why vanessa beecroft is more controversial than kanye
Ahead of the iconoclastic rapper’s third runway season, we look back at his longtime artistic collaborator’s most outlandish performance pieces.
photography kate owen
It's no secret that over the course of his career as rap's reigning king, Kanye West has ruffled a few feathers. In 2006, he posed as Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone. A few years later, something happened involving Taylor Swift that I can't quite recall. Just two days ago, he sparked Twitter outrage with only three words (and a lot of punctuation): "BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!"
And yet, there is a Yeezy Season Three collaborator whose creative vision rivals, maybe even surpasses, West's own capacity to generate conversation and controversy: Vanessa Beecroft. Since making her 1993 debut at Milan's Inga-Pin gallery, the Italian conceptual artist has staged powerful and provocative performance installations that often involve partially or fully naked women positioned statically for hours. When Beecroft's models are clothed, they're dressed impeccably; Helmut Lang is a favorite, as are Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford, and Dolce & Gabbana, exchanges often brokered by her longtime friend and mentor, Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani. While Beecroft's wardrobe has often won her acclaim among the fashion pack, her living sculptural installations -- which typically consider the specific historical or sociopolitical contexts of the locations in which they're staged, and often ask questions about gendered identity formation -- have proven some of contemporary art's most divisive.
Beecroft first began working with West in 2008, when he asked her to collaborate on a launch party performance for his emotional album 808s & Heartbreak. Beecroft's models, according to the LA Times, were "some three dozen white and African American Valkyries naked but for the stiletto heels atop which they teetered; some in kinky afro face masks and others completely unadorned." Some years later, Beecroft played art director for West's 35-minute film Runaway. In 2013, she choreographed the sheer spandex dancers flanking a Margiela-masked West on the Yeezus tour; later that year, the pair staged a collaborative performance at Art Basel 2013 that featured nude women covered in clay. Beecroft also exhibited works at West's wedding, aww.
None of this sounds all that controversial. In fact, West has insisted his work with Beecroft is chiefly aesthetic. When asked about Yeezy Season 2's performance politics, the rapper insisted: "It had nothing to do with race. It was only colors of human beings and the way these palettes of people work together and really just stressing the importance of color, the importance of that to our sanity, these Zen, monochrome palettes." But Beecroft creates with bodies; human beings are her medium -- just as they were for Michelangelo and Helmut Newton, two of her chief influences. Though her stagings are beautiful, they are couched in the complicated questions of what being a human means today.
Though Beecroft doesn't physically perform in her own pieces -- many critics have called out her unwillingness to appear nude and accused the artist of performer maltreatment -- she is very much present in them. Her aforementioned 1993 debut was a living sculptural adaptation of The Book of Food, the exhaustive record Beecroft -- who has struggled with eating disorders since the age of 12 -- kept of every item of food she ate for 10 years. "30 girls, consisting of fellow Brera students or girls found on the streets of Milan, [were] instructed to move around the space, aloof, numb, dressed in Beecroft's own clothes -- mostly red or yellow (two of Beecroft's favorite colors). Many of the girls, chosen for their uncanny resemblance to Beecroft, were themselves struggling with eating disorders," Nick Johnstone reported in a revealing 2005 profile of the artist for The Guardian.
As her notoriety has grown in both fashion and art, Beecroft's pieces have become increasingly complex and ambitious. According to Johnstone's profile, Beecroft herself considers them self-portraits. "She assigns the girls -- who vary in look from heavy to plain to model-beautiful to tattooed to pierced to unhealthily thin -- her shame, her self-disgust, her anxieties. She turns the girls, some of whom have been diagnosed with eating disorders, into a reflection of her own ugly emotional panorama."
For over 20 years, the art world has had a difficult task of what to make of this emotional panorama. Some argue the performers -- in their strict code of stoicism and army-like anonymity -- reject the male gaze, and in doing so, recontextualize female sexuality as strong and empowering. Others reject that notion entirely and deride Beecroft's work as product of an over-exposed celebrity-obsessed era. One famous New York Times review dubbed it ''Hooters for intellectuals.'' "There's an ambivalence in her work that is present in the work of many of her contemporaries, which is the result of a culture that has both internalized feminist goals more than any generation that preceded it, and chafes against what it perceives as feminism's restraints," said Kansas City Art Institute historian Maria Elena Buszek.
Beecroft's relationship to the body -- what she makes of flesh, fashion, and female identity formation -- has manifested in vastly different ways over her 76 pieces. But perhaps no single work has proven more controversial than VB61: Still Death Darfur Still Deaf, a three-hour performance staged at the 2007 Venice Biennale in which 30 Sudanese women lay face-down on a large white canvas. Beecroft covered their motionless bodies -- placed on top of each other and darkened by makeup -- with wide strokes of red paint, an obvious statement about the genocide unfolding in Darfur. The making of the piece was detailed in Pietra Brettkelly's documentary on Beecroft, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, which premiered at Sundance in 2008.
The documentary details Beecroft's journey to Africa, in which she spends 16 months attempting to adopt two Sudanese orphans and use them as subjects in her work, a photographic meditation on the Madonna and Child. "Beecroft says her adoption will be 'not just fetishization of the blacks. It will be a beginning of a relationship with that country,'" Vulture wrote in its condemning review. "The film documents the significant gap between Beecroft's theory and her actions." In what the blog called the documentary's most disturbing scene, "sisters from the orphanage try to stop her from stripping the children nude inside their abbey for an elaborate photo shoot. Beecroft refuses, complains, starts shooting again, and eventually loses a physical confrontation with one of the sisters, who takes the children away from her, furious that Beecroft is stripping children naked inside a church. 'Christ, these people,' Beecroft moans, as she barricades herself inside, pushing a pew up against the door to keep the sisters out of their own abbey."
The film, predictably, generated a maelstrom of questions from some, outrage from others; Beecroft stood accused of at best classicism, at worst out and out colonialism. Was she truly attempting to liberate these children from malnourishment and poverty, exploiting them for artistic gain, or caught up somewhere in questions of celebrity that cloud each intention? In a recent It's Nice That interview with Nathalie Olah, the artist "maintains that she should not avoid discussing issues affecting African American or African people just on account of 'being a white woman.'"
If you think about it, West and Beecroft do make an apt pairing. Not simply for their strong and singular artistic contributions, or their mutual ability to simultaneously delight and divide cultural critics. It's what they stand to learn from each other's bold work that makes their partnership so exciting.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Kate Owen