Vanessa Beecroft is an Italian-born American performance artist, photographer, and painter best known for creating large-scale phalanx configurations of nude and semi-nude static models as ‘living paintings,’ whose importance resides in how her tableaux vivants deploy the rhetoric of painting in the space of live performance.
Beecroft’s work has been shown internationally since 1993, and has shaped performance art, the representation of the female body, and sociopolitical discussions of art. Her performances (sequentially titled VB, followed by the number) have been an ongoing practice for over twenty-five years. Each performance is made for a specific location and often references the political, historical, or social associations of the place where it is held. Beecroft’s work is deceptively simple in its execution, provoking questions around identity politics and voyeurism in the complex relationship between viewer, model and context.
Presented across some of the world’s preeminent museums and major contemporary events, Beecroft’s performances highlight the tensions between nakedness and clothing, constraint and freedom, the collective and the individual, and human strength and weakness, creating a body of work that is at once affirming, depressing, celebratory, condemnatory, faintly masochistic yet always, resolutely, autobiographical.
One of the first artists to collaborate with fashion brands, starting in the 1990s, Beecroft has also collaborated extensively with musician, producer and designer Kanye West since 2008. Now belonging to popular culture as well as the contemporary art canon, her work manifests a deep dialogue with the history of art and representations across the traditions of Europe and of many of the world’s cultures. She is also a keen practitioner of photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture, using each medium to present perspectives on the body, as she brings Renaissance influences together with modern representation. Her art is a passionate field of experimentation, rooted in history, unraveling according to its own rules, and expanding into the world where it takes on philosophical and political tones in order to question the significance of our existence as human beings.
On the opening day of Art Basel Miami, Kappa celebrated 50 years of its iconic logo with an impactful, interpretative performance curated by British author and art curator Neville Wakefield and led by Beecroft. Showcasing a diverse grouping of 100 street-cast models, the Basel presentation brought the streetwear brand to life across 50 entirely different couples.
Dressed in neutral tones, performers joined into positions resembling the iconic Kappa logo, a man and a woman sitting back to back, and then moved in choreographed harmony orchestrated by Beecroft. Inspired heavily by Zabriskie Point, a non-conformist work and cult film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, the celebratory exhibition boasted the brand’s spontaneity with rich motion and fluid movement.
The couples moved on their own information with their partner, and in unique, individual ways. The variations within each couple and throughout the larger performance became a reference to the logo’s spontaneous conception, and a way to broaden and complicate the logo’s gender interaction.
“The first thought is that Beecroft’s work, its use of real time, real space and real flesh, would have to be invented if it didn't already exist.”
“Crosshatching minimalism, performance art, film and fashion, Vanessa’s durational performances have always stood out as a form of live portraiture.”
Chosen by Anthony Vaccarello for their iconoclastic and contemporary visions, the different artists, photographers and filmmakers of the ‘Self’ project are invited to reinterpret the spirit of Saint Laurent with complete freedom.
For the second installment, ‘Self 02,’ Vaccarello invited Beecroft to reinterpret the spirit of Saint Laurent through a series of large-scale portraits presented at Museum Garage and Paradise Plaza in Miami’s Design District during Art Basel. Taken against the vivid backdrop of the Saint Laurent SS19 runway show held in Paris and during which the models walked over a thin layer of water illuminated by the Eiffel Tower, the models stand in formation. Clad in black bodysuits, they appear as a tableau vivant, standing parallel to the iconic Parisian monument.
“The melding of Saint Laurent’s legacy and Beecroft’s confrontational eye speaks to the project’s interest in the full spectrum of female identity.”
Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear brand, Skims, will provide the official underwear, loungewear and pajamas for female American athletes at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer. The promotion having been photographed by Vanessa Beecroft.
Along with inclusive messaging, Skims offers a wide range of sizes and skin-tone colors for its products, which Ms. Kardashian West has said is inspired from her own struggle of not being able to find a comfortable shapewear fit for her body in the past. In line with this messaging, Scout Bassett, a Paralympic sprinter and long jumper, is one of the female athletes featured in the promotional shoot. “The collaboration is representative of SKIMS’ sharp focus on fit and commitment to creating products for every body,” Skims said in its news release.
