Dead or Alive

New York

Left: Artist Vanessa Beecroft with Kanye West. Right: Artist John Bock. (Except where noted, all photos: Ryan McNamara)

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, I saw Vanessa Beecroft’s installation at Jeffrey Deitch’s newish “cathedral-like” Long Island City outpost, then John Bock’s performance at the pop-up Bar2000 (following the opening of “Berlin2000” at PaceWildenstein). While both events featured white clown makeup, they were otherwise yin and yang: one female artist, one male; one way east in LIC, the other in the West Village in what appeared to be Saatchi & Saatchi’s lobby. One foregrounded passivity (twenty live nude girls displayed like undead statuary “inspired by Sicilian funerary sculpture of the Renaissance”), while across town, Bock cavorted “actively” in macho-toddler mode—flinging wurst à la Paul McCarthy, splattering beer on makeshift rigs and pulleys, raving in English and German, hoisting himself into a big brown turdlike getup, rushing the crowd. For an encore, the artist shoved his head into a giant lens that magnified his face like a giant guppy and crooned “Mackie Messer” to his rowdy well-wishers. (It would have been genius if he had got stuck, like the I Love Lucy episode with the loving cup.)

Earlier at Deitch’s, near the glittering NYC skyline, the Armory crowd hovered around the perimeter of the Beecroft piece, mesmerized by the naked gals in white body paint, “indistinguishable,” said the press release, “from gesso sculptures cast from live models, resting on coffin-like bases.” Like black crows, the art fans massed around the installation, staring in rapt contemplation of the naked posers, the classical art references, the inexorability of death, and the fact that we were stuck out in LIC and there were no refreshments (except for Poland Spring water). I checked out the crowd checking out the bodies, live and plaster, in this fiesta of objectification. Indeed, we were all part of the piece: gawkers and gawkees. A notice informed us that upon entering the gallery, we consented to be filmed. I commenced to eavesdrop on two young, artist-looking guys nearby: one cute, one weird in a plaid beret and cadmium-red cords:

“What do you think this is about?” teased the dandy, faux-seriously.

“What do you?” shot back the cutie.

“I asked you first! What do you think this is about?”

“What’s the big deal? Maybe it’s about nothing?”

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch and Amber Rose. (Photo: Ryan McNamara) Right: Installation view of VB 64 at Deitch Projects, Long Island City. (Photo ©2009 Vanessa Beecroft)

“Well cast,” offered somebody else, admiring the high production values of the cast bodies—or the live-real-people-type mannequins, it wasn’t clear. Effectively aestheticized, abstracted by the gessolike spackle, the women were literally ornamental figures, their breath unobtrusive, their movements very, very slow. They eerily aped their plaster sisters (whose hollowed-out heads were a nice touch). (“It would be funny if someone who couldn’t see very well, like my grandma, came here and couldn’t tell the difference!” I heard behind me.) I got the classic vibe of docile women playing dead; compliant “nice” girls who are seen and not heard (“Which one should we take home?” quipped a collector type); paid models at their gig. As an “enactment” of traditional decorative figurative art, this felt like one step up from an editorial photo shoot, slightly more self-conscious about the “objectification-of-women” factor since we were gaping at live models rather than depictions.

“The thing about editorial photo shoots,” mused a pal later, “however high the production values, is they put enough references together and hope it insinuates enough to ‘mean’ something . . .” Something like that.

“The filming of VB64 is produced by Kanye West,” said the ad. The rapper (who’d flown in from Paris Fashion Week just for the event, I was told, then flew right back) and Beecroft, in a white duster coat, black leggings, and bronze pumps, posed for photos in the back of the gallery, near an orderly row of black plaster bodies on a table.

Left: Fab 5 Freddy and Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen. Right: John Bock and designer Tara Subkoff.

In contrast, Bock was going nuts at Bar2000. The Aryan art clown pushed through the delighted crowd as busily and messily as a toddler in garish makeup, hot-pink leggings under baggy red shorts, a ridiculous fancy blue sweater, and stuffed fabric “tails” that dangled from his rear. Hurtling between several platforms, he manipulated contraptions that didn’t quite work (one slapping wurst at an affable gallerist’s forehead from a pulley system attached to his belt), made nonsense demonstrations (“This diagram means nothing”), guzzled Pepto-Bismol mixed with ale, gobbled a dripping wet wiener, lunged at the ladies, and vogued like “Klaus Kinski” and “Winona Ryder” to appreciative hoots from his supporters. (“Too much!” a cougarish woman egged him on, sipping her cocktail and getting loud, as if she were about to have a performance-art orgasm.)

I pondered the mystique of the macho-toddler thing with the Aryan guys, the mythic “idiocy” of Kippenberger, Nitsch’s self-harming antics. The “acting out” gets mythologized, and then the artifacts become Art relics. This Jew admittedly found it disconcerting when the artist bellowed in German as he ran amok. A perky, blond, Jennifer Aniston–coiffed publicist who couldn’t be more incongruous locked my gaze with terrierlike enthusiasm: “It’s a totally new piece, very interactive.”

Left: Art Basel codirector Marc Spiegler with PaceWildenstein director and “Berlin2000” curator Birte Kleemann. Right: Eigen + Art's Gerd Harry Lybke with IBID Projects's Vita Zaman.

Left: Artists Anselm Reyle and John Bock. Right: Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal, dealer Anton Kern, John Bock, and Art Production Fund's Casey Fremont.

Left: Artist Angelo Plessas and architect Andreas Angelidakis. Right: Curator Marina Fokidis.

Left: Artists Matt Moravec and Kyle Thurman. Right: John Bock.

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