Edward Lai Harner, Edward Harner
Andrea Harner
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March 23, 2005

Dare To Bare: Vanessa Beecroft

Her basketcase-ness is sad but intriguing...

Sunday March 13, 2005
The Observer

Shortly before taking the Long Island Rail Road out
to spend the day with Italian conceptual artist
Vanessa Beecroft, I eat a huge American-style
breakfast at the Empire Diner in Chelsea - two fried
eggs, potato chips, English muffin, two slices of
toast - and end up with stomach ache. This
over-fuelling stems from the knowledge that
Beecroft, now 35, has struggled to control an
obsession with food since the age of 12. Bearing
this in mind, it's unlikely she'll be offering me
anything to eat. My hunch proves correct. When I
arrive at the scenic, coastal home that Beecroft
shares with her husband Greg Durkin, 28, a social
researcher, and their two sons (Dean, three, and
Virgil, seven months) her British assistant, Ian
Davis, mutters knowingly: 'I hope you had breakfast
today.'

Everything in Vanessa Beecroft's life revolves
around food. She and her husband bought their rural
retreat in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, partly
because it would cut Beecroft's access to the
24-hour convenience stores available on every street
corner in New York City - too much of a temptation
when the craving for a binge comes on. They also
bought it because it had an indoor swimming pool.

Beecroft suffers from what psychiatrists call
'exercise bulimia', a compulsive need to burn off
unwanted calories using excessive exercise. For
Beecroft, swimming was, until recently, an
intoxicating drug. When she was pregnant with Dean,
she insisted - despite the protests of her husband
and his mother, Sheril Durkin, a registered
dietician - on swimming 100 laps a day to ensure her
weight gain was kept to the minimum. Today, she no
longer swims, instead practising ashtanga yoga
('power yoga') seven days a week. Without it, she
says she would 'go crazy'. In her teens, she tried
unsuccessfully to vomit food she wished she hadn't
eaten - all that saved her from rampant bulimia was
her body's refusal to play ball. The spectre of
anorexia haunted her teens and twenties, too, when
she smoked to keep her weight down, attempted
crash-dieting with amphetamines, undertook damaging
fasts, exercised beyond any sensible limits of
endurance, and kept a diary - The Book of Food -
detailing every single morsel that passed her lips
between 1983 and 1993 (for example, if she ate an
orange, she'd note the date, time and how it made
her feel). Even now, a decade after she stopped
keeping the food diary, there are still days when
she longs to note what she eats, such was the power
of this coping mechanism.

Beecroft announced herself boldly to the art world
in 1993, when she showed The Book of Food. After a
professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera
Scenografia in Milan, where she studied from 1988 to
1993, invited her to participate in a group show at
the city's Inga-Pin gallery, she adapted what
remained of The Book of Food (the first four years
of entries were lost by a friend hired to type them
up) into a white cube-shaped book. The book, placed
in the centre of an empty gallery, was supplemented
by a 'live sculpture' or 'live painting' of 30
girls, consisting of fellow Brera students or girls
found on the streets of Milan, who were instructed
to move around the space, aloof, numb, dressed in
Beecroft's own clothes - mostly red or yellow (two
of Beecroft's favourite colours). Many of the girls,
chosen for their uncanny resemblance to Beecroft,
were themselves struggling with eating disorders. On
the walls, drawings and watercolours of girls
wrestling with eating disorders, primitive brightly
coloured stick figures (sometimes just an arm or a
torso or hair or a leg) reminiscent of sketches by
Tracey Emin (all chronologically titled VBDW01,
VBDW02, VBDW03, the acronym standing for 'Vanessa
Beecroft Drawings and Watercolours').

This first 'performance' set the blueprint for
Beecroft's future as a conceptual artist. Since
then, she has staged a further 53 performances
around the world (all titled VB01, VB02, VB25, VB45,
etc), each more elaborate than its predecessor.

Earlier performances tended to feature a handful of
girls wearing high heels (Beecroft calls heels
'pedestals'), cheap costumes and wardrobe, allusions
to European cinema (films by Fassbinder, Godard,
Visconti) and classical painting (Rembrandt,
Holbein, della Francesca), and red, yellow or
platinum wigs. As budgets grew in proportion to her
reputation, she started using professional models,
strikingly presented by make-up artists such as Pat
McGrath, and wearing clothes and accessories loaned
or specially created by fashion designers such as
Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford, Helmut Lang, Dolce &
Gabbana, and Manolo Blahnik, all eager to associate
themselves with Beecroft's complex vision (even if
Beecroft's assistant tells me 'The fashion in
Vanessa's work is a red herring' and Beecroft
herself says, 'I don't follow fashion').

