in the skin of the artist
interview and portraits by OLIVIER ZAHM in Los Angeles
Reinventing live performance and body art as multiple personality disorder, Vanessa Beecroft became one of the most successful artists of the 1990s, inside and outside the art world. She represented the female body as a psychic landscape, with somnolent girls dawdling in underwear and wigs or a phalanx of statuesque naked women. The Italian artist, now living in Los Angeles with her family, went even deeper into the female psyche, while also art-directing lavishly successful Kanye West shows, using dozens of multiracial models. She has returned to her Italian heritage, creating set pieces with live models, her own Carrara marble and bronze works, and original Roman scuptures. More than two decades after her debut, her influence on art and fashion hasn’t wavered.
All works copyright Vanessa Beecroft
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.
VANESSA BEECROFT — I know. My last clear memory of you is at Purple’s “L’Hiver de l’Amour” [“The Winter of Love”] exhibition in ’94 or ’95, which you curated at PS1! We met in downtown Manhattan.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, that’s crazy.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Purple gave me such support in the beginning. I basically didn’t exist as an artist.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Well, you had a name in Italy.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Not really. That might be because success in the ’90s was building up step-by-step. While you just grabbed me — you and Dominique Gonzalez-
Foerster, and then put a picture of one of my performances on the cover of the magazine and wrote about me. It was just a miracle! And then after Purple, Flash Art published an article, and I was on the map. But you were the first — and you were so courageous, so innovative.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your spectacular performances became iconic for the ’90s aesthetic, with the gathering of so many girls, connecting art, fashion, styling, photography, and an enigmatic investigation of feminine psychology. It seems to me not that you have changed, but that you have moved on. Haven’t you, since then, taken up sculpting in marble? Tell me, how did you move on? What have you been up to in the new century?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Well, the performances really originated from my drawings. But the drawings themselves I did for myself only. I didn’t want to show them to anyone. I thought, back then, that a contemporary artist should not make drawings. Drawing was too academic to me. I was preoccupied with finding a form that wasn’t based on academic skills, like drawing. That’s what I wanted to achieve when I was young… Something beyond those drawings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You always refused to show the drawings. I have one, actually [laughs]. You gave me one of a girl. I remembered you were doing a lot, and they are very good…
VANESSA BEECROFT — I was worried that they would not be accepted as contemporary. I was wrong. Now, after so many years, I think I should have pursued drawing more because probably I would have gotten somewhere else. I remember my ex-boyfriend, your friend Miltos Manetas [a Greek artist], saying it’s good that I didn’t draw because I was able to contain the impulse in other forms of art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still draw?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Well, recently I started again because I’m living in Los Angeles, and I’m having a bit of a peripheral moment, not traveling or participating so much in the art world. Also, I’m too busy with family life. But now that I’m here, in LA, I decided to start drawing again and started working on sculptures. But still, the whole thing is really an extension of performance. The girls are still the performers, and the performers are still kind of self-referential. The drawings are about the same subject; only the forms are different. The marbles are made in Italy, which also happened by chance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How so?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I met the owner of a marble factory in Carrara, Francesca Nicoli. She’s charming, half-French. When I met her, she was in her factory, surrounded by marble sculptures, wearing a fur coat, while a piano was being played upstairs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Magnifique.
VANESSA BEECROFT — She was so chic. She said to me, “You have to do a marble work.” I said, laughing, “No, never.” I thought that would be the opposite of my work. Then she said, “Come in my yard.” And in her yard, there were leftovers of lapis lazuli and beautiful, chromatically colored pieces of marble.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The green, pink, and purple blocks of marble you used in a performance?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes. It was so beautiful! So I immediately changed my mind. It was the colors of the marble that inspired me to do sculptures of women. I decided to break the sculptures into parts in addition to using the cast of women, from a previous performance, in order to create fragments of bodies, as a reminiscence of the performances.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you sell these beautiful sculptures separately?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes. So far. But I’ve only sold a few, in Italy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which ones?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Well, a woman’s head and a woman’s torso. They were made as fragments.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fragments from a performance?
