by Hazel Cills
On February 11, Kanye West will premiere his album at Madison Square Garden, featuring a performance by Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft. Beecroft has made her way into several of Kanye’s performances in recent years, first working with him in 2008 for an 808s and Heartbreak listening party. Since then, the two artists have collaborated on music videos and Yeezy shows, and Beecroft even exhibited her sculptures at Kimye’s wedding. Here, get to know the controversial artist whose aesthetics and penchant for nudity have strongly influenced Kanye’s fashion shows and performances.
1. Beecroft’s work isn’t exactly performance art.
Beecroft has called her works “living paintings,” drawing inspiration from Renaissance paintings to stage her hours-long showcases of female models standing in poses in different costumes and settings. She has staged nude models among classical monuments, re-created Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and assembled Gucci-bikini-clad models in the Guggenheim.
2. Her work is intentionally confrontational and uncomfortable.
Beecroft gives her models simple instructions: Don’t move, don’t talk, don’t interact with the audience. Her performances allow people to confront the female form in a non-idealized setting as well as consider their prejudices against a nude body that refuses their gaze. “We tend to vulgarize the girls, thinking that they are too beautiful, too skinny, probably a sexual object or a fashion object,” Beecroft has said. “All of these thoughts that come from the viewer belong to the viewer, not to the girls. The performance is a form of catharsis of these notions for the audience.”
3. Much of Vanessa Beecroft’s work is about her own relationship with food.
Having struggled with bulimia her entire life, Beecroft’s pieces uses female models as a mirror for her own anxieties and trauma. One of her first art pieces was the 1983 book of food, a detailed diary that chronicled her eating habits and her feelings about eating. Initially intended for just her doctor, she ultimately turned the diary into a multidimensional art piece.
4. Beecroft has been criticized for how she uses her models.
While some have called Beecroft’s work feminist, she has been criticized for making her subjects stand for so long in high heels and stripping the models of their individuality. Her early shows, which showcased extremely thin, waxed, white women were called out for looking like fashion shows or for being too sexualized. “’Hooters for intellectuals,” is how an art critic described her 1998 piece SHOW. In 2002, two members of the feminist performance group Toxic Titties, Heather Cassils and Clover Leary, hijacked Beecroft’s performance VB46 by modeling in the show and later publishing a paper on the harsh treatment of her models. “One woman told me that since this was for art, which she believed to be more socially worthy and noble than fashion or advertising, she was willing to put up with a lot,” writes Leary in the paper. “By the end of the performance she told me that she did not feel that way anymore.”
5. And she faced controversy after trying to adopt a pair of Sudanese orphans.
In the late 2000s, Beecroft turned to South Africa for artistic inspiration. Her 2007 work Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf? had 30 Sudanese women lie motionless on a white mat while Beecroft painted them in red. Her 2009 piece VB65 gathered 24 African immigrants at a dinner to eat roast chicken with their hands, a performance that asked Italian viewers to consider their prejudices against immigrant populations. During Beecroft’s travels she encountered a pair of young Sudanese orphans and decided to adopt them, a failed experience captured in the 2008 documentary The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins. The documentary premiered at Sundance and was damning, with Beecroft appearing more interested in fetishizing the children for her own art projects.
6. Beecroft regularly collaborates with fashion designers.
While the militaristic, earth-toned model army seen at Yeezy seasons one and two were both unmistakably staged by Vanessa Beecroft, she has also worked with several other high-profile designers during her career. Her performances have included clothes by Louis Vuitton, Maison Martin Margiela, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Prada. For her 1998 show at the Guggenheim, Pat McGrath even did the makeup.
7. What drew Kanye West to Beecroft’s work? Nudity.
West told the Los Angeles Times back in 2008:
“I’ve always been a fan of Vanessa’s work. I like the idea of nudity. There’s irony in that. I’ve talked so much about labels, calling myself ‘the Louis Vuitton don’ and saying Mercedes this and that. The irony is for me to lose the person most important in the world to me to Hollywood. You don’t hear me talking about labels now. It’s time to be naked.”