“Do not talk, do not interact with the others, do not whisper, do not laugh, do not move theatrically, do not move too quickly, do not move too slowly, be simple, be natural, be detached, be classic, be unapproachable, be tall, be strong, do not be sexy, do not be rigid, do not be casual, assume the state of mind you prefer (calm strong, neutral, indifferent, proud, polite, superior), behave as if you were dressed, behave as if no one were in the room, you are like an image,” the artist Vanessa Beecroft instructs the female participants in the performances she creates to explore images of femininity and the female image.
Beecroft’s early performances feature young women, either acquaintances or women recruited off the street, who, appearing together, made—as in all Beecroft’s work—a strong visual and formal impact. The artist selected their clothing, either in a broad chromatic range, or in a single color, favoring red, yellow, pink, white, or black. The performers were chosen on the basis of their similarity to precise female types; initially they explored eating and other behavioral disorders, themes the artist also investigated through drawings. The works include numerous references to art history, particularly painting, as well as to film, from which Beecroft quotes her favorite actresses. The performances slowly evolved to incorporate professional models and Beecroft’s relatives, along with the contribution of makeup artists and hairstylists. In addition, the choice of clothing and accessories become more defined, often created specifically by fashion designers. In some cases, the models’ unclothed bodies are covered with special cosmetics that enhance the pictorial effect. In order to emphasize the fact that the performances compose a single body of work, the artist assigns them progressive numbers. Beecroft also uses photography, as well as occasionally video and film, to create additional independent works, extending the life of her performances. In realizing these works, the artist enlists the assistance of professional photographers, art directors, and cameramen.
Beecroft, who moved to New York in 1997, has often said that the United States presents an ideal context for her work, allowing it to have far-ranging social impact. Among her performances created in the United States are VB39, 1999, and VB42, 2000, which focus on the complex relationship between the artist and her adopted country. Featuring soldiers and officers from the special forces of the U.S. Navy (SEALs) and the Marine Corps, these are Beecroft’s only performances to date that have utilized male figures. In both cases the artist pursued a long bureaucratic path, finally obtaining the required authorizations to create the works as she had initially conceived them. Made to resemble a freestanding wall, the version of VB39/42, 2003, was made by the artist specifically for the Castello collection. Juxtaposing in one work a photograph of each one of the two eponymous performances and imposing its presence in the gallery space, it becomes an open commentary on the rhetoric of power as exemplified by the military.
Beecroft’s performances are conceived in close relationship with the location in which they are presented. For VB47, 2001, shown in the galleries of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the artist was inspired by the works of Giorgio de Chirico and asked a British fashion designer to design a special headgear for the models. The related video presents the models like metaphysical mannequins in the galleries of the museum.
A different scenario led the artist to conceive VB48, 2001. Created in Genoa just before the G8 Summit in July 2001, the performance took place in the same building where the G8 participants would later meet. The protagonists are thirty black female models wearing high heels, bikinis, and thick, curly wigs. The video underscores the performance’s exploration of the contrast between light and shade, which was inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio.
On the occasion of her retrospective exhibition at the Castello di Rivoli, Beecroft created the performance VB52, structured as a banquet for thirty guests. The video of the performance shows the meal, comprised of foods selected according to color and served in a sequence of monochromatic arrangements. The images also linger on the behaviour of the guests, examining the close relationship with food that characterizes the artist’s early work. A soundtrack includes passages of classical music. The photograph VB52 02 NT, 2003–4, is related to the red courses of the meal and offers a viewpoint set from above, which could not have been perceived by the public present on the evening of the opening. Alluding to the human life cycle, the arrangement of the banqueters features some young nude models in the foreground, followed by participants from previous performances, including the artist’s sister and mother, and ending with a group of aristocratic Turinese women, wearing specially made gray wigs.