Vanessa Beecroft

This exhibition featured, but was not limited to, documentation of Vanessa Beecroft’s most recent performance in Italy, VB53, which took place in Florence in 2004. On that occasion the artist used the Tepidarium, an extraordinarily beautiful greenhouse from 1880 that stands in the Tuscan capital’s Giardino dell’Orticoltura. A large photo of the event takes in the entire scene from above: Twenty-one young women wearing only gray or black Helmut Lang shoes lie atop a large earthen mound at the center of the space. All are more or less young and more or less beautiful; some wear long wigs. One in particular, her skin black as ebony, with hair that reaches down to the ground, makes a memorable impression through the sheer force of her presence. Beecroft’s performances have become increasingly complex, richer in connotations, and more tied to their contexts. Dirtying the seated or stretched-out bodies, the Florentine earth lends new significance to those nude and silent presences. Indeed, in a documentary video of the performance (also titled VB53, though dated 2005), the action seems to consist in a gradual contamination, as if it were alluding to the gradual return of the body to the earth, or, in any case, the organic and base portion to which it is linked.

The photographs that Beecroft has made from this performance are revealing. Six images, smaller in size than customary in her work, depict dirty bodies sliding about in postures that are not in the least elegant (though perhaps all the more comfortable for that). As far from the erotic as they are from the sublime, they are nonetheless highly expressive, thanks in part to the dark, Caravaggesque background provided by the earth on which they are posed. These harsh, not very appealing images contrast with another series of photographs, enormous in size, exhibited at the gallery entrance—a new work, VB53: Giardino dei Boboli, Firenze, 2005, created with the Florentine performance as a point of departure but tied to it only thematically. These are eight full-length portraits of some of the young women from the performance, posed inside the stone niches of the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace, some with frizzy hair and slender, diaphanous bodies, others with blonde wigs in ringlets that recall Renaissance painting (the artist sees them as penitent Magdalenes). These idealized figures find their counterpoint in the young black woman with her enormous wig, an incongruous presence that serves to introduce an alienating element into this sort of Botticellian or Pre-Raphaelite gallery.

Thelma Golden recently wrote [Artforum, December 2004] of being disturbed by a Beecroft performance at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York that featured young black women, nude, with their legs shackled. Perhaps the problem is that Beecroft’s seething imagination has gradually expanded from the individual—for her everything begins with the idea of the self-portrait through a vicarious persona—to encompass the collective, and she now finds herself elaborating images that are deposited somewhere among the phantasms that nurture our dreams or nightmares. And she does so by playing on our collective experience of the female body, our culture’s most important social hieroglyph. Insistently and sometimes annoyingly, she provokes us to decode its connotations. For this, I believe, we should be grateful.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.