Best known for her iconic performances featuring formations of subjects, mostly women, artist Vanessa Beecroft creates each work following a flat and frontal image that is sharp in her mind. Involved with bodily issues, gender and protest, and heavily inspired by a rich repertoire of painting, cinema and traditional iconography, she employs real-time action and geometric composition to visualize the image three-dimensionally—like an architecture or a monument.
Vanessa, when I started conceiving this survey on SUPERIMAGES, I immediately thought of your work. Performance is usually perceived as a spatially immersive, inherently time-based experience. In the performance works you’ve done since the early ‘90s, though, the action seems to collapse into a two-dimensional plane. So I always think of you less as a performance artist than an image-maker—one with an eye for the iconic. What is the relationship between performance and image in your work?
My performances were born as a consequence of live drawing. I began using them as a means of extending the life the model had to the work itself, although the action would tend to be psychological rather than physical. The performance was studied like a drawing or a painted portrait—the position in space, the single point of view, the palette, the choice of the subjects. Each performance was born from a flat and frontal image. The image could come from the immediate repertoire of painting, cinema or photography, but it was often biographical. The purpose of the performance was to visualize the image three-dimensionally.
The performative aspect always gave me anxiety—the fact that the “event” was current, ephemeral, realistic, naturalistic and contemporary stressed me and made me feel as if I’d failed as a painter. I never rehearse, so everything would happen empirically the day of the performance, directed by a very clear vision: an image like an oil painting, not still, slightly moved as if out of focus. These performances were like drawings, architectures and monuments to me.
Exactly. Existing at the threshold between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, your performances have a picture-ready frontality to them, while at the same time being carefully orchestrated actions happening in real time. This recalls the tradition of the tableau vivant on one hand, and the imagery of the catwalk show on the other. How do you feel about this kind of comparisons? Do you see your work as somehow part of a journey from one point to the other?
I don’t know anything about catwalks. I have been to Helmut Lang in 1997 and Margiela in 2000. The performances are set not as an event, but as a picture. The women are disposed on the floor, on an architectural drawing plan, and they are told certain rules. The fact that they follow the rules determines the aesthetics. Even when the women fall or melt down on the ground, they are not choreographed. They are models, like the live drawing model assuming another pose during a long session.
I never explicitly related to the fashion world because I consider it too mundane. I aspire to a sacrality that only art, real life and religion have. My work created a way of visually organizing subjects, mostly women, in a formation with a certain color uniformity, and fashion picked up on it and assimilated it. The fashion world imitated the art world and vice-versa.
Speaking of the influence of your work in the creative industries—you have an ongoing collaboration with Kanye West, one of the greatest pop icons of our time. In videos, concerts and fashion shows, he’s been “appropriating” your aesthetic, translating it into the mainstream. I think it’s a very strong and bold move from each of you, and I would be very curious to hear your insights into this super-collaboration.
I allowed this to happen because working with him is, to me, like having an African-American male alter ego. I respect Kanye because, despite his success, he is a romantic figure. He will never achieve what he wants to do, because his stakes are constantly getting higher and his goals more complicated. I am happy to assist him in part of this journey, which I consider a socio-aesthetic operation, and my husband Federico Spadoni helps me with it. Kanye says I am his eyes. I am always flattered by his compliments, but they’re not proportionate to what I do for him, because he knows what he wants to do. He doesn’t really need help.
As your works tend to be staged only once, each performance is actually experienced by a limited audience, living on only through photographic documentation. In addition to large-scale digital prints reproducing details of your performances, which are presented as autonomous works, you also shoot preparatory Polaroids. What can you tell us about this part of the process?
The Polaroids were not preparatory; they served only as a documentation of the performance. When Polaroids became extinct, I used 35mm and digital cameras instead, but Polaroid was always my favorite format, since it was possible to see it right away and was like an object, a unique item. I shot Polaroids that were close-ups of the models’ faces to portray each of them, and sometimes I shot Polaroids of the group. I never sold them, though. I still have them all.
A more subtle aspect of your practice that has always intrigued me is how you’ve titled your performance works with a filing code system composed by your initials and a progressive number—from vb01 back in 1993, and so on. Considered alongside your serial collaboration with Dutch graphic design studio Experimental Jetset for many of your books and communication materials, this seems to call into question a certain idea of self-branding and visual identity…
I started calling myself “VB” after my visit to the US in 1997. Hamza Walker, the curator at the Renaissance Society of Chicago, decided to call me “Vee Bee.” The following year, when I started working with the US Navy for the performance at the MOCA in San Diego, I was officially called “VB” by the military. Since I consider my work one single piece, I decided for practical reasons to title the performances in chronological order, as a way to remember them.
I met Experimental Jetset much later, through my friend Miltos Manetas, who was a great early supporter of theirs. We worked together on a draft for the Book of Food that I could never print, like many other books I can never print. We’ve since done a few other projects together and share a mutual respect.
What are and have been your visual references and inspirations, from painting to photography to movies? Do you feel your work is a part or reflection of a certain imagery? If so, how would you define it?
