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Nicole Moserle

Vanessa Beecroft, Italian-English super star artist, presented her last work in Milan on Monday 16 March 2009: VB65, which has been especially realized for PAC (Contemporary Art Pavilion).

As with her previous works, Beecroft staged a radical performance that had a strong political connotation, leaving no doubts on her intentions. Once again, the drama of immigration is investigated. For the second time after VB39, US Navy Seals, Beecroft was directing a male models performance, instead of nude women as we got used to in the past: twenty-two African immigrants formally dressed up, who weren’t looking that normal because their clothes were old, creased, oversized and shoes were not included. This unusual group of people was seated by one side of a twelve meters long table made of transparent glass as in a post-modern last supper, staring the empty space in silence, eating meat and black bread without any tableware nor tablecloth, facing an “uninvited” public of guests.

The visitors to the exhibition are forced to play the role of the guest. The smell is intense. Nobody feels hungry and there is some kind of misplacement sensation. We all should be on the other side of the table, the immigrants fantasizing about our abundance of food and dreaming of sharing the banquet with us. As Beecroft explains her work: <<To see these people in this way destabilizes our canonic image of them, so we can perceive their essence, their psychology without any cultural filter. Many of these migrants are intellectuals, doctors, they have a cultural dignity>> 1 .

Almost at the end of the three hours long performance, something more happened. While the artist was chatting with some friends and experts, two young guys from the audience sneaked in the performance area, breaking the silence and the tension between the viewers and the stage. A blond young woman, elegantly dressed in blue, took a seat next to a performer with no hesitation. Her face was painted in black and she looked spontaneous smacking a gum on her high-heels. The “movement-action”, that lasted for just about a couple minutes was documented by a photographer, making people thinking it was part of VB show.

At the end of the evening, people were leaving without any solution, but with new questions to answer. What happened? Was a new relationship between ethics and aesthetics established?

Charles Dennis, co-founder of the historic Performance Space 122 in New York, has said:

<<Performance Art is everything that is carried out live, with the presence of the public, and what makes it so interesting is the fact that it is always a challenge>> 2 .

During the revolutionary 60s, artists were frequently making use of their own bodies in their practice, being them the subject matter or functioning as the support for their art. The high


Nicole Moserle

social pressure on politics – with its visual power on the media – and the radical intellectual debate of those years pushed the boundaries of knowledge with strong emphasis, anticipating and commenting the changes of the social system. It is interesting to note that in this cultural milieu the art viewers were playing an active role in the collective production of meaning, participating to its fertile dissemination. 3

As in VB65, we clearly see that the presence of the public is fundamental for the work of art to be. At the beginning of her career, Beecroft herself declared that she <<wanted the audience to react on a psychological level, since the artwork is not complete until its viewers become part of it>> 4 . Working with live performances and with the presence and reactions of the spectators doesn’t necessarily imply that artists will present their own bodies. Beecroft belongs to a new generation of artists that work with actors, directing them – with strict rules like in VB65 case – and carefully staging a show without taking part in it. If we compare this kind of performance art with the works of Vito Acconci or Marina Abramoviç – who were pushing their own bodies to the limits of the sensorial experience – we clearly see that the role of the artist has completely changed, even though the live aspect and the presence of the public are still fundamental 5 .

Referring to the visual meaning, to the aesthetic of VB65, it has to be mentioned the specific context where the performance took place. The action of eating, that is so common to result even banal, gains a special meaning in Milan, the city of Leonardo, that hosts one his masterpieces: “The Last Supper”. The parallel that can be traced with one of the most important works in the history of art is evident – and suggested by Beecroft herself – as the performers are all facing the same frontal direction and the mixed man sitting at the center stands out among the others. Like Andy Warhol did in his last completed paintings series – “The Last Supper” exhibited in Milan in 1987 – Beecroft is playing with the visual materials of the art history, reinterpreting the religious iconography with her colored Jesus that is smoking during the show. The visual reference has lost its religious implications in the post-modern celebration of the ever-present. The meaning flows freely from the signifier, and what really matter in this work are the little gestures of the protagonists, the invisible relationship between them and the public implied in their performing. Therefore, the artwork experience is no more limited to the surface of the canvas, yet expanded to the everyday collective dynamics: the immigration issue and all its social implication. 6 These topics are the final of point of the artist’s production, who previously dealt with other aspects of western contemporary culture, such as people’s relationship with food and sex. Beecroft, who was raised in all-women family without any strong cultural link to a specific nationality, has finally resolved her inner conflicts, successfully becoming a new spokeswoman for world social inequality. This artistic and personal change happened after she gave birth to a child and


Nicole Moserle

identified herself with the problems of a third world country – Sudan – that helped her to face her limits and see further. 7

If it is true the art has lost its aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, we also have to stress the fact that performances are meant to exit in a specific context, hic et nunc as Walter Benjamin said about classical art, and at the same time through their mechanical recording. Therefore the trade off between the moment the artwork fully express itself and its historical memory is resolved and harmonized in the performance, which is given eternal life in its video and image recordings. These, as the peculiar products of the century that just passed, stand as the most plausible candidates to be considered technical and artistic means, trough which comprehend the destiny of a whole era. 8

Finally, what about those two persons that eluded the rules and step on the stage to perform together the real actors? What did they mean with their behavior? Were they criticizing the rigid aesthetic used by Beecroft in dealing with a very present social issue?

<<We have to let the “reality” of the work of art comes to meet us, it can’t be summoned up, much less procured. It is already happen. In that which our sight, hearing and touch bring to us, in the sensation of the chromatic, the roughness, the hardness, “reality” literally crushes into us. It is what in the senses of the sensitiveness is perceived through the sensations >>. 9


1 The artist answering to my question about who were those men in the real life.

2 Viviana Bucarelli, Performance come una Sfida (Performance as a Challenge), Flash Art (Italian

Edition), No. 269, 2008.

3 Dick Higgings, Horizons. The poetics and Theory of the Intermedia, Sothern Illinois University Press, Reprint edition, 1984

4 Giacinto di Pietrantonio, Vanessa Beecroft. Grow Fond of the Perception, Flash Art (Italian Edition), No. 184, Milano, 1994.

5 H. Foster, R. Krauss, Y.A. Bois, B. H. D. Buchloh, Arte dal 1900. Modernismo, Antimodernismo,

Postmodernismo (Art since 1900. Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernis), Zanichelli, Milano, 2006.

6 Jennifer Allen, Readymade Women, MOUSSE Contemporay Art Magazine No.16, Milano/NYC, 2009.

7 Helena Kontova, Marina Abramoviç, Vanessa Beecroft, Shirin Nashat. Nomadi Moderne (Modern

Nomads), Flash Art (Italian Edition), No. 264, Milano, 2007.

8 Jacques Rancière, The politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, London, 2006.

9 Martin Heidegger, L’origine dell’opra d’arte (The Origin of the Work of Art), Marinotti, Milano, 2000.