In VB Handmade, an interactive performance held at Milan’s PAC Museum, Beecroft interpreted the artistry and virtuosity of Tod’s Italian artisans, often the unsung protagonists behind the Made in Italy success story, acclaimed all over the world.
‘VB Handmade’ was the product of a creative partnership between Tod’s and the artist during Milan Fashion Week. The performance – a living picture starring Karlie Kloss and 12 other models perched on a giant table – was staged alongside the runway presentation at PAC Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan and involved Tod’s artisans crafting leather garments onto the models in real time, thus giving a first-hand view of their own artistic ‘fatto a mano’ practice.
“Beecroft occupies an uncanny, distinguished space both between and above the newly adjacent art and fashion universes.”
Since they began working together in 2008, first with the debut of Kanye West’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ album at the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles, then on his short film ‘Runaway,’ followed by a performance at Art Basel Miami Beach, Beecroft has become one of his closest creative collaborators. She has designed sets for the rapper’s tours, art directed his music videos, and even spearheaded the art direction of his wedding to Kim Kardashian, which featured Carrara marble statues.
Under the wing of Adidas, who offered him his own fashion label, West entered a new era of style. For Yeezy Seasons 1 and 2, Beecroft constructed minimalist and poignant living tableaus of 50 street-cast models of all shapes and sizes, dressed in a nude and khaki palette, tied together with military references.
The blockbuster performance Beecroft orchestrated at Madison Square Garden for Yeezy Season 3, which even had her name printed next to West’s on the physical MSG ticket, featured 400 street-cast models within a hulking structure draped in billowing fabric in the center of the Garden in a re-creation of a photograph taken of refugees escaping the genocide in Rwanda. For the event, 700 cinemas in 23 countries around the world streamed the collection over music platform Tidal in front of 20 million viewers, making it the most viewed performance art in the history of the world.
The pair collaborated yet again for Yeezy Season 4 on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island, which featured roughly 100 black models arranged in silent static rows, wearing skin-toned bra tops, leotards, and shorts and arranged in a formation within the center of the park, while others walked an elevated white triangular runway.
“Vanessa is very focused, she's like my eyes, she's a piece of my brain.”
“Vanessa Beecroft is a Yeezy collaborator whose creative vision rivals Kanye West's own capacity to generate conversation and controversy.”
As part of its ‘Genius’ project, which allows creative directors to helm their own individual collections or other special projects that explore the Italian brand, Moncler commissioned Beecroft to carry out an artistic performance for the opening of its pop-up store in Milan. Beecroft’s staging – a formation of models and ballet dancers wearing vintage Moncler jackets – intended to tap into the artist’s autobiographical memory of the brand, using the repurposed puffers to evoke a sense of nostalgia.
The installation exemplified Beecroft’s signature art form of ‘living images,’ with the sportswear jackets highlighting the athletic side of ballet as well as its visual beauty. The aesthetics of ballet may not seem particularly suited to Moncler’s performance-focused jackets, but for Beecroft, the dance integration was a natural fit not only due to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele’s proximity to Milan’s famed Teatro alla Scala (one of the world’s foremost sites for opera and ballet), but also her own personal connection to the art form.
“In Vanessa Beecroft‘s hands, the two iconic pieces of apparel come together to create something that’s part performance art and part fashion installation.”
“In today’s world I would rather recycle, use what we already have and repurpose it. So my immediate thought for Moncler was to use what was out there already.”
For the launch of its unisex ‘Rockstud Untitled’ capsule collection, inspired by the Japanese Wabi-sabi philosophy of imperfection and impermanence, Valentino collaborated with Beecroft to express the clothes’ perfect timelessness through one of her signature performances.
Beecroft assembled a cast of 25 men and women, including actress Emily Mortimer and her husband Alessandro Nivola, model Nicolas Malleville, as well as models scouted through a street casting, for a human formation staged at the New York Academy of Art. Images and video of Beecroft’s creation for the house were also shown in Valentino windows in Milan, London and New York.
“Asking Vanessa to interpret this idea of ours was almost automatic: no one better than her, with an extremely strong and contemporary approach is able to merge, through her art, the concepts of beauty, reality, perfection and uniqueness/diversity.”
“In Vanessa’s performance, different individuals, clothed in ‘uniform’ items, come together in a shared moment that is lived singularly portraying their personal beauty belief.”