I’ve repeatedly said that my inspirations are Raphael, Piero Della Francesca, Francesco Laurana, Antonello da Messina, Antonioni, Rossellini, Pasolini, Fellini, Bergman, Bunuel, Fassbinder, Von Trotta, Herzog, Godard, Truffaut, Helmut Newton, Bourdin, Antonio Gramsci… But really I should just say that my mother was always the source of my inspiration, my domestic Waldorf system.
Those references were indeed there, along with many others, but they were there as a background for a life inspired by what my mother had spontaneously decided for us early on. It was a life without contact with mass culture, with no TV, no meat, no men (in the house), no church, no car, no phone.
When we left London in 1971, my mother, my newborn brother and I moved to the Alps on Garda Lake, Italy. We lived there for 11 years in a state that was in-between primitive and highly cultural. Mountains, lakes, religious iconography and auteur film, Italian dialect and visits to museums in Venice or other cities—these all became part of my personal imagery. Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is a very early childhood memory, as is the Babylon doors and Pergamon Altar, seen while visiting my great aunt in East Berlin. Then there was Mantua, Florence, Genoa, Sicily, the museums and especially the paintings in Italian churches. Pictures of women partially veiled, partially nude, hiding babies or symbols of martyrdom. An image of Santa Lucia holding her eyes on a small plate, studied during the walk back from school in a small temple. Later, when we moved near Genoa, the landscape changed. I officially began studying art, then moved to Milan and became close to Conceptualism—cold art, art that had frozen and didn’t like colors or paintings. I became closer to Marx, Engels, the social movements and theories of modernism, Manzoni, Fontana, Brecht, Opera and theatre, classical music. Then I moved to New York and took distance from all of that. I learned about contemporary art from the artist Miltos Manetas during our travels to Greece.
What makes your work unique is that you’ve established a canon with your performances, a recognizable aesthetic that has often been quoted, borrowed and adopted. That’s precisely what happens when making images: you end up creating powerful icons that strike the collective imagery and keep on living in the mind of the audience. I’m sure it’s something you’ve realized and reflected upon. What have you concluded?
This aspect is almost like an illness, a limitation. Since I was a child, I visualized the world in fields of colors and mentally organized it, edited it down. I couldn’t tolerate certain things—a blue Bic pen, or a book cover of a certain publisher—and had to eliminate them from my surroundings. I created my performances in light of this visual deficiency. I see them before they happen, in that order and stillness. I don’t sketch them, and I don’t need to rehearse them. They’re already made—I just follow the very sharp image that is in my mind.
For the magazine cover, we chose a Polaroid from the performance VB42 Intrepid: The Silent Service, one of your rare works involving male subjects that features thirty-five sailors standing in ceremonial formation. Staged in New York on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid, this work speaks to the role of hierarchy and power structures in your practice.
At one point, I decided to see what would happen if I asked the Navy to be part of a performance. After an entire year of bureaucratic work, physical training and several visits to the military base, the admiral signed off on the Navy taking part in my performance like it was an official military operation. I intended this work as a portrait of young men, representing a force I didn’t really believe existed anymore.
I am also thinking about the concept of abstraction. Many of your performances are constructed around a geometric composition, albeit occasionally “broken,” and seem to convey a fascination with the monochrome, in that they seek a certain consistency of skin tone, hair color and so on. Can you elaborate on how these ideas inform your creative process, if at all?
Returning from Africa on the plane two weeks ago, I was reading this sentence from Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa: “And I realized how keenly the human mind yearns for geometrical figures.” I immediately felt connected to it, and underlined it out of context. Even if the human figure, and specifically the female figure, has been the topic of my work or the subject of my drawings from an early age, I always legitimated its existence when related to a geometrical macrocosm that would contain it, or to a floor plan in which the figure would be situated, or if the figure itself was sectioned geometrically. Perhaps this is the struggle between order and chaos, where chaos is nature as represented by the figure.
As Cesare Pavese said, “I cannot talk of the silent red lunar rocks, because they have nothing that is mine.” Tout court abstraction, though at times beautiful, was always too far from me, so involved with bodily issues, gender, revenge, drama, protest and traditional iconography from the Renaissance, the Nouvelle Vague and Vogue. I always wished I could find that connection to abstraction. I’ve tried to inform my formations of women with geometry, the monochrome and rules, while at the same time trying to break all the above and return to chaos. I feel like I still haven’t been able to achieve any of these goals.
Vanessa Beecroft (Italian, b. 1969) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. She is represented by Lia Rumma, Milan/Naples. She is currently working on an upcoming major monograph to be published by Rizzoli, New York, and collaborating with Kanye West for his Yeezy Season 3 collection.
Alessio Ascari is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of KALEIDOSCOPE.
Images: VB35, 1998; VB52, 2003; VB43, 2000; Kanye West, Yeezy Season 2, Vanessa Beecroft performance, 2015; VB48, 2001; VB39, 1999; VB50, 2002; VB46, 2001; VBB55, 2005; VB65, 2009; VB70, 2011; VB73, 2014
All images courtesy of the artist and Galleria Lia Rumma, Milan/Naples.
Yeezy Season 2 photo credit: Jackie Nickerson. Courtesy of Jackie Nickerson and Kanye West.
Portrait photo credit: Federico Spadoni. Dress: Valentino.