Less Is More


Left: Vanessa Beecroft. Right: VB55 participants.

VB55, at Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, was Vanessa Beecroft's biggest work to date: One hundred women, aged eighteen to sixty-five—coached by a psychologist, fed vegetarian snacks, and wearing nothing more than skin-toned pantyhose and a sheer coat of almond oil—standing around in Mies van der Rohe's spectacular glass box. Instead of her usual bevy of models, Beecroft cast ordinary-looking locals with red, blonde and black hair—the colors of the German flag and of her grandparents' and parents' hair. For at least one journalist at the press conference, Beecroft's combination of national and personal histories seemed to recall the Nazis' fusion of “blood and earth.” The artist denied any connection between her rules for the “girls” (“Do not speak,” “Do not laugh,” etc.) and the collective sadomasochism of fascism. “I'm from Italy!” she exclaimed, her eyes dilating several millimeters. “The Renaissance, the model, the nude . . .” The reporter was hardly convinced. “What about Italian fascism?” he asked. Ouch! Beecroft attributed any such overtones to her unconscious. Even if she counts Helmut Newton among her many muses, she seemed to replace his wicked humor with innocence, whether pure or calculated. Yet it’s humor that levels any fascistic references and distinguishes the “Big Nudes” of a Helmut Newton from the totalitarian beauties of a Leni Riefenstahl.

The dress, or undress, rehearsal later that evening—a formal, invitation-only affair for sponsors from the Friends of the Nationalgalerie and the academic association Wissenskünste—was also haunted by visions of history. Jeffrey Deitch, moving through the sparse crowd of tuxedos and gowns mingling around the nudes, recounted tales from the long career of VB: “Once we had to buy a woman out of her modeling contract and fly her in on business class!” Others in the Beecroft entourage—labeled like artworks with VB55 stickers—were impressed by the total obedience of the German women, in contrast to the Americans, Brazilians, and Italians Beecroft had previously employed. “These Berliners really excel at executing Vanessa's rules,” noted one cameraman as he zoomed in on the contrast between bare skin and black tie. Yet for some in this select crowd of wealthy—and older—Germans, the well-behaved rows of near-naked women recalled images recirculated on the recent sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “It's just too close to history,” whispered one guest over his champagne glass. “And I don’t mean Déjeuner sur l'herbe.” Benefactor Erich Marx, who houses his collection at Hamburger Bahnhof, looked equally uncomfortable. “The women are not at all aesthetic,” he said, shifting in his tux. “It's not what I expected, and it's unsettling.”

Unsettling or not, one hundred nude women standing around doing nothing could not help but draw a crowd. The next evening's sold-out public performance reproduced the long queues that were a familiar sight when the MoMA collection sojourned at the museum last year. In contrast to the relatively small group of rehearsal guests, this unruly throng dwarfed the performance. Standing in line—and getting crushed—was none other than Giorgio Agamben, a fresh addition to Berlin's Wissenschaftskolleg. When we finally pressed our noses against Mies's grand vitrine, Agamben could hardly hide his disappointment: “Pantyhose. . . ma no!” Speaking of the “vita nuda,” the Italian philosopher asked me a question that has preoccupied him for decades. “How do you imagine people in the perfect world: dressed or naked?” After much deliberation and many glances at VB55, I had to admit that there was no big difference between the two options. Nakedness is just another outfit. “For theologians, there was no nudity in paradise,” he explained. “Adam and Eve discovered their nudity only after the Fall, when they covered their genitals with fig leaves.” Fig leaves, pantyhose . . . What about that ad for Gucci—one of Beecroft's old sponsors—in which a prostrate boy peeks into a woman's panties, only to discover that her pubic hair has been shaved into the shape of Gucci's iconic G? Whatever our fidelities—to God or to the nation, to art or to the brand—our bodies have little left to expose, beyond their deterioration as the worn tools of power.