Bodies in Conflict: The Problematic Nature of Documentation in the Works of Vanessa Beecroft

VB35.377.MS From VB35, April 23, 1998, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

VB35.377.MS From VB35, April 23, 1998, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

Descriptions of Vanessa Beecroft’s installations of scantily clad, airbrushed women often claim that at its most basic level the work aims to address and challenge traditions of portraiture through a shift in media – from the female figure represented in paint on a two-dimensional surface to the female figure as represented by the orchestration of live models.  Often in contention, many question the role and/or manipulation of sexuality in the artist’s interaction with the women, as well as in the women’s interaction with the receiving audience.

According to Dave Hickey (who gives an account as one such audience member), when one receives the work live, interacting with these bodies in relation to one’s own body in both space and time, the question of sexuality need not be problematic to the work.  In his essay, “Vanessa Beecroft’s Painted Ladies,” (a title that itself seems to contradict the notion that sexuality is inconsequential), Hickey describes in particular the uncanny experience of the audience member who enters the exhibition space with certain expectations, only to find themselves somewhat disabled when the work does not perform in ways they had expected:

“Beecroft’s tableaux, as described and as documented, seem undeniable products of the photographic imagination, confections whipped up out of the iconography of fashion and desire.  In person and in situ, however, they are changed utterly.  They are at once less erotic and more flagrant, in the manner of Italian painting, which, rather than teasing us with fantasies of the flesh, teases our own shame about the fact of our bodies… Our anxiety, then, does not arise from the fact that naked women are near to us, but from the unabridged, yet ill-defined distance between ourselves and them.  It is not the anxiety of desire, but the anxiety of displacement.” (VB 08-36 7)

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the installations (most of with last from three to six hours), the experience above is often restricted in its availability, granted to those on what is often a short list of invitees, or, in the case of her Biennale work, to those able to travel in the name of art appreciation (and even then, the connoisseur might find his prey a difficult hunt).  What Hickey refers to above, then, her tableaux, “as described and documented,” is the way in which most experience the work and currently is the sole manner in which the work is collected.  And while the installations themselves may or may not invert the power of the gaze so that the sexual objectification of these women is stripped away, the documentation of the work most certainly does not.

The act of documentation falls on Beecroft herself, at times in collaboration with assistants.  The majority of this documentation involves still photography, though video has been employed in some recent work.  Often the documentation occurs during what amounts to a dress rehearsal, a performance that occurs before the ‘official’ installation; there is no outside audience present during this installation, leaving Beecroft free to document the women without interruption and without being actively cast in the ‘official’ work.  As such, the photographic documentation we see resulting from these dress rehearsals is in fact not documentation of the installation to which they are attributed, as the audience, critical to the function of the work, is absent.  Instead, Beecroft is the audience, and her gaze functions entirely differently from that of an audience plagued by, “the anxiety of displacement.”  Beecroft’s documentation does not dismantle traditional notions of the gaze and the female body, particularly in regards to sexual objectification, but instead quite exuberantly reinforces it.  Beecroft has, through her documentation, created a second body of work that acts to deflate its foil, that elusive work which Hickey describes above.

When asked of her relationship with the women she casts in her installations, Beecroft responds:

“When I direct the girls and give them the rules, it is as if I was the man.  I tell them to shut up, not to talk to me, to get naked, to get out there, to stand and wait, taking for granted that they understand what it is about.” (Vanessa Beecroft: Photographs, Films, Drawings 146)

In preparation for her work, Beecroft sets up a power relationship in which she casts the “girls” (as she calls them) as Other – mimicking the behavior Simone de Beauvior wrote of in The Second Sex – “She [woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential.  He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.”  And indeed if we look to early works of Beecroft’s we find the inclusion of diaries and wigs that make distinct reference to her of personal issues of identity.

The documentation we see of Beecroft’s installation is entirely involved with spectacle, and reproduces classic cinematic notions of the male gaze.  The photographs often fragment the female figure, one such example cropping the image such that we see only the legs, buttocks and lower back of a woman in the background, as the woman placed in the foreground is positioned such that she acts as blurred backdrop for her own legs and shoes,  propagation of sexuality and fashion as she looks away from the eye of the camera. (VB36.330.AL From VB36, May 16, 1998, Galerie fur Zeitgenossische Kunst Leipzig, Germany)

Equally problematic in the image described, as well as many others, is the perspective of the gaze we are presented with.  We are rarely given view from the vantage point of an audience member, but instead look through the eyes of one who inhabits a more powerful position, moving freely between the women, moving above and below and between them, viewing the bodies in space in ways denied both the woman (who are forbidden to make eye-contact with the audience, though in documentation we often see them making eye-contact with their documenter, a gesture that usurps any power these women are seemingly given by consciously enacting a shared awareness of the functionality of the gaze) and the audience itself who, if we are to trust Hickey’s description of the phenomenological nature of her work, has their position as authoritative viewer stolen from them.  Instead, our documenter acts as omnipotent commander, capturing intimate moments that occur during the performance, sexualizing and objectifying these women as she moves between them, “documenting” them.

In the end what we see is not documentation of the “official” installations (in the sense that it does not adequately reproduce them), but is instead photographic production on behalf of Beecroft, who has admittedly placed herself in the role of the authoritative male.  What are we to make, then, of Beecroft’s second body of work, the so-called documentation of the first, particularly when these images seem to function, bereft of their (claimed) Renaissance-esque context, as little more than pure fashion production?

Works Cited

Beecroft, Vanessa. Vanessa Beecroft: Photographs, Films, Drawings. Ed. Thomas Kellein. Germany: Hatje Cantze Publishers, 2004.

Beecroft, Vanessa. VB 08-36. Germany: Cantz Editions, 2000.

de Beauvior, Simone.   The Second Sex.  Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1952.