Kanye West’s first opera, ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ at the Hollywood Bowl, starred Sheck Wes in the title role of the Old Testament Bible story about the king of Babylon. Beecroft directed the elaborately staged performance featuring a cast of hundreds – operatic singers, a choir in matching robes standing on an elevated horseshoe-shaped structure, and hordes of robed performers lining the aisles of the Hollywood Bowl.
West has previously said that he sees himself as a kind of Nebuchadnezzar for the 21st century. While the majority of the music from ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ was new and original, familiar music from West’s catalog was peppered into the operatic and choral performances featuring the Sunday Service collective, Peter Collins, and Infinity’s Song.
“‘Nebuchadnezzar’ brings together elements from different worlds, including opera, fine art, modern dance, and gospel music, to create an innovative performance structure.”
Kanye West’s second opera, ‘Mary,’ tells the story of the birth of Jesus through the eyes of West and his longtime collaborator Beecroft. The show boasts the Sunday Service choir performing alongside professional opera singers, and features a mix of West’s own music, religious and holiday favorites, gospel standards and traditional opera.
Performing from a floating barge on the Kay Biscayne waterfront at Art Basel Miami, the initial Mary outing was split into 12 scenes, with a glistening, silver-adorned cast – led by West himself – guiding the narrative. For the show’s second and third runs, West and company decided to take over New York City’s Lincoln Center, bringing ‘Mary’ to that space’s David Geffen Hall, and to Laskey Mesa in Calabasas, CA. Each cut from the setlist was given a special gospel rework for the show, allowing Kanye to present his own spin on the well-known Nativity tale.
“Leaning on talents of its stage design and breathtaking choreography, the production is a minimalist masterpiece.”
In VB53, at Pitti Immagine Uomo 66 in Florence’s Horticultural Garden, a group of 21 models of varying appearance and race were ‘planted’ in a mound of fertile dirt in the tepidarium in a performance that was inspired by the figure of the Magdalene, penitent and sinner at the same time, voluptuous and emaciated, two women in one. All were nude except for a single accessory: Helmut Lang shoes that wrapped around their ankles, separating their bare legs from the bare, rough earth. The group gradually decomposes, at which point the girls fall to the ground. The earth, dark and wet like that of cultivated fields, is a reference to land art.
“The performance juxtaposes the purity of the female body, its nudity, to the dirt, color, and substance of the earth.”
For the launch of its new Untitled unisex collection featuring distressed denim and ruthenium studs, Valentino partnered with Beecroft and choreographer Karole Armitage on a dance performance at Elysée Montmartre, Paris that highlighted the issue of gender equality.
The choice of a single textile, denim, itself tells a story as jeans can be considered one of the most accessible fashion items that both men and women, poor and wealthy, wear without exception. The incessant equal movements of the 12 female and 12 male dancers, with identical minimalist wardrobe and hairstyle, give way to arbitrary steps as the performance ends with the scene of a homogenous crowd, giving an impression of absolute equality.
“Her work is important as we continue to navigate our way through the quagmire of identity politics and what it means to be a human being.”
After photographing the promotional images for Kim Kardashian’s new shapewear line, SKIMS, Beecroft orchestrated a presentation celebrating the brand’s debut at Nordstrom in Manhattan with lines around the block of the 57th Street store.
Models of all sizes and skin tones wearing complementary shapewear garments entered the department store’s retail space via escalator, before posing with mannequins to the soundtrack of operatic piano. Kardashian, too, played a part in Beecroft’s semi-nude formation, declaring the opportunity a ‘dream come true.
“Whenever I paint, draw or make a sculpture I end up doing something related to the body. It is still the most important thing to me and I am always drawn to depictions of strong, female bodies like those of Michelangelo and Helmut Newton.”
The performance VB62 in the Church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in Palermo recalls the tradition of late baroque Sicilian sculpture, transforming the simple use of stucco into a refined and fashionable art form. In the apse of the church, Beecroft arranged a group of female nudes – women entirely covered in white body paint with their hair pinned up and painted – and plaster casts, in a radial formation. The nude models recalled the Renaissance notions of nobility, austerity and dignity. The plaster casts, which were polished smooth to give the effect of marble, allude to the long tradition of funerary sculptures.