VANESSA BEECROFT — What happened was, I did a performance in Palermo, Sicily, in a beautiful location — a consecrated church, where I mixed live models with casts of women. My purpose was to hide them, so you wouldn’t distinguish the live models from the sculptures.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you do that?
VANESSA BEECROFT — They were all painted white. At the end of the performance, some women would stand up, and you would see they weren’t sculptures. But there was a thin line between the two throughout the performance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A thin line between performance and sculpture, like between death and life, stone and flesh?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Sort of. The girls were simulating the sculptures, and the sculptures were set up to look like living bodies of women. This performance also made reference to Giacomo Serpotta, a Baroque sculptor from Palermo, who worked in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and who may have never left the city. He was of very low origins, but an extraordinary artist. He did a lot of works using stucco. So, for me, it was important that I recreate a work in Sicily. The performance was my homage to Palermo.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were your sculptures modeled on the girls in the show?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Sometimes the girls and women in the show had a sculptural twin, sometimes not. My sister, an aristocratic woman from Palermo, was also in the performance. But then, after the performance, I didn’t care for the sculptures that much because they weren’t quite enough for me as contemporary artworks.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean outside of the performance?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. They didn’t really work apart. For me, they were part of the performance. Then, afterward, for another show in Naples, I decided to break the plaster casts, chopping off the head, cutting them into pieces. That was an artistic gesture for me, like creating ruins. I also painted the women and the body fragments in black — painting women black is already something; so I felt more connected to the drama. There’s a book by Linda Nochlin called The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, in which she calls the guillotine the beginning of modernity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This is also the idea of deconstruction.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes. She explains why. So I also used the fragment as a symbol. It is for the same reason that some painters would paint the head and not the whole body. I recognized how intense a body part, rather than a whole body, could be. Even my early drawings were fragments of bodies.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you made body pieces using Carrara marble.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. I made a lot of them. They were all grouped together in Venice.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you do the marble body fragments?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I brought the marble-cutters studies in plaster, which I might not even be happy with, but then the masters take them. They only work with a compass, and from their calculations, they make a prototype, but as you direct them to be made.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They copy it in marble?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. I mean, I wish I could do them myself. In Los Angeles, I work in clay because it’s cheap and easy to work with, besides which we don’t have marble here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But from clay, you go to bronze, as well?
VANESSA BEECROFT — No. From clay, they make a mold, which is then done in bronze, or terracotta — which is what I now want to use. I did a project in Guadalajara, Mexico, where they invited artists to work there and produce works for them. Jorge Pardo worked there. I have a series of works being made there now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you start working with the marble quarry?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I went to Carrara several times, going back and forth from Los Angeles, which is sometimes difficult and tiring. Carrara is a very interesting place. Italian anarchism originated there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Really?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes, the Italian anarchist movement began in the mountains of the Carrara marble quarries. I asked why the people there look so different from most Italians. They said, “Because we’re slaves. We were transported from Eastern Europe to carve marbles.” So they’re incredibly anarchic. Even now. If I simply ask them, “Can you do this?” they won’t do it. They drop the tools and walk away. It took me four years to finally figure out how to work with them. They don’t care. Which is kind of nice because it’s anarchism. They decide. Sometimes I don’t think I have the strength to continue because I can’t carve them myself. So it’s really difficult to work over there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you have to boss them around?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes. But they won’t let you. One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What if you give them a pile of money?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Nothing will buy them. They’re former slaves. They say, “So.” They belong to that class, and nothing can buy them. They break pieces of marble all day. They’re covered in white dust, and they’ve basically been doing that for generations. They’ve been hardened. And now they’re too hard to do anything. So, at four o’clock they drop the tools and walk away. I did find ways to communicate, though. I convinced them in another way. I said I have nothing. They don’t care about money. And they’re paid so little. It’s because there’s no other possibility for them. Carrara is like that. The rich people own the quarries, and they do the work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the owners?
