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Features / Art

Gender politics, feminism and Kanye West – the world according to Vanessa Beecroft

Words:

Nathalie Olah

I write this at the end of a strange week in which 38 year-old Kanye West has been ridiculing his ex-girlfriend in a well-publicised Twitter rant. It is strange because, only a few weeks before, I had been talking to the musician’s long-time creative collaborator Vanessa Beecroft, whose experiences had transformed my perception of the star and led me to believe that by association his attitudes towards women had grown more progressive. In the course of our conversation I would come to learn that it is a blessing and a curse to receive the attentions of the star-maker nonpareil. Not that Beecroft said as much. But on the one hand, while their collaborations have allowed Beecroft to reach new audiences, they also stand to jeopardise her relationship with the art world.

When I call her studio in mid-January the Italian native by way of LA is preparing for the presentation of Yeezy Season 3, which like Seasons 1 and 2 before it, will be choreographed according to her distinctive approach. Beecroft is best known for creating large-scale phalanx configurations of static models. If not entirely nude, they stand in minimalist uniforms that direct attention to the primary focus of her work, the body; the ground on which corporate battles are fought and a major theme of the artist’s life as a longstanding sufferer of various eating disorders. For two and a half decades, Beecroft has reflected and expanded on woman’s relationship to the funny, fleshy assortment of limbs and torso she calls home, sometimes to the sound of moral outcry and more frequently, critical praise. Creating a body of work that is at once affirming, depressing, celebratory, condemnatory, faintly masochistic yet always, resolutely, autobiographical.

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VB73 (performance) New York, 2014

“My mother was vegetarian and I was brought up in Italy around images of saints and martyrs who had been fasting to apparently achieve certain levels of spirituality,” she recalls. “I almost feel as if every woman has a little bit of an eating disorder.”

Beecroft arrived on the art scene in 1993 with The Book of Food, detailing every item she had eaten for the previous decade. Over 20 years later, she admits to still having a fraught relationship to food, but has developed a sufficiently mature attitude for dealing with it. “It’s no longer the central focus of my work,” she explains, “but whenever I paint, draw or make a sculpture I end up doing something related to the body. It is still the most important thing to me and I am always drawn to depictions of strong, female bodies like those of Michelangelo and Helmut Newton.”

Our conversation comes a month after the 2015 Venice Biennale, in which Beecroft exhibited a site-specific installation of marble and bronze scattered statues enclosed within four oppressive walls. The work can only be seen through a small hole, at the centre of whose perspective lies a statue – spread-eagled to confront the viewer with the singular stare of the vagina. It’s a clear nod to Duchamp’s Étant donnés and for Beecroft, a literal response to the Italian pavilion’s theme of memory.

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‘Le Membre Fantôme’ Venice Biennale, 2015

“I’d been creating sculptures since 2007,” she explains, “based on plaster casts made of the girls used in the live installations. I’ve reused these several times, including a show entitled VB66 in Naples. On that occasion a descendent of the Carrara family from Tuscany, famous for its rich reserves of marble, approached me to ask if I would consider using the material to create a sculpture. It seemed like an absurd idea at the time, but after inviting me to her home, and seeing the polychrome marble statues that were half buried in her garden, I became fascinated both by the family’s history as members of a decadent aristocracy, and the use of marble throughout Italian art history. I began making marble sculptures there over many years, flying back and forth from LA.”

The installation in Venice became an exercise in gathering, as Beecroft literally shored fragments against the ruins of her past. “I decided to consolidate all of the marble sculptures,” she explains. “It’s a reflection on my own career and also of my memory at that time, which was heavy and broken.”

Beecroft is the first to admit that she has burned bridges with the art world. The giggling candour with which she tells me is, I suspect, also tinged with regret. But for an artist who trades in emotional experience, she also has the fortune of being able to transform her misgivings into creative sustenance.

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VBSS, Rumbek, Sudan, 2016

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VBSS, Rumbek, Sudan, 2016

Her attempts to adopt Sudanese orphaned twins became the subject of a documentary The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins in 2008, no doubt spurred along by Madonna’s adoption of a Malawian child in 2006. Beecroft maintains that she should not avoid discussing issues affecting African American or African people just on account of “being a white woman”. Her work exploring colonial themes has certainly divided audiences. Yet, in the preternaturally white world of the LA art scene, it is still refreshing to see someone take an interest in the wider world.