Many of these mutually beneficial artist/designer
collaborations (Beecroft gets kudos from the fashion
press, the designers get intellectual cachet from
the art press) are brokered by Beecroft's long-term
friend/mentor Franca Sozzani, the influential editor
of Vogue Italia, who sees a very clear role for
fashion in Beecroft's work.

'Fashion is important in her performances because
she subdues it to her will,' Sozzani tells me. 'It's
not important as a logo, trend or status symbol:
fashion items are used to underline the woman's body
and to express the concept behind her performances.'
The 'girls' (Beecroft's term for the models) have
also become increasingly stripped, to the extent
where most performances since VB23 have featured
partial or full nudity. These beautiful and
disturbing tableaux vivants, which are always staged
twice (once for the public, once for photographing
and filming: Beecroft's network of dealers trade in
limited-edition photographs and DVD/video films of
each performance) have confounded critics eager for
easy categorisation, been pronounced 'dope' by
celebrity fans such as Leonardo DiCaprio, been
slated as vapid art/fashion fusion catwalk shows,
and enraged older generations of feminists while
thrilling the younger. As Maria Elena Buszek, an art
historian at the Kansas City Art Institute,
explains: 'Beecroft is the veritable poster-girl for
our current, third wave of feminist art history.
There's an ambivalence in her work that is present
in the work of many of her contemporaries, which is
the result of a culture that has both internalised
feminist goals more than any generation that
preceded it, and chafes against what it perceives as
feminism's restraints.'

On 8 April, at the Neue National galerie in Berlin,
she will stage her biggest performance to date,
VB55, featuring 100 girls. The resulting three
prints and solitary DVD are expected to set a new
record for sales of Vanessa Beecroft's art.

Arriving at Beecroft's house, my taxi driver clocks
the silver BMW in the garage, the indoor swimming
pool and the sprawling countryside surrounding the
house, shakes his head and says, 'Damn, these
motherfuckers got it all.' At the door, I'm greeted
by one of two full-time nannies, a smiley Virgil in
her arms.

In the living room, I find Beecroft sitting on a
white-leather couch, talking with her assistant. As
she introduces herself in a lilting Italian accent,
I note her healthy weight, the toned, muscular
ashtanga arms, her big eyes - at once little-girl
vulnerable and tomboyishly tough.

It transpires that, in a moment, she is heading
outside to pose naked for the photographer and his
assistant, the four inches of snow that fell
overnight making for a beautiful backdrop. 'I'm
letting society take revenge,' she says, alluding to
critics who hone in on her willingness to put naked
women on display, while never - with one or two
exceptions - appearing in the performances herself.

She tells me she hates being photographed. 'When I
am photographed, in my face and in my eyes there is
too much heaviness. I look at a camera and all the
heaviness comes. But the girls, they're pure.' The
girls (with the notable exception of VB39 and VB41,
both of which featured male members of the US Navy
as 'models', her performances always consist of
female models) are self-portraits according to
Beecroft, diary entries translated to a safely
distant, removed canvas of space and anonymous
flesh. She assigns the girls - who vary in look from
heavy to plain to model-beautiful to tattooed to
pierced to unhealthily thin - her shame, her
self-disgust, her anxieties. She turns the girls,
some of whom have been diagnosed with eating
disorders, into a reflection of her own ugly
emotional panorama.

Art magazine Parkett has also noted that there's a
'cruel classicism' to her aesthetic: she makes the
girls stand for up to three hours in uncomfortable
high heels, sometimes several sizes too small; she
has had the models' pubic hair shaved to make their
public violation more complete; and she gives them
strict rules (don't talk, don't move, don't make eye
contact with the audience). It's no wonder that
Fassbinder, a master of cruelty and control, is one
of her favourite film directors (Fassbinder
actresses Irm Hermann and Hanna Schygulla were cast
as 'characters' for VB51 in Germany).

After 54 performances, many remain unsure what to
make of Beecroft's work. Some see the fashion
element as superficial, some see the naked Helmut
Newton-esque images of these women as little more
than 'hooters for intellectuals' (as one review
famously dubbed her work). Some say she's demeaning
women, parading them like hunks of meat, in the
process creating a male wet dream, while others say
she's reclaiming sexualised images of women from the
pages of Penthouse and recontextualising them as
symbols of feminist empowerment.