VANESSA BEECROFT — We know one. He’s very young, very elegant, and fun, and owns all the mountains.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about your woman friend? Doesn’t she own a quarry, too?
VANESSA BEECROFT — She studied philosophy and is very intellectual, but doesn’t own a quarry. Her family used to. They were a bit decadent and lost it. The father ended up playing the piano. They were friends with Louise Bourgeois and produced marble works for her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — She worked in marble?
VANESSA BEECROFT — She made lots of marble pieces. They were still producing a series for Louise when she died. They had to finish it. But the decadence continued, and everything became a bit too temperamental.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Wasn’t this a way for you to reconnect with your Italian origins?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I guess, yeah. But when I was a child, we were guests in Italy. My father was English. My mother was not a typical Italian woman.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you remember of Italy as a child?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I used to live in a religious city, where everyone goes and prays to — the martyred saint, Santa Lucia, who has no eyes — this saint who was my mom’s passion. My mother collected stories of saint and martyrs — in beatitudes, eyes rolled up in ecstasy. She became fascinated with paintings of saints and religious iconography. As a child, I looked at saints as real people. I thought of Santa Lucia as a real person. My mother made me look at a lot of religious iconography. That was my background.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was your mother religious?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Not at all. She never went to church. She liked saints but thought the Pope was an idiot. In those years, Christian Democrats ruled Italy, along with the Mafia. It was not a great time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where did you live?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I was raised in a province of Venice, in the north, in the Alps. But that was by chance. My mother had left England when I was two-and-a-half or three and moved there to teach literature in a village of 2,000 people, mostly peasants. I grew up surrounded by peasants, goats, cows, and chickens. They called us the foreste, which means “woods” in Italian, but in the local dialect it meant “strange, foreign.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Just you and your mother?
VANESSA BEECROFT — We were two strangers in this small village. And my mother was vegetarian, a Marxist, a feminist, and against religion. No men, no car, no TV, no phone. I had nothing. From time to time, she had poets and intellectual men come over to visit. I don’t know where she found them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — She’d left your father?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. She just walked away.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe him?
VANESSA BEECROFT — He was very English. He looked just like Michael Caine — blond hair, half German, which he never wanted to admit — from Berlin. His mother was from Kurfürstendamm, Berlin. They moved to England during the war and forgot about Germany. He was a snob, very conservative, and a very beautiful man. I’ve always had a fantasy about my father. He was elegant, but a bit decadent. I remember he had a mustard-colored corduroy suit. I wanted to have it. He said, “Absolutely not.” He would put coconut oil on his curly hair because his new wife said otherwise he would have a big blonde Afro. Now, when I look at my kids’ curly hair, I see the hair of my father. He was driving beautiful classic cars. He had a passion for cars. He was mostly whisky and beer. He was a typical London man.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you still in contact with him?
VANESSA BEECROFT — He died a few years ago. He was still young, but he had a heart problem, smoked, and wouldn’t take his medicine. He was very holistic, except with cigarettes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why was your mother living in the swinging London of the ’60s?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I think they met in ’68. I was born in ’69. She was studying classics at university. I think they met after she finished her studies. They were quite beautiful. She quickly got pregnant with me. I was Vanessa because of Vanessa Redgrave. It was that kind of a moment in London. But she realized she didn’t want to be in London in a conservative environment. My mother is a bit disconnected. She had fantasies of the Italian poet [Cesare] Pavese, so she wanted to live in a village with cows and get to know peasants.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even [Pier Paolo] Pasolini was, as a poet, interested in cultivating the true Italian country life and its different local dialects.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes, the dialects! My mother was that type… In addition, she was extremely beautiful, like Silvana Mangano or Monica Vitti in Deserto Rosso [The Red Desert, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni] — with pronounced features, dark hair, dark eyes. My grandmother tells me, “Your mother was so beautiful, and you’re all so ugly.” But my mother didn’t care. She never cared about that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you were the little girl sharing her bohemian life.
