PRINT May 1995


In her first exhibition, at a gallery in Milan two years ago, Vanessa Beecroft showed a group of drawings and a diary she had been keeping for over eight years. The diary contained obsessively detailed daily records of Beecroft’s eating habits, accompanied by notes about, among other things, guilt feelings, psychiatric visits, comments on her parents, and quotations from Karl Marx. Immediate and intimate, the drawings served as private therapeutic responses to her diary-keeping and were originally never meant to be seen publicly. When Beecroft finally did decide to present these traces of her struggle with anorexia, she selected the audience, which was made up of women she had seen on the street; her only criteria were that they resemble her physically and have a “knowing, understanding” demeanor. In the gallery, Beecroft “corrected” these women’s appearance by giving them special clothes to wear to make them more visually homogeneous, then asked them to respond with minimal movement and little noise for an indeterminate period of time to her works of self-disclosure. The result suggested something between Theater of the Absurd and ’70s women’s performance art, powerful female presence being tempered by an unfulfilled promise of action.

This type of orchestrated nonevent—Beecroft doppelgängers placed in a given situation with imposed limitations—has become the model for this artist’s work. Her performances, in which she herself never appears, combine an open, improvisational style with a more structured formal vocabulary derived largely from the cinema. Framing, costuming, directing, and drawing attention to film’s easy ability to translate reality into artifice, Beecroft takes cues from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, and Roberto Rossellini, exemplars in the manipulation of cinematic conventions who blur fact and fiction to create something eerily familiar, even archetypal.

For Ein Blonder Traum (A blond dream), presented last year in Cologne, Beecroft dressed 30 women in underclothes, pullover sweaters, and blond wigs, and directed them to “be Edmund,” the young protagonist in Rossellini’s post–World War II oedipal drama Germany Year Zero. Her players were separated from the audience by a wall into which a large rectangular opening had been cut—her scene’s frame. This setup allowed Beecroft to project her own identification with Edmund, her emblem of physical and moral weakness, onto her stand-ins, who in turn infused this identification with their own memories and knowledge. Without beginning, end, or narrative, the performance was pure spectacle, the actors standing only as signs of a symbolic and personal significance once (or more than once) removed.

Presented in Geneva, Beecroft’s most recent performance, Play, was more literally theatrical, appropriating its title and staging from Samuel Beckett’s comedy of 1963. Beecroft replaced Beckett’s two women and one man with three of her doubles, two of whom were seated, wearing matching brown wigs and overcoats and with bare feet and legs, while a third, in platform shoes, “sensible” underwear, and a red wig, stood behind them. As in her earlier pieces, there was little action and total silence; the seated actors remained seated, while the standing figure periodically moved around to observe them. Existential hopelessness was grafted onto an evocation of certain historical and religious paintings in which a deceptively simple composition is filled with symbolic meaning. The viewers of Play, like those of the paintings, were expected to be fluent in common cultural codes and able to grasp the symbolic value of Beecroft’s iconography, in which red hair alludes to the revolutionary martyr Rosa Luxemburg and bare legs and feet recall a pietà.

In addition to her performances, Beecroft continues to make drawings in quick, periodic bursts—small pencil sketches on paper, sometimes bound in books, and larger individual works drawn in a childlike scrawl on canvas or directly onto a wall. These drawings always show a prepubescent female, often fragmented, filled in with garish colors, or covered with black markings. She may also have a wide-eyed innocent face lost in masses of brightly colored hair; a contorted body; hands clutching at her throat; a mouth spewing black liquid; or arms gesturing defensively. These works’ emotional intensity recalls the distorted fin-de-siècle figurations of Egon Schiele and the early works of Nancy Spero, particularly her “nightmare figures” from the early ’60s, in which human heads vomit, spit poison, or stick out their tongues.

Beecroft delves into culture’s maelstrom, searching for female types found throughout the history of art, cinema, and the theater, and whose characteristics she has largely assimilated. Directing and changing the bodies of others, she tries to reconcile the representation of ideal womanhood with the physical and psychological experience of her own body. Beecroft exploits the processes of perception and identification, often dissolving genders and mixing genres, in order to pinpoint the conflict between image and self-image in a way both provocative and healing.