Laura Piccinini, a journalist for Italian women's
monthly Amica, told me that Beecroft's eating
disorders, her obsession with fashion, her
deliberately provocative use of nudity, make her a
perfect tabloid-friendly artist for our
confessional, celebrity-gossip and
reality-TV-obsessed times. Beecroft's art is one of
exposure.

'I had a difficult childhood,' says Beecroft, still
shivering from the photo shoot, as she warms her
hands on a mug of Yogi Tea. We're sitting at the
dining table, a whole shelf of Helmut Newton books
behind her (when Newton photographed her wearing a
leather bikini for Vogue, he screamed at her: 'I am
the father of your performances!'). She was born in
Genoa, Italy, on 25 April 1969, to a British father,
Andrew (a teacher, then classic-car dealer, today
retired and living in Beckenham with his second wife
and their two children), and an Italian mother,
Maria Luisa (a classics teacher, also retired, who
lives alone in Rapallo). Her parents chose the name
Vanessa after seeing Vanessa Redgrave in Antonioni's
Blow-Up while Maria Luisa was pregnant.

Straight after Vanessa was born, the Beecrofts moved
to Holland Park, west London. When she was three,
her parents separated (Beecroft would not see her
father again until she was 15) and her younger
brother (currently training to be a judge in Italy)
was sent to live with Maria Luisa's parents in
Genoa. ('As of today, I still ask my mother why and
she says she couldn't take care of two children,'
Beecroft says.)

Vanessa and her mother moved to a tiny village,
Malcesine, on the slopes of Lake Garda. There, her
mother taught at a local school and kept an austere
house which included a strict macrobiotic diet.
Running an atheist, manless home, working full-time
and subscribing to far-left political ideals hardly
endeared Maria Luisa to her fiercely Catholic,
family-centric neighbours.

They called the Beecrofts 'the foreigners', treating
them with suspicion. Today, Beecroft is proud of her
mother, though, calling her a 'progressive feminist'.

'It was a very strange and primitive state of
living,' she explains. 'No phone, no TV, no car, no
meat. My mother was against modern society. She was
angry about everything - men, the Pope, religion,
meat. But she was not a hippy at all because she was
a well raised Italian woman.'

Her earliest memories are of running through fields
with boys and drawing pictures of her dolls. When
she was 11, her mother moved them to Santa
Margherita, a seaside town just along the Ligurian
coast from Portofino, so Vanessa could re-establish
contact with her brother (their father was in London
and she wouldn't see him again until she was 16,
when he dismissed her from his doorstep for being
'too intense').

'People were more spoiled,' she says. 'When we
arrived, I was wearing wooden shoes and they laughed
at me. That was difficult. But at school, I was good
at drawing. I saw a way of escaping in art, so I
decided to focus on studying.'

Her problems with food started with puberty. 'When I
was 12, I started to become a woman and my body
began to change. I was devastated because I couldn't
be a boy any more. I lost my boyish look. When I
started to become something else, I didn't know how
to keep it together. It was really painful - the
more you eat, the more like a woman you become.
That's when my obsession with food started. I felt
very alone, but now I see that every woman in my
family has an eating disorder.' At 14, she went to
art school in Genoa. In her spare time, she read
Vogue (her mother wouldn't let her read it at home),
visited galleries across Italy with her mother and
spent weekends with her best friends - three
aristocratic, anorexic sisters. She also started The
Book of Food. 'The anxiety of having eaten something
and having it inside and not knowing how big and how
much... I thought, "I'm going to write it down and
look at it and see if it's really so much. And one
day, I might give it to a doctor so they will
analyse if it's OK." But then it became an obsession
and I wrote down everything I ate. I would go all
day thinking, "I ate an apple at 12 o'clock, I must
write it down, I mustn't forget."'

Alongside food entries, she added comments like: 'I
am a pig', 'Slut', 'Terrible anxiety', 'Dogged
bulimia', 'I'm bursting', 'Apathy fear fatigue',
'Trying to vomit', 'Monster'. As The Book of Food
attests, things got worse. One day, in a fit of
despair, she ate a whole bag of walnuts, shells and
all, and had to be rushed into hospital and treated
for peritonitis. 'The doctor said, "What are you
eating?",' Beecroft says, with a sigh. 'I told him I
was eating walnuts, the whole thing, with the shell.
I was smashing them with a hammer and swallowing the
whole thing. I thought it would be purifying.' The
doctor referred her to a psychiatrist. 'He was a Red
Brigade,' Beecroft recalls, laughing. 'I loved
seeing him. But I had to leave because we couldn't
afford it. Instead I started to smoke cigarettes so
I would become skinny.'