VANESSA BEECROFT — I was the blonde one and she was the dark Medea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about now?
VANESSA BEECROFT — She travels all over. She’s independent. She never really mothered me because she was too independent.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’re the only child?
VANESSA BEECROFT — No, I have a brother, Alexander. She left him with her mother when he was only 18 months old. We never understood why! Total mystery. He was a special kid. He was the one with the white hair. But she kept complaining that he watched TV. I mean, what can you do? So what if he watched TV!
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s crazy!
VANESSA BEECROFT — She was 25. She said to me later she was too young, and she couldn’t handle it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But she kept you!
VANESSA BEECROFT — Don’t ask me why.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did your mother, with two kids, run away from your father?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. Two kids, and then she ran away! Because she was an intellectual and a rebel. We used to live in Holland Park, in my father’s family house. She told me there was no heat and no food because his family, an English family, was like that. They would put on blue jackets but didn’t eat dinner. She thought that was crazy. So, she simply left. My father was maybe too eccentric for her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, I guess she transmitted to you a true love for art and independence.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes, because I was in charge of myself. I ran away from the nursery school. She forgot me all the time. I always knew when nobody was coming to pick me up. I’d run into the middle of the other kids and sneak out and go home — because she’d forgotten to come get me. Very young, I became completely in charge of my life. That was kind of good for me. Anyway, my mother never told me what I had to do. I started to impose my own rules. I’m not doing this. I’m not eating that. I’m not going to that party. I’m not doing anything I don’t want to. I never rebelled because I had to invent my own life. I wanted to see how other people lived. She also brought me to the opera every Sunday. She’s truly passionate for opera.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In Venice?
VANESSA BEECROFT — In Verona, at the Arena di Verona. There is a minicoliseum in Verona.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Next to the lake?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. That’s where I was raised, Lago di Garda.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s beautiful.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Every other Sunday, I’d go to the Vittoriale degli Italiani [the shrine of Italian victories, the residence of the writer Gabriele d’Annunzio, overlooking the Garda Lake], with its amphitheater, its garden — with the boat in the garden!
OLIVIER ZAHM — We took pictures of that house for Purple.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, it’s a fantastic place. And D’Annunzio was a great poet, too. Also, when I was very young, at all hours, my mother would bring me to [Luis] Buñuel movies, [Ingmar] Bergman movies.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s an excellent artistic education.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. But very random. I never understood them. And she wouldn’t explain them. It was just watching Bergman, period. So I didn’t really have a proper education. Today, I feel sad for my children because, you know, that region of Italy was a walk into culture, with buildings, sculptures, music. Like France, it’s so rich. Today, when I bring them to the opera, and we drive to a parking lot, we get popcorn, go up an elevator or an escalator. I don’t want this. So I take them out into nature. I take them out to the desert. There’s nothing like real ground.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How many children do you have?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Four. But if I had the right man, I’d probably want 10. The four were easy, like nothing. Two and two. Two with Greg [Durkin], and two with Federico [Spadoni]. But they’re all here because, well, first Greg moved to Los Angeles, and then I followed, and then we divorced. And I stayed because of the law. I thought I would never meet anybody because I never meet people anyway. At least, I never have the impression of ever meeting people, certainly not partners. So, I thought: “This is the end. I’m going to be here with my two boys forever.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like your mother, running away with her kids alone?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, completely. But I always felt I’d have a family with a lot of kids. And then as a miracle, I met Federico, and then we had two others kids and now I have four, three boys and a girl. So this is like a dream.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet your current partner, Federico?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Randomly, at Miltos Manetas’s birthday party in Los Angeles.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A beautiful Italian man!
