Vanessa Beecroft does Tokyo

by Monty DiPietro

You won’t find a bunch of slobs prancing down a fashion show runway. What you will find is good-looking people, because good-looking people are good to look at. And a survey of advertising and cinema provides more than a little evidence to suggest that when good-looking people take off their clothing, we like to look at them even more.

So what is all the fuss surrounding Vanessa Beecroft, the Italian-born artist whose work consists of having good-looking female models take off their clothes and stand around in galleries and museums? Of course people are going to want to have a look!

Beecroft, 30, is in Tokyo for the second time in under a year, for an exhibition at one of the city’s largest and most prestigious galleries, Galerie Deux, located out on the west flank of the city’s Meguro-ku. The New York-based artist is showing some 30 drawings, oil paintings, watercolors, and performance photographs and videos.

The drawings and paintings are of women, either head and shoulder or full-body portraits. They are flat, executed in limited palettes with no attempt at shading and no hint of depth. The big pictures (the drawings, in acrylic on paper, are almost four meters tall) are nice enough – but if they weren’t drawn up from photographs they might as well have been – they look that detached, that unreal.

And so do the women in the photo and videodocumentation of Beecroft’s performances. Always titled "Show," the artist’s live happenings follow a simple enough script – first, assemble a number of female bodies sufficient to fill, when spaced out roughly arm’s length from one another, a particular art space. Then, on with a little make-up and maybe a wig, and off with the clothing. Next, have the performers slip on a pair of high heels, and stand around for awhile.

Beecroft would have been 15 years old when, back in 1984, a political art group called the Guerrilla Girls attacked the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curatorial policies by circulating a tract which read in part, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female." The Guerrilla Girls might have been thinking "revival" last year, when Beecroft brought her "Show" into the main rotunda are of the hallowed Guggenheim Museum, New York.

But times have changed, and it seems that critics in particular and the art world in general learned to like it when Andres Seranno submerged a crucifix in urine and liked it even more when Damien Hirst dropped a cow into formaldehyde, and well, went and put Vanessa Beecroft on the cover of Artforum magazine when she marched her good-looking girls into the Guggenheim. Could it be that contemporary art is in such danger of becoming socially insignificant that any bit of scandal which will pique public interest is desperately embraced?

Maybe – writing in the New York Times, a female critic’s piece skirted around under a headline trumpeting the "empowerment" of women in Beecroft’s performances. The same piece quoted pint-sized idol and assiduous art collector Leonardo DiCaprio on the Guggenheim show: "This is dope," (very good) he said. Beecroft is hot, she has also shown "Show" at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the Venice Biennale, and more recently collaborated with our very own pint-sized idol, that lubricious lensman and maybe-not-empowerer-of-women, Nobuyoshi Araki.

Beecroft has an explanation.

"Araki was very respectful, it was good," she explains at her packed Galerie Deux reception. "Anyway, the women are always aware of what’s going on. It is a delicate separation between what is an image just to be representational and what is a real person standing there. I want women on heels because that’s powerful, that’s not natural nudity or pureness," she explains. "When men see this woman standing on heels as if she were dressed, and facing the audience, well, if that’s what they like to see, then here it is, so what. I don’t know if that will create more respect or go somewhere beyond that. Maybe after they see it twenty times they’ll start not to think of it the same way, I’m not sure. It’s an experiment."

If this is the route Beecroft wants to take to empowerment she is in not the first to attempt it – many gay groups, for example, argue that the best way to disarm a derogatory word like "queer" or "fag" is to appropriate the term and use it self-referentially. And while Beecroft’s performances certainly don’t follow the 1980s feminist agenda, even people like the Guerrilla Girls would be forced to admit that although Beecroft is putting even more naked women into museums, she is at the same time sneaking a woman artist in the male-dominated institutions.

notes: Until Aug 7, 1999 (3717-0020).

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