During the performance the women, initially motionless, start to make slight movements in absolute silence, as if waking slowly from a deep sleep, or indeed, from the dead. They stay seated, motionless, or stand, moving through the space and redistributing themselves following the simple rules fixed by the artist in every performance. Their glance is lost and empty as if it belongs to another reality.
At the beginning of the performance the group is formal and homogeneous, but gradually the women deconstruct the composition. With their movements the body paint cracks and flakes, revealing their living flesh, and they become carnal and alive, while the sculptures remain rigid, cold and inanimate. VB62 raises questions about notions of the real and the unreal, maintaining an unbridgeable gap between the figures and the public.
“Vanessa Beecroft works in the gap between art and life. The work is neither performance nor documentary, but something in between.”
In ‘SHOW,’ a one-night-only live performance in collaboration with the Art Production Fund at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Beecroft assembled a living portrait of 15 models clothed in red monotone outfits and high-heeled rhinestone shoes designed by Tom Ford for Gucci. Five additional women appeared naked with a trace of beige foundation body makeup to create the image of ‘artificial’ nudity.
The performers, who matched the pale beige walls of the museum’s soaring spiral, like 20 Venuses in a conch shell by Botticelli, were resolute and self-contained, comfortable with their nakedness. SHOW allowed Beecroft to continue her exploration of woman as an icon, not only in art, but in contemporary culture’s portrayal of her.
“The aim of the piece is to create an image of liberty with no limits given in the representation of a group of women posed at attention.”
“SHOW was a circuit-jamming combination of fashion, theater and art.”
This is Dope
Lasting for six hours, VB60 took place on the main staircase of Shinsegae’s flagship location in Seoul, two days ahead of the department store’s reopening. VB60 was unlike many of Beecroft’s previous performances in that the models did not go naked but remained in leotards, as per limitations by a still largely Confucian, conservative Korean society. As time passed and the models started to collapse, Beecroft and her assistants recorded the procedure with photography and video cameras.
The performance in Seoul was accompanied by a retrospective of Beecroft’s work featuring some 40 photographs and videos at the Gana Art Center.
“What I see is what was carefully composed fall apart. I allow chaos to come. I'm interested in seeing what'll happen, and I never know.''
In the performance of VB67 at Studio Nicoli in Carrara, part of the 14th International Biennial of Sculpture, the bare skin of Beecroft’s models acted as a rival attraction to the cold beauty of the plaster and marble statues nearby. The artist has previously experimented with a mimetic relationship between statues and her performers, but for this Milan exhibition she introduced a variation, using marble of all possible types and in all stages of work.
Here, thematic forms seem to transmigrate from coarse stone to rough-hewn block, the sculpted figure, or the living body, all the while oscillating between cold and hot, hard and soft, natural and artificial, transitory and eternal. Just as the models seem like statues, but nearly imperceptible movements remind us of their instability and humanity, the marble sculptures obtained from plaster casts of female bodies reveal, in their form, the memory of true fragility.
With this exhibition Beecroft delved into her relationship with art history and theatrically orchestrated in the space a sampling of references deriving from the statuary tradition, both in her choice of supports and in her typologies, from the torso to the portrait, in the end communicating the ephemeral nature of humanity.
“The unnatural juxtaposition between the life and warmth of the models and the cold stillness of stone highlights the melancholy and fascination of sculpture.”
The performance VB70 at Lia Rumma Gallery in Milan featured ten nude models, body-statues with slow, fragmented movements, performed among marble bases, blocks of uncut stone and new sculptures depicting female bodies, creating a single, striking sculptural group. The relationship between the transitory nature of the performance – calibrated yet fleeting – and the polished stillness of the sculptures is the common thread that runs through Beecroft’s work.
There is a lurking temptation to strike a celebratory note or to create an atmosphere of rhetorical monumentality due to the preciousness of the materials chosen for the performance. However, this risk is shattered by the painful incompleteness of the fragments, the assembly of the various marble inserts that virtually become a collage, and by the way the sculptures are perched, elegantly yet precariously, on the columns.
“Beecroft conducts an acute investigation of the body, beauty and female identity.”