VANESSA BEECROFT — Sitting next to me. I didn’t think he was Italian, so we didn’t really exchange much. At the time, I thought he was maybe Northern European. I didn’t know. But out of the first disaster…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You are speaking about the breakup with Greg?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. I felt it was so wrong to break up a family so early. I would have stayed, but… life… I had to go! And out of the disaster, sorrow, and desperation, what happened was a kind of a miracle.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You said you were ready to have 10 children. You’ve always been obsessed with multiplicity… Like in your performances, with dozen of models!
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, I guess I do things in terms of multiplicity. My grandmother once told me, “Vanessa, when you were a kid, you kept sitting on my kitchen table and drawing family pictures with 50 or 80 kids, twins, triplets, in different families.” And I gave German names to them all, dated by year. I was inventing pyramids of families, made of paper and boxes on boxes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — All related?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes, fathers, mothers, cousins, children, and babies. Sometimes it didn’t match the math, but I just wanted to fill things up. After that, I started to draw albums of photographs of my dolls, with a group of girls with red hair. My dolls had orange, red, or yellow hair. They had German names, and I drew everything they did every day. Instead of playing, I was drawing their life. My mother kept only a few of them. They were framed with a title. They were somewhat like my performances.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How old were you when you made them?
VANESSA BEECROFT — From nine to 12.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you also do drawings when you were a kid?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes, drawings of my dolls. They weren’t like Barbie dolls. They were simple flat ones, without eyes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where did the obsession for redheads come from?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I don’t know, from my grandmother, maybe. She had real red hair.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The grandmother on your father’s side?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. I guess it was subliminal in me. My mother had black hair, and my father was blond. I always looked for girlfriends in red, or with red hair, to make paintings with red. I thought their heads contained extra color.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the Middle Ages, red-haired girls were thought to be witches and were often rejected or even killed because they were seen as devilish creatures.
VANESSA BEECROFT — I showed my mother the photographs of the VB43 performance in 2000 at Gagosian Gallery, in London, where everyone had red hair, some natural, some wigs, and she said, “This is exactly what you’ve been doing since the beginning.” She wasn’t even impressed!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Having children is certainly a uniquely feminine experience. How is it connected to your art, which explores women’s psychology?
VANESSA BEECROFT — When I was pregnant with my first child, it was so easy and natural to me. I felt I would have more children because it somehow humanized me. Before having children, I felt out of place, especially physically. I never felt comfortable. But once I gave birth, and all of a sudden I had breasts, and my belly went back to normal, I thought, “Now I understand why I’m made like this.” Then the baby wants to suckle the breast, and your body starts to return to a normal weight balance. I felt it was perfect. I very much enjoyed the physical relationship with children. And they were beautiful, and blond. I thought, “Wow, what miracles.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you wanted more.
VANESSA BEECROFT — I would have liked more because when they’re together, I realized I like the anarchy of children. You know, like Jean Vigo’s film Zéro de Conduite [Zero for Conduct], when they break things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t four a lot already? How do you travel with four kids?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, it’s a lot, especially financially. And in LA, you have to pay for schools because the public schools are bad.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This planet is no longer meant for big families.
VANESSA BEECROFT — No. Maybe we should move to a Third World country until they grow up. But I can’t leave Los Angeles because of my ex-husband. Otherwise, we’d go somewhere else immediately.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s true. They cost a fortune.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes. And we’re poor because of that. But how else do you raise a child?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk more about your sculpture, which I really love. Before, wasn’t it difficult to live from your performances? At least now, you can sell objects, right?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Well, the problem in this equation is that I don’t have a dealer right now. So I wait patiently.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But that’s the story of your life. You don’t like dealers.
VANESSA BEECROFT — I know. But, I now realize, this is bad. And I wonder why I do such things to myself?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you too complicated for dealers?
