performers. Their presence is reminiscent of Charles Ray’s mannequin sculpture. As the performers slowly begin to move, the audience is drawn into their artificial reality.

The models are deliberately kept confused about what they are expected to do. Beecroft never gives them an introduction to her work in advance and does not even like to have a conversation with them until after the performance. She gives them only very minimal instructions such as “don’t move too fast, don’t talk, and sit down if you are tired.” She prefers that the models are slightly disoriented, just like the audience, suspended in a state of unreality.

The performances have the compositional complexity of large figurative paintings and the spatial quality of sculptural tableaux, but they are live events. Beecroft has succeeded in creating an art form that is a moving painting, a live sculpture and an uncanny life experience. One could write about the work as if it were painting, analyzing the composition and the art historical references. One could describe it as a sculpture, commenting on its phenomenological quality and its use of negative space. The work connects directly to the European Old Master tradition in painting and sculpture but extends this tradition into today’s world. Its fusion of painting, sculpture, photography, film, fashion and the live presentation of self is completely contemporary.

Beecroft’s approach to performance comes less from the tradition of live theater and performance art than from the traditions of painting and sculpture. The artistic issues in the work are those of painting, sculpture and film, not of live theater. She is not interested in narrative, expression, or character. She is not interested in dramatic stage effects. Beecroft’s performances are based on visual concepts, not theatrical concepts.

The work draws on the legacy of John Cage in its invention of a formal structure that is constructed around chance. Beecroft positions the models in an initial structure, usually a simple form like a grid, a line, or a spiral. The models tend to stand straight up for the first fifteen minutes of the performance and then begin to move in a mysterious harmony, following the gestures of the girls around them. When they get tired, they begin to sit or recline, usually in concert with one another. As the performance progresses, it creates its own form, based on the girls’ own movements. The girls seem to have internalized many of the gestures one associates with the figures in well known European paintings and sculpture. Beecroft’s performances are full of poses reminiscent of compositions by artists from Parmigianino to Canova.

The work sometimes follows an entropic structure, moving from order to disorder, from form to anti-form. In other performances, the models move from order to disorder and back to order again, reassuming the grid that was established at the beginning. The structure is reminiscent of the famous Boetti embroidered square spelling out order, disorder and order again in a continuous grid. Like Boetti, Beecroft is fascinated with twins, look-a-likes and mirror images and often incorporates them into her performances. Many of Beecroft’s works reflect her affinity with Minimal and Conceptual art.

Beecroft’s strongest references to Minimalism are in VB 39 and VB 42, her projects with US Navy SEALS and the Submarine Corps. The color concept of VB 39 was white on white: US Navy SEALS in their white uniforms with white shoes standing in a modernist white cube gallery with a white floor in the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. The Navy SEALS assumed their regulation grid formation and alternated between their two poses, attention and at ease. Beecroft gave them no direction except to designate the gallery where they were to stand. They were like a performance readymade, maintaining a minimalist grid in a gallery designed for the display of minimal art.

Parallel to her early performance work, Beecroft made drawings that could be described as pre-conceptual. The drawings are raw and direct, unfiltered by rationality and by the conventions of figure drawing. They depict the pre-rational images that form in the mind prior to the discipline of rational thought. Some of the early performances, such as VB02 were presented in conjunction with the drawings and animate their imagery. VB01 was presented with Beecroft’s Diary of Food, a conceptual record of her daily diet, combined with these pre-rational drawings. The project pushed conceptual art into the structure of the artist’s life and into her pre-rational thinking. The drawings are such direct reflections of the artist’s state of mind that they have an element of self-portraiture. Along with the Diary of Food, they illustrate the degree to which conceptual self-portraiture has been a fundamental part of Beecroft’s work.

VB01, in which the girls Beecroft had observed around the school were invited to linger in the gallery wearing her clothes, allowed her to construct a surrogate self-portrait. In the casting of many of her subsequent performances, Beecroft looks for a girl who can become her conceptual surrogate, around whom the performance is constructed. In the early performances, the models often appear self absorbed and timid. As Beecroft becomes more self confident and more recognized for her work, the models become stronger and more powerful in their presence. Several remarkable works featuring her English half-sister allow her to study who she might have been had she grown up in England with her father, rather than in Italy with her mother. In addition to its dialogue with art and cultural history and its conceptual structure, Beecroft’s work is also an example of art as self-definition.

The deliberate confusion between the real and the unreal in Beecroft’s work extends into a deliberate uncertainty about where the art ends and life begins. In one of her most recent works, VB 51, Beecroft introduces a fake audience that is juxtaposed with images of the “real” audience in the film of the performance. It is unclear whether the family members and associates who have been cast in recent works are present as themselves or as performers in an artwork. Guests who were invited to Beecroft’s wedding in 2000 were directed to stand for a strange formal portrait, which was subsequently exhibited in galleries and museums. Some of the guests were not sure whether they had participated in a wedding or an art performance. The blurring of the boundaries between art and life in Beecroft’s work is becoming increasingly complex. As much as any artist of her generation, she has followed Robert Rauschenberg’s advice to work in the gap between art and life.

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