Los Angeles

Vanessa Beecroft

I'D LIKE TO CALL Vanessa Beecroft the Leni Riefenstahl of performance art, but that wouldn't be fair. Her fascism's fake: No menace or power or insanity, beyond capital, underwrites her project. (She described VB45, her February performance at the Kunsthalle Wien, in which forty-five women stood around wearing nothing but thigh-high black boots by Helmut Lang, as “Nazi-looking.”)

So, VB46, Beecroft's Los Angeles debut a week before the Oscars: In an evenly dispersed cluster, twenty silent women idled, all with depilated crotches, calcimined skin (blanching any tattoos), blonde wigs, dyed blonde eyebrows, shiny pale lipstick, and the latest silver-capped white Alessandro Dell'Acqua stilettos. I write “all,” almost forgetting the high drama of one Asian woman, shod in the same heels but in lavender, with a matching shade of lipstick, and one long-haired redhead, whose pudenda was waxed to a perfect downy red strip. The latter's dreary task was to walk around and around the other women for the entire three hours of the performance.

Beecroft's doing nothing disconcerting or important with the body and its politic, which may be why most viewers seem content to take her at her word and believe she's creating painterly “pictures” rather than look at what she does and question her entire project. Instead of throwing a klieg light on the tame vapidity of a VB performance by comparing it to the work of Carolee Schneemann or Hannah Wilke, Dave Hickey, who wrote Beecroft's monograph last year, argues that her importance resides in how her “tableaux deploy the rhetoric of painting in the space of live performance.” (Since Beecroft's not much more than the superego's version of id guerrilla nudist Spencer Tunick, I guess that means he's an important painter too.) Painting is invoked by Beecroft and her apologists to gussy up what is really lame performance, which succeeds because it's one night only, so most people never see it. They see the photographs that pay for it. How much riskier it would be if the documentation were in the form of actual paintings, since the photos do nothing more than replicate and peddle fashion's ever-ready mix of anomie, tepid s&m, and minimalist affect. Even Prada's spare beach ads out-Beecroft Beecroft.

The press mated for VB46 mentions no manicurists or hairdressers, no cobbler or talent agency. Her elision of (women's) labor is rarely commented on. When she employs men in her pieces they're not only clothed, they're in uniform. Beecroft is famously fascinated by “the mystery and opacity of women,” men being “too transparent and abstract,” but seems never to have wondered about the fact that power/authority seems to go primarily to those who have the freedom to be removed and absent. I'm not sure which would be more depressing—that she thinks hairless crotches somehow do not signify or, alternatively, that she thinks they somehow interrogate the modeling and culture industries' infantilization of women.

Beecroft's early-'90s performances and drawings had a raw awkwardness and used her own body fascism (eating disorders) to choreograph the confluence of vicious control and hungry stupor. The pigtail wigs, granny sweaters, and black knee-highs her subjects donned signified the shame that was her initial focus, lending her work energy and lending her power. All that remains now is a bad fashion show so stingy there isn't even any clothing. Helmut Newton's recent, ruthless portrait of a bikini-clad Beecroft provides a devastating, desublimating comparison: The photographer shows a body theatricalizing only its own failure, interrogating nothing.

Safely distancing rather than implicating the audience, Beecroft hasn't figured out that her refusal to rupture the by-now-hackneyed static poses of her models (by having one vomit or shit or break into operatic song) maintains the status quo. Miser, she makes nudity, one of the saving graces of life, tedious.

Bruce Hainley