VANESSA BEECROFT — That’s what they say… I used to show with Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian, who are amazing people. More or less unconsciously I managed to act against the capitalist system in the art world. I kind of messed up with them, so now I’m not going to do that again. So, I wait. I realize now that my art colleagues were very good entrepreneurs and that I was kind of rebellious against the system.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you’re one of the most important artists of my generation.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Mm… It’s funny. Well, I tell you: I haven’t lived from my art for a long time. Of course, I’m waiting very patiently for a comeback because I like the way I was discovered in the beginning, which was so natural. It was so unbelievable. And it went so far. I don’t want to end up like my father, who inherited wealth and killed himself by smoking, and died in a bed with his Afro haircut and cigarette. Although I really do rather enjoy the decadence of Sicily and England…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You are still rebellious.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Like some artists…
OLIVIER ZAHM — The problem is that the art world has become so commercial.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yes, but I think about Matthew Barney, who has a beautiful relationship with Barbara Gladstone, a true relationship. I should not be too negative… In Milan and Naples, I have a fantastic relationship with my gallerist, Lia Rumma. She really wants me to make a lot of work again.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you rebel against the idea of art as a commodity?
VANESSA BEECROFT — At the beginning, but it wasn’t intentional.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it your anarchist mind at work?
VANESSA BEECROFT — It’s not that. Of course, if the best dealer came to my door, I would be very happy. Then I realized how so many artists have done things step-by-step, working their way up slowly. I thought the king of England was going to open the door and say, “May I please invite you to my palace?” So now I’m waiting. I conceived and art-directed Kanye West’s massive fashion show, which for a while was my main source of income — until we stopped working together on a constant basis.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did that happen? Did Kanye come to you?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, the same day I met Federico — the man I love — at Miltos’s birthday party! I didn’t know who he was because I don’t know anything. Apparently it had been a few months that he’d been trying to connect with me. I didn’t know him, so we didn’t connect. I didn’t respond, until my assistant said I had to. She said, “This is important!” And when I met him, I liked him. I thought, he was talking about 808s & Heartbreak, and because I was in the middle of an emotional crisis, with the divorce, I connected him with loss. He picked me. And because he’s African-American, I wanted to endorse him. He was very respectful of my work and my ideas. His world is chaotic, but he’s very respectful to artists and intellectuals. I was very impressed by that, and by him.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was a good idea to work for him, at least to have your name back in the American press.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you did great performances together. His fashion is very street and very direct. You brought a social dimension to it.
VANESSA BEECROFT — You know, that piece in Madison Square Garden was supposed to be a bit rougher. I wanted people of every age, and I wanted them to be styled like Pasolini, not fancy at all. But everything happened in a few days, as always with Kanye. You don’t really have the time to take care of details. I was disappointed, but at the end I saw how strong the pathos was, the feelings of this big show with so many models, a multiracial cast.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To me, it looked like a refugee camp.
VANESSA BEECROFT — That’s what it was supposed to be, but in America, in the middle of New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did the press understand the political side of it?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, of course. Kanye, too. He pretends not to because he’s too busy doing his own path, which is more complicated than I imagined. Because Kanye’s from a different background, he doesn’t want to be literal, whereas I’m a political Marxist. He says I have my own agenda, but he doesn’t want to copy what’s been done, either. He’s very sophisticated in a way. And there are so many ways to be political.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Will you continue to work with Kanye West?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, but it’s no longer on a constant basis. It was very draining intellectually, and financially for him. Now we’ll do a project when he wants, which is probably better. At the end, that was a little bit tough. I don’t like pop culture. I’m an artist. I don’t listen to the music. But I like him very much and grew to admire him — like a poet. I tell him all the time he should be a poet. He is a poet. He shouldn’t be anything else. Well, for me, I think that’s the top. He’s busy doing other things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, pop culture at a level with the Kardashians must have its own craziness.