When she was 18, she enrolled at Genoa's Accademia
Ligustica di Belle Arti Pittura, where, to
Beecroft's frustration, she was unable to make
herself throw up, unlike some girls there. 'Every
other girl could and I couldn't. I would try in the
bathroom with my head in the toilet for two hours
and eventually I'd start bleeding because I was
hurting myself and I got scared. My best friend
there used to be obese, and then she looked like a
model because she smoked cigarettes all day and
threw up, and I was so jealous.' Unhappy, she
transferred to the Brera Academy in Milan,
supporting herself by working as a live-in au pair.
Accepting that she couldn't throw up her food, she
started excessively exercising when the family was
out ('I would stay in my room and jump by myself and
write down: 30 minutes jumping, 50 minutes jumping,
in The Book of Food') and began colour-coding her
diet (a trick usually used by bulimics so they can
identify specific foods when they vomit that
Beecroft re-appropriated in a bid to turn herself
into one of her own sickly stick drawings).

'I thought that if I eat green, I will become green.
So, for a long time, I ate only green food. And then
orange food. And I was looking to my skin to become
more green if I ate spinach, or orange if I ate
carrots. I was trying to colour myself like in my
drawings. I wanted my skin to be transparent, and
the colours underneath orange and green and red.'
When she showed The Book of Food at Inga-Pin
Gallery, she closed the diary: 'The day I decided to
use The Book of Food as art was the day I stopped.'

Instead, now able to afford gym membership, she
binged on exercise - mostly aerobics and swimming.
The exercise brought relief and offered an antidote
to her problems. 'Instead of this food,' she
explains, 'instead of vomiting or doing what these
other girls were doing, if I exercised, life was
still worth living. I could go back to real life.
Because as soon as food would come in, I would start
to feel guilty, that I didn't deserve to eat. Why
should I eat? What should I eat? And the only way to
deal with this was to exercise.'

Beecroft's big break, the one that catapulted her on
to an international platform, came in 1995, when
influential New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch saw a
photograph from VB09 in an art magazine. 'I saw a
tiny image of her work which was presented at a
gallery in Germany,' says Deitch. 'The image was
just so arresting, because it was a new kind of
reality that she had developed. It was not a
painting or a sculpture, it was not a normal
photograph, it was not just people sitting there in
real life. It was something in between. It was like
nothing I had ever seen before.'

Intrigued, he invited Beecroft to stage a
performance in January 1996 to open his new second
gallery, Deitch Projects. The result confirmed in
Deitch's mind that here was an entirely new artist
at work.

'Her work comes out very much from the tradition of
Italian painting and sculpture - Italian Mannerist
painting, Baroque painting, sculptors like Canova -
and the tradition of performance art: Duchamp, Yves
Klein, Gilbert and George. The foundations are
classical Italian tradition and the tradition of
radical performance art and live art. And then she's
also very much involved in something more
contemporary, this world of reality TV and fashion
shows. There's an awareness of contemporary culture
that's in the mix as well.'

He became her dealer and Beecroft moved from Milan
to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nine years later, Deitch
has made a very tidy sum from selling Beecroft's
work to 'collectors of great works of pop, minimal
and conceptual art', and sees her as spearheading a
new wave of women's art.

'Vanessa's a new kind of woman artist,' he explains.
'Without question Vanessa is a feminist, but she's a
very contemporary kind of feminist. There's a new
group of women artists and Vanessa's in the
vanguard, and I would also add Cecily Brown and
Pipilotti Rist, where the women are using sexual
imagery from a very powerful, very feminine point of
view, and it's a kind of powerful sexual imagery
that can even intimidate the male. 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.'

After marrying Greg Durkin in Portofino in September
2000 (the wedding was turned into a special project
entitled VBGD - the couple's initials), Beecroft
spent most of 2001 pregnant.

'I'm on Zoloft [an antidepressant], the only drug
you can take when you nurse, a very little dosage,
very small,' she explains, rubbing her heavily
tattooed arms. 'It makes you numb, I kind of like it
actually. But when I am not, oh my God. I stopped
when I got pregnant with Dean and I got crazy again
- the police arrived one night because I was
breaking the car.'

