THE FEMALE SPHERE
by: Mia Kim
December 19, 2011
As an artist, Vanessa Beecroft first introduced herself to the world with “VB01,” a series of her drawings and a diary of food consumption displayed among young women silently standing, staring, clothed in Beecroft’s own wardrobe. Since that initial performance in 1993, Beecroft has created not only a rather extensive body of work, but a universe of her own, where art fuses with fashion, social commentary, even politics, blurring the lines of classification. Her name may well be synonymous with live performance. She has pronounced her appreciation for and fascination with the concepts of the model as art and the female sphere. Beneath the surface, Beecroft and her work are much more multifaceted. Most recently she staged “VB70,” a piece involving nude painted women camouflaged among Cararra marble slabs and figurative sculptures created by the artist herself.
Beecroft’s work has been both lauded and panned, though never is it denied the spotlight of attention. It is her distinctly personal and uncompromising vision that has caught the eye of critics, curators, art patrons and influential fans such as Donatella Versace and Kanye West, affecting an audience beyond the gallery space. Not one to shy from provocation, Vanessa Beecroft has been called brilliant, a feminist, exploitative, a hack. Nonetheless she is committed to her art, constantly exploring, evolving, and expanding her universe like a true visionary.
Being from Italy, what was your childhood like?
I was born in Genoa, but we moved to London soon after. Before I was two, my mother moved back to the Italian Alps, on Garda Lake where I spent the rest of my childhood. We lived among the people of the mountain. We had no phone, no TV, no car, no meat and no men. She taught literature and she read a lot; she brought me to museums, movies and painted with me. I moved to Genoa to study art then to Milan where I studied at Brera and did my first show at the end of the school year.
Were there artists you admired who inspired your own artistic inclination?
Many of them – from the classical Italian painters I saw in churches and other places in Italy, to the ones I studied in school, and later saw at the first Venice Biennale. I like artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Fluxus, Wiener actionism and others. When I decided to do my first work, I didn’t relate to anyone in particular, but, instead, did what I felt I had to do within my artistic limits.
You have studied architecture, painting and stage design. Since you had first studied architecture at the Civico Liceo Artistico Nicol Barabino Architettura, when did you realize that art was what you wanted to pursue?
In nursery school, I would draw all the time, which was the only way to escape reality and melancholia.
Why do you often choose other women to represent your vision? What is it about the female form that you find so inspiring in conveying your ideas?
Previously you incorporated drawings into your pieces and more recently it seems you have introduced a sculptural element to them. How would you say your work has evolved over the span of your career and do you plan to explore any other mediums?
The subject of my work is the female sphere. My performances presented live women because I couldn’t communicate only with drawings. Sculpture happened by chance—through a commission in Palermo, Sicily. Marbles came as a continuation of the plaster figures. I do not have an agenda and at the moment I am working with colored marbles to further the analysis of female bodies. I like to use the marble sculptures in non-monumental ways as though each one is a piece of paper that can be destabilized.
It is a non-direct way to talk about myself and to extend the particular to the universal. This is a concept I found also in the writing on aesthetics by Marx and Engels.
Your work has been called feministic by some and sexist by others. How do you feel about that? Would you even consider it one or the other?
I was raised in a climate of feminism from which I carried ideas that further that tradition, but I am also inspired by art and by my personal experience.
Your search for beauty is similar to that of high-end fashion brands. You have collaborated with magazines (Vogue Homme, Self Service) on editorials and used designer clothing (Gucci, Maison Martin Margiela) on your models. Do you think there is danger in such a search when, in peoples minds, it is tied to a commercial purpose? Or is beauty still a universal medium to invoke imagination?
I think that work generated by an artist that has a specific purpose is different from the work in fashion and other fields. It is like scientific research and therefore different in its meaning and interpretation. It is dangerous as much as any other subject treated. I try to always stick to the tradition of art even when I work on different commissions and I think that research can expand as soon as it is focused on art history.
There was also the Kanye West video you art directed. How did the idea come about? Are you interested in the broader and more youthful audience music videos benefit from, in comparison to art pieces in museums?
I worked with Kanye because he approached me directly in a very spontaneous way. Our working style was that of a friendship. It was very interesting to be near him and see how his vision worked next to mine. He kept reminding me not to be elitist and that we were of different cultures. The subjects he represents had to represent his world. This was an experience that I value very much.
Several years ago, the pieces titled “VB61: Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?” and “VB65” made quite the statement politically, as well as culturally and socially. What made you take a step in that direction?
I went to the South Sudan because I had a chance to follow a group of missionaries. All I knew about Sudan was the model Alek Wek. Once I got there, I became fascinated by the people there and started taking photos. I also became friend of a student and together we worked on this piece. He was preparing for the independence of the south that just recently happened. It was by chance that I was able to make works out of that experience. They represented a sort of criticism towards certain forms of neocolonialism that is done in the name of humanitarian purposes.
Do you feel those pieces garner more attention and elicit stronger reactions because they are so charged with politics? Is that what you were looking for in addition to expressing your point of view?
I always had an interest in politics, even when using female models and the U.S. military, but it was not as explicit. That time I felt panic towards the imminence of the problems.
Darfur was only a few years ago, and this year, the horn of Africa was hit by the strongest drought and famine in 60 years. What responsibility do you think the privileged West has to people on other continents? Do you feel particular ties to Africa?
Even my work with Louis Vuitton had ties to the subject of neo-colonialism and its beginning in the last century. The West is en- tirely responsible for the famine; it is directly proportionate. I feel very connected to Africans and African-Americans since I live in the United States. I started a series of recorded conversation with Harry Allen, in New York, former publicist of the Public Enemy and Media Assassin, to deeply understand if I was entitled or not to picture people of a different race in my work. We will publish the conversations in a book.
You have said that if you weren’t an artist, you would have liked to start a social movement. What causes are you sensitive to, and do you think your art could be the right platform to convey your convictions and bridge towards social action?
Art alone cannot create a movement. It can suggest or destabilize ideas and common sensibilities. I believe in the long-term value of the visual image and I felt more able to use that form than another one. This might be due to the time in which I was operating. Maybe if I were working in 1968 or 1979, I would have done something different. I like the way Pasolini worked—using his political intention to make poetry—or Visconti, representing situations in his films.
What are you working on at the moment? Is there anything in particular that you would like to do in the future?
I moved my studio to Los Angeles and I intend to return to drawing, something I interrupted a long ago to concentrate on my performance. I keep working on marble sculptures in Carrara, which is where I am at the moment, casting new girls. I am also working towards a retrospective where the wardrobes from all of my performances will be crated in containers that I design to be sold and reenacted.
If you could make one WILD Wish, what would it be?
I wish for humanism to prevail over consumerism so that Third World countries are able to reclaim their own countries.