VANESSA BEECROFT — I’m scared of it all. It’s America! And my feeling is that it will become a social disaster. But I’m negative, and Kanye is positive. He’s interested in new worlds, new physical bodies, new races. That’s where he’s venturing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you part of the styling or design of the looks?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I tried to be, but I was always called too late. I think he might have been afraid of my judgment. I did create an outline for Adidas, but it was a little bit too luxurious. He wanted something in between.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did this experience bring you back some authority?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Probably, but I didn’t always realize it. I didn’t really plan anything. For many years, when I used to work in the fashion world, I never asked to be credited. Because the outcome is not exactly what I would like, so, for many projects, I was there, but in the background.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How is your work changing? Is there more chaos? Will there be more performances? It seems to me that your performances include more and more girls now…
VANESSA BEECROFT — It’s true. I don’t always realize how many.
OLIVIER ZAHM — More and more, it seems. Now there are, what, a hundred girls?
VANESSA BEECROFT — For me, using more girls is right for these days. In the old days, I used smaller groups of girls, like 15, which I could easily manage. At Madison Square Garden, there were 1,300, I think. Which was okay. I can move them around. I felt a bit scared by the whole thing, but I always felt it had to be really big. I always want to make big gestures. So, now the performances are larger.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And maybe darker?
VANESSA BEECROFT — The mood, too, yeah. Because of the social context, maybe. But that always follows my life closely. It’s probably too much to call it all a self-portrait. But in a way, without knowing, it was always unconscious.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you art direct the girls in your perfomances? What are your rules?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I have a set of rules. Don’t talk, don’t look in the eyes. You can break the position, but don’t break the rules. Then, for the second performance, he said, a few years later, “You always put in the front the girls who look like you.” And I thought, “Who look like me? Never.” I hadn’t ever thought that, but so it was. This girl who was not really the most beautiful, not the tallest, a bit out of shape — she was that girl who particularly had to be in the front.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you do the casting? Because the girls are beautiful, but they’re not models. They are real women, with shape. They’re sexy, but not perfect, and very specific.
VANESSA BEECROFT — The casting is not easy, especially in performances for which there isn’t much time. If I could, I’d handpick the girls who look a bit like paintings, or who have an autobiographical reference. When I met my sister, I thought, that’s the one. I need her. So there is something that belongs to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your sister. You mentioned a sister, but I didn’t know you had one.
VANESSA BEECROFT — She’s my half-sister, from my father.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you meet her?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Only in 2000. She was already 15. That was perfect. So much younger. And my half-brother is 23 now. I found this beautiful brother in England, too. And he’s English, and he’s beautiful. I was so happy to discover I have another brother.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Incredible.
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah. So there is a little bit of that. And, of course, I like the Pasolini characters, like the Madonna in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. She looks like a young, unaware girl. So one of my criteria is always to pick that kind of character.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A bit poetic?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Yeah, with features from Italian Renaissance paintings, circa 1400. And fashions like in the Nouvelle Vague, which was so incredible for me to look at — women like Godard’s actress, Anne Wiazemsky. Those women looked incredible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So your castings are not easy to do. What do you say to the casting directors who help you?
VANESSA BEECROFT — Think about the picture of Vanessa Redgrave and figure that out… Only now, it’s also black girls. I have standards for black and standards for white.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What are the references for the black?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I like very much Alek Wek, the model from Sudan, though she’s very extreme. But recently, I’ve started to like other nuances. The new color, I realize, is in between dark skin and golden skin and golden hair. It’s a new type, really. Living in the States has helped me because you are mixed with so many ethnicities. Paris, too. While Italy tends to be very monocultural.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You never did anything with Indian women, Native Americans?
VANESSA BEECROFT — No. I did a performance in the Yucatán. I did a performance with Mayans. It was a one-day photo shoot. I’ll show you the Polaroids.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the next performance?
VANESSA BEECROFT — I keep it secret.
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