This wasn't the only time her husband Greg called
the police during this era. The second time was in
autumn 2001 when the couple got into another
ferocious fight, at a hotel in Los Angeles. Beecroft
was handcuffed by LAPD officers and only released
when she calmed down. Once she had given birth to
Dean, her psychiatrist put her back on Zoloft.

'I take it to keep the family in peace,' she
whispers, as if telling me a secret.

'I have to become numb or otherwise I become too
much. I was raised by my mother throwing plates
everywhere - tomatoes, plates - and everything was
destroyed and then she'd cry a little bit and then
it would stop. I thought it was normal to destroy
the house. So I take Zoloft for the children, but
also to survive. I am so high maintenance!'

We are interrupted by Dean, who joins us, doe-eyed,
wanting to blow out the candle flickering on the
table between us. It's getting dark. I tell her I
should get going. 'Do you have anything to eat on
the train?' she wants to know. When I say no, she
hurries to the kitchen and starts to make me a
picnic. On the train, heading back to Manhattan,
hungry, I open the plastic bag and find inside two
apples, two sachets of Yogi Tea, peanuts, each
carefully, individually wrapped.

As I bite into a green apple, I try to make sense of
all the contradictions surrounding Beecroft: she's a
doting mother with a nine-to-five husband who calls
herself a feminist; she considers her performances
self-portraits but rarely appears in them herself;
she is supported by powerful fashion figures yet
claims not to follow fashion; she's plagued by
eating disorders but doesn't care to label herself
bulimic or anorexic; she's obsessed with control yet
surrounded by powerful people; she's very much an
artist of the moment but isn't interested in any
contemporary art after the abstract expressionists;
she's happy to put naked women on public display but
finds being photographed herself agonising.

Her work is no less contradictory and that's why she
is so successful, so on the pulse. It's the perfect
product of a time when we claim to despise reality
TV but secretly watch it; fear globalisation but
cherish that Starbucks latte; see the vapidity of
fashion but save up for a Prada jacket; bemoan our
celebrity-fixated culture while tuning in to see
that exclusive Madonna interview. 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.

� Vanessa Beecroft's VB55 will be staged at the Neue
Nationalgalerie in Berlin on 8 April



Comments

There's an indictment against our society somewhere in her art, but its hard to see it past all those breasts.

Posted by: BOB at March 23, 2005 5:02 PM

Once the post had been read (in its entirety no less), I had to seek medical attention because my index finger was strained from overuse associated with the mouse's scroll wheel. Although the mouse was allowed to free roam (as all mice should be), there was excessive throttling involved - due to (of course) the scroll wheel... Proper ergonomic positioning advises against any throttling.

Regardless, though, the dominanting thought (by far) that I came away with was... "Vanessa has issues," - which isn't necessarily a bad thing - after all, we all have them. But... The... ahhh... depth of her issues is... impressive.

I disagree with the author's statement, "As a culture right now, we're a mass of contradictions..." As a culture, the American people have far more that unifies it rather than contradicts itself. Otherwise, we'd probably be seeing the movie "Civil War 2 - Lee's Revenge" like some bad Jason remake. However, if you choose to focus on the contradicitions, then "Insha' Allah" - You've willed its prominence.

Posted by: |mr|Darcy at March 25, 2005 2:07 PM

From my perch in China it's been so long since I've seen you with my own eyes when I log on2UR blog I often feel as if I'm watching you get progressively thinner and thinner until on my computer screen you have zaporated into a 2 dimensional version of yourself. You have become more and more your virtual self than your real self. Please tell me it isn't true - that you are still 3 dimensional! Someday (are they already? - have I been gone too long?) someone is going to write about blogart as performance art - and you will be canonized Miss Harner in the Presentation of Self in the Everyday Blogosphere...along with 4th wavers taking charge of their virtual identities. Cheers to creating future fodder for art critics.

& thank you for posting your essay on the contradictions of American society complete with Prada jackets and anorexia. It made me feel better about being striken with food poisoning every time I go to Yunnan and having to peuk up multiple servings of yak butter tea all over my fake China-made Prada trainers in front of resource-deprived rural Tibetans. The contradictions in this situation border on the absurd. Also check out the superb essay on Salon.com about Michael Jackson...the ultimate victim of it all.

I am going to go pop another sleeping pill now to block out the silent Shangri-La night.

wirelessly beaming from high altitude - xox

Posted by: amyinchina at March 27, 2005 10:38 AM

I love you.. You amaze me buddy! Keep on writing:)

Posted by: Munyambu at April 9, 2005 2:30 PM
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