“I always like to hide political aspects within the work,” she explains. “When I showed VB55 at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, I saw two sides: the women naked on one side and the audience. Super dressed up. High society. And in that relationship you have the dichotomy that defines the world in which we live: the wealthy world and the other. The rich, looking on, interested, but still happy to be removed from the other world that is naked, and in some cases falling apart.”

There is also an unspoken message about the violent nature of sexual urges. “The installations were never meant to arouse.” She explains. “If they did, then the audience would have to resolve that issue for themselves. If they liked the women because they were naked then they were perpetrators of the abuse.”

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VB62, Palermo, 2008

Despite the subtexts, feminists have railed against Beecroft’s use of models, claiming that she had paid them very little to stand for unreasonable lengths of time. Beecroft’s response is typically principled and, in reality, quite naïve.

“I saw myself as creating an army of women to represent the views I was trying to express. I didn’t want to put myself into it because I didn’t want to be a distraction from the message: that we are women, equal, standing for each other. And in terms of pay,” she adds, “I always paid if I could and only didn’t when I was a student. The girls who were involved knew that before and had agreed to do the show nevertheless. In many cases the institution paid on my behalf.”

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VB43, Gagosian London, 2000

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VB 46, Gagosian LA, 2001

The spectacle of a military configuration of stony faced women is nevertheless arresting and powerful. As the gender debate rages on, it also seems to fall in line with challenges being made to binary conceptions of gender identity. The neutrality with which the women are presented and the total absence of any emblems of conventional femininity, challenge the limitations of the female name-tag. Reflecting the idea that all of us, cis-gendered or otherwise, suffer under its prescribed rules and expectations.

“My father was from London and when my parents broke up when I was three years old I was removed, never to return,” Beecroft recalls. “My mother never had another man and my brother was given away to her mother. The total elimination of the male figure has undoubtedly influenced my work. I started to develop this work, based on an autobiographical premise that wasn’t intentionally gender related, but it became that. Someone asked me recently if I would consider including naked men in my live performances and I could not. It just wouldn’t belong to me.”

“Someone asked me recently if I would consider including naked men in my live performances and I could not. It just wouldn’t belong to me.”

Vanessa Beecroft

So would she consider herself a feminist?

“My mother was a feminist. Very extreme politically and intellectually. The sort of woman to say that men smell and the Pope is an idiot and I hope the Red Brigade will kill everyone. I am not as extreme as that. But as I was raised in that way and it definitely became a part of who I am. In the matriarchal Italian family, my mother, aunt and grandmother were the bosses. They looked good, they dressed well and they were strong.”

I regret not having the opportunity to ask Beecroft about Kanye’s Twitter comments and since it has been announced that she has worked on the performance that will launch his new album and Season 3 of his fashion line. Though she is bound to be diplomatic. Despite their close working relationship, Beecroft remains very much Kanye’s silent partner. I had always put this down to his insistence, but come to realise in the course of our conversation, that it is as much about Beecroft’s own reluctance to be fully subsumed by the fashion world.

“One day I was approached by Kanye but I wasn’t too aware of who he was because I tend to only listen to classical music. He was extremely kind and asked me to choreograph a performance for his 808 & Heartbreak private listening party in 2008. I was going through a divorce and I started to think that maybe he was my black, male alter-ego.

“Then there were a few videos and a tour, but never enough for me to be officially involved, beyond consultation. Recently people have started to notice my involvement, because the configurations of the Yeezy previews and their similarity to my work. I’m aware that I’m going outside of my domain and territory, and I am taking a risk but I have grown to really trust his vision. I would love for him to include a wider sphere of classical music, including opera and more explicitly political messages.”

I ask if she would be up for curating his presidential campaign. She laughs.

“He says he wants to be president and people laugh, but I actually wish that he was!”

I had wondered what this unlikely friendship was built on. By the end I was sure. Beecroft doesn’t so much as teeter on navel gazing, as fall right off the cliff into an ocean of self-indulgence. And yet I can’t help but feel that in so doing, she emerges, intentionally or otherwise, as one of the most pop-savvy and contemporary artist of her generation. The key to Beecroft’s success lies in the total synchronicity between the revelations she has about her own personal experience and progress being made in society as a whole. If such a thing is possible, her work is accidentally feminist. It is also painfully conscious of the damaging legacy left by colonialism, about mental health and about consumerism. Her work is important as we continue to navigate our way through the quagmire of identity politics and what it means to be a human being in 2016.