[May 14 2021]
text by JEFF RIAN
photos by DUSAN RELJIN, PETE DRINKEL, NIC TENWIGGENHORN
Vanessa Beecroft has done to performance art what Helmut Newton did to the photographic nude, using well-toned models that are physically naked rather than sculpturally nude. Naked is a synonym for nude, but nudity has a statuary quality. It is artful and sexless. Naked means that clothes are off and bodies approach a provocative state of undress, raising the temperature on nudity. Elsewhere I’ve written that naked is nudity up close, that life unrefined is naked not nude. People don’t feel nude when they undress; they feel naked. Many of us are shy when we undress. Some of us aren’t. And some aren’t in certain contexts-nude models in a life-drawing class, strippers twirling around poles, exhibitionists at the beach. Vanessa’s girls meander along the brink of representation. They’re real, and they’re naked.
In about a decade Vanessa has gone from having girls perform in their underwear to showing them bare shaved to the skin, wearing heels. But where Newton’s studio girls look brazen and decisive, their physical presence is filtered through the photographer’s lens. Vanessa’s are perceptibly realer because they perform live. The mythical Pygmalion fell in love with his sculpted creation. Vanessa’s living statues inhabit real space and time. In her early performances, they drifted around dreamy and remote, wearing wigs and prudish underwear. They avoided eye contact and, for that reason, seemed to inhabit a demimonde of unknown purpose or potential. These aren’t Toulouse-Lautrec’s denizens in the half-life between dance and sex work. Vanessa’s performances are abstract theater. The subject is the naked female. Scanning them we play ourselves against them, minds against bodies. It’s a free look because these girls inhabit a half-life the art world calls performance. It’s hard to know at what level the models themselves participate in their own form of representation. Scanners might wonder that about that too.
Any human image causes us to enact a bit of mental theater. Unconsciously we judge people (and all images of them) for their healthiness, cleanliness, attraction, and fertility. We weigh our attraction against their allure. The attraction is unconscious; feelings rise up in proportion to the allure. Our eyes take in the images; our body ingests the experience sensually; our imagination plays out Pygmalion scenes. Visual impressions are redistributed in mental images and tactile sensations. Vanessa instructs her performers to maintain remoteness, to move slowly, not to talk, to act like live classical statues, even in their powerbroker heels. By insisting on that remoteness, she strips away sentimentality, making it harder for staring eyes to transform them into Pygmalian toys. Their statuary reserve transforms them into momentary objects. Instead of purely physical status they take on the alluring status of an art object.
Artworks are status objects, specially designed to be looked at. Being an artist is a status job, sought after for its allure and its sexy lifestyle. Vanessa brings us very close to the privileges of art and the allure of sexual power. She invites us to look freely, without shame or judgment, and to enjoy and to speculate about what is possibly the greatest earthly pleasure: looking at naked girls.