In my admittedly limited encounters with celebrities—which, in New York City, usually consist of passing them on the street or spotting them across the room—they’re almost always shorter in person than they appear on the big or small screens. Kanye West is no exception. He kept a fairly low profile at Vanessa Beecroft’s March 6 public performance, her first in New York in nearly nine years. Much of the rest of the crowd seemed to be just stopping by Deitch Project’s huge Long Island City exhibition space on their way from the Armory Show to dinner, which meant they probably didn’t have time for the extended viewing that her performances demand.
Beecroft’s work involves putting groups of naked women in mostly art-world venues, where they stand or recline for hours while they’re subjected to—and frequently return—the audience’s gaze. It’s not irrelevant to mention West and celebrities when discussing Beecroft’s art, which has long dealt with female body-image issues and their, quite literally, public exposure. At a certain point, Beecroft’s project lost some of its impact as it got mixed up with models (especially thin, pretty ones), fashion, and her own stardom, with articles about her life and work as likely to appear in Vogue as in Artforum.
VB64 has the feeling of a partial and necessary reset for Beecroft, even if all the familiar motifs are there: nude women placed in a gallery and subjected to visual scrutiny, with various objects—photographs, videos, and, in this instance, sculptures—spun off from the performance. But her latest project takes aim at the weighty themes of death and resurrection. Gone were the skinny white models with shaved pubes and the arranged cluster of Sudanese women she once splashed with red paint to evoke both Jackson Pollock and genocide in Darfur. Instead, VB64‘s performance component consisted of 22 female models—of various ethnicities and body types coated hair-to-toe in white powder—who began the evening lying on the gallery’s cement floor.
Nineteen white plaster casts of other models were interspersed among the live ones, along with 11 white rectangular boxes that might have been plinths or coffins (a few of the performers were positioned on them). Models, sculptures, and boxes were arrayed in roughly four or five long rows, providing viewers with strikingly different perspectives from the front, sides, and back. At first, it was difficult to discern whether the models and casts were intended to represent rising or fallen bodies—the taut energies of Renaissance sculpture came to mind, but so, too, did the ash-covered victims of Pompeii.
Despite all the nudity, Beecroft’s work has never been about sex. It does, however, flirt with the line between potential victim and self-possession. There were plenty of clues that the live and cast figures in VB64 were subtly ascending. The intriguing performance lasted three hours, during the course of which a number of the models slowly shifted and rose from their prone positions. None of the models seemed obliged to keep still, though a number did. Many of the sculptures’ heads hovered gently above the floor. In the adjoining exhibition space, six more supine sculptures cast in black wax rested on low tables.
Kanye West is helping to finance the video version of VB64, which will be projected for the remainder of the exhibition on the walls above the sculptures and the ghostly smudges of white powder that the models left on the floor. Beecroft’s work continues to turn other people’s bodies into a medium for her personal obsessions. At the same time, the performance’s movements and motifs of rising and shedding indicate that the next step for her art may involve some letting go.