Vanessa Beecroft

Three different groups of women—young, naked models; relatives of the artist and veterans of her past performances dressed in brightly colored tunics; upper-crust Turinese women dressed in tunics of a color between beige and tawny yellow—sat on glass chairs facing a glass table. Waiters entered and served foods of different colors in turn. The women ate slowly, with severe facial expressions and without speaking. This was VB52, 2003, Vanessa Beecroft’s latest performance, conceived for the Castello di Rivoli, whose retrospective of the artist’s work also included documentation of earlier performances projected on a giant screen and a series of photographs, including numerous Polaroids from the early ’90s.

The bourgeois ceremonies that Beecroft stages are becoming more complicated. For some years now, her actions have indeed been downright liturgical and thus quite different from her early work, where the only function of the girls in the performances was “to be” and “to be there.” In other words, even though the work does not seem to have changed much on the surface, conceptually practically everything is different. Yes, the action still entails exposing the body, but small variations, introduced little by little over the years, have changed the meaning of the action. Starting from an ingenuous and wide-eyed worldview, fortified by her own youth, to the appropriationist superstructures of recent years, filtered through stereotypes of glamour and fashion icons, Beecroft has intelligently pursued dual and apparently conflicting goals: to demonstrate the consistency of her intention and to constantly update the work. Certainly her success can be attributed in large part to her ability to carve out an expressive territory all her own, halfway between fashion and art, which has contributed to a “linguistic gender-bending” between these two disciplines that are only apparently similar.

But Beecroft has done more than this. Every step she has taken, through her progressively numbered performances, is like a chapter in a novel of initiation and development that sequentially tells the story of youthful anxiety, entrance into society, the acquisition of societal mechanisms of behavior, the exploitation of the latter, and finally the attainment of security, recognition, and acceptance by that same society. To accomplish this, Beecroft seems to have freely and knowingly chosen to become a sort of contemporary court artist, an organizer of glittering spectacles. Her undertaking calls for steely self-control, seen in the rules of etiquette that the artist imposes on performers and spectators alike. These rules have become more complex with each performance, since a court gala cannot tolerate pure repetition but at the same time must exist within a strictly regulated formal environment. Thus the silence, the seriousness, and the assumption of a role that, in Turin as elsewhere, the performers have accepted like a prize. Yet don’t we spectators—co-protagonists in the event—have somewhat the aspect (and perhaps the function) of sansculottes from the time of the French Revolution, eyeing the nobility at table? I remember thinking, to avoid that slight sense of boredom that was overtaking me, that I would have preferred to have seen the bourgeois Turinese ladies naked rather than the young models.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.