VB52 features 32 women seated at a table at Castello di Rivoli – noblewomen belonging to the Savoy dynasty, female members of the artist’s family, performers and models – who take part in a sumptuous banquet for seven hours running. With the customary detachment that is a distinguishing feature of the female figures chosen by the artist, the women’s gestures are slow as they stare into space and taste the food served to them distractedly.
The focus on details of color, one of the central aspects of Beecroft’s work, follows a pre-established code. The courses and the drinks appear upon the scene following a succession of monochromatic tones which range from white to red to green to orange to purple. The banquet also provides the artist with an opportunity to compare her work with the art of the past, transferring Renaissance and Baroque imagery into a contemporary setting.
“Beecroft is making contemporary versions of the complex figurative compositions that have challenged painters from the Renaissance onwards. She sets up a structure for the participants in her live events to create their own composition, presenting themselves according to their own internalized aesthetic system.”
Presented in collaboration with Kaldor Public Art Projects, the 40th in Beecroft’s series of works features nude and semi-nude women, preened and presented in formation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The performers were recruited from surf and lifeguard clubs as well as modeling agencies. Conforming to an ideal image of ‘Australian athleticism,’ the models selected were tall, broad-shouldered and of ‘Anglo-Saxon or Irish’ appearance and dressed in red Wolford stockings worn with flesh-toned bras and red Prada heels, while one of the models wore heels only, standing nude in the center of the group.
Beecroft positioned the 20 performers symmetrically along the marble squares on the MCA floor and provided a list of 54 numbered instructions, or ‘rules,’ for their deportment. Drawing from the iconography of fashion, film and painting, they became a collective portrait of idealized femininity and desire within a consumer culture.
“The purpose is to work on a specific subject and to create an image or a portrait that has the effect of a monument, even if it lasts briefly. The references are classical paintings and portraits, the girls are contemporary models. The practice is to stand, not talking, and to wait until it ends, being watched as a picture and photographed as though on a photo shoot.”
Following a strong impulse to visit South Sudan, Beecroft created a documentary video and six photographs that take as their subject the artist’s three trips to the Diocese of Rumbek, a Catholic mission there. In ‘White Madonna With Twins,’ Beecroft is portrayed as a white Madonna in a custom burned dress by Martin Margiela, with two small twins at her breast. The image draws on a repertoire of popular iconography and relates to the direct experience of Beecroft who, during her visits, spent most of her time in the local orphanage where she breastfed the black twins. In this work one can detect her unceasing efforts to achieve perfection in the photograph.
The image presents a contemporary version of what was, until the end of the past century, one of the most widely disseminated devotional subjects in Italy – the Madonna del Latte or the Madonna dell’Umiltà, a depiction of Mary, breast exposed, nursing the Christ child, her milk a symbol of fecundity and abundance. Beecroft’s photographs in VB South Sudan are based not only on the artifice of a tableau vivant, but also on the painful and inescapable situation of a devastated country.
“We find the aura of the icon – the beauty and fragility, and the suspension of time, characteristic of Beecroft’s other work.”
To celebrate the opening of Louis Vuitton’s store and exhibition space on the Champs Elysées after a high-profile 20-month renovation, Beecroft staged a monumental inaugural 3 hour performance in the building’s atrium, in which 30 naked models sat silently on shelves alongside classic Louis Vuitton handbags and luggage. She also showed ‘Alphabet Concept,’ a series of 13 color photographs that use women’s bodies to form the ubiquitous LV letters of the luxury brand’s logo.
“If one is present at a Vanessa Beecroft performance, they are not erotic. You feel the power of the women's presence. It is an intimidating image.”
In VB25, which was performed at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven during the opening of the group exhibition ‘ID,’ seven Dutch women selected from local art schools were dressed identically in wardrobe from an old underwear store in Milan and white sandals generously donated by Prada. Beecroft styled the models in wigs that reminded her of 15th century paintings and took inspiration from the light in Rembrandt’s portraiture.
The models were instructed not to communicate with each other or with the public, giving their presence a disorienting effect: at the same time, they were both present and absent. Their identical appearance strengthened the sense that they are not actually real people. Finally, the performers collapsed on the floor, taking no notice of the presence of the crowd, who walked around them, almost tripping over them.
“As a culture right now, we're a mass of contradictions and, like all great art, Vanessa Beecroft's performances beam that uncomfortable truth right back at us.”
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