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Vanessa Beecroft’s Materials

The Yeezy Season 4 artist has a troubling history with black women

The fourth season of Kanye West’s ready-to-wear fashion line, Yeezy, had its New York City Fashion Week show on Wednesday. The show, Kanye’s first since signing a distribution deal with Adidas, featured exclusively female models of color — some professional, some celebrities, and some civilian. The clothing was mostly variations on athletic wear. Viewers were shepherded to an idyllic stretch of grass on Roosevelt Island, where models subsequently stood, walked, and occasionally crumpled in 90-degree New York City heat. When asked about the demands placed on the models, the choreographer, European performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, said, “I’m not sure why some people fainted yesterday but in my case, when it has happened in my performances, it was the level of emotional stress … It wasn’t physical.” Given Beecroft’s history of using women of color — particularly black women — as objects for her performance pieces, this response was meant to be sympathetic.

Beecroft began using black women in her art installations as soon as she arrived in America in the mid-’90s. Her tableaux vivants showed women grouped by color, size, and other overly literal interpretations of how black skin is categorized. Since her debut, Beecroft’s strange performances have recurred again and again, often around fashion week. Nominally, these events satisfy components of “performance art,” but to the eye, the women Beecroft relies on form installations. They are handled like hard things, and painted like materials.

They’re black, brown, and sometimes white; emaciated, thick, or contorted — the pictures of political suffering Beecroft imagines herself to be the patron of, but was never wholly interested in incorporating into her own body. (Earlier in her career, it’s worth noting, Beecroft externalized exercise bulimia in some work). Beecroft’s use of black women as her materials has been consistent since she debuted in the ’90s. Race-wise, it seems Beecroft’s own lily whiteness, to her, lacks the physical endurance she thinks black female bodies have. She names the archive of performances after her initials, VB, though rarely participates in them herself. During “VB55,” her 2005 show in Berlin, 100 nearly naked, greased women (really, they were girls) stood for three hours in the Neue Nationalgalerie. Thirty naked Sudanese women played dead in 2007 for “VB61: Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?”

Even the most extreme of Beecroft’s tableaus aren’t as shameless as the way she talks about black people in everyday life. She once attempted to adopt Sudanese twins after using them for her “White Madonna With Twins” show. She calls her extravagant home in Hollywood “the favela,” a Portuguese word for Brazilian shantytowns. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd recently wrote at Jezebel, “Beecroft is an active volcano of jaw-dropping (not provocative, but bizarre at best) racial fantasies, always doused with a bit of poverty tourism.”

Beecroft’s influence isn’t limited to the apolitical space of performance art, however. The art world can find a justification for the most dehumanizing of projects — but fashion is just as lawless. As a collaborator with fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Valentino, Beecroft is involved in the business of selling things to women. For nearly a decade, Kanye West has been her conduit to do this very thing. The year after “VB61” she choreographed a performance for West’s 808s and Heartbreaks listening session. West had been a fan of her work, especially the eroticism. “I like the idea of nudity,” he told the LA Times in 2008. “There’s irony in that.” Beecroft hadn’t known who he was before that first performance, because she only listens to “classical.” Eventually she’d come to work for West during fashion weeks each year to obsess over him — and his skin. “Then there is Vanessa Beecroft as Kanye, an African-American male,” she said of herself, in an August profile in New York magazine.

Putting aside how ludicrous Beecroft’s claim sounds, what really grates is that she actually uses black women as the materials for her art, makes them into vessels to flirt with her obsession with ‘reaching’ masculinized blackness. West may be a collaborator, but black women do the work, work designed by Beecroft. Sometimes they do it for so long that they literally faint. It’s easy to confuse Beecroft’s intentions with that of West’s. Both are provocateurs, protecting an interracial alliance that subtly riles fashion critics (the lot of whom are consistently conservative when it comes to criticizing West’s fashion projects). And yes, both West and Beecroft have similarly moonstruck obsessions about the intermingling of whiteness and blackness.

But West is black. And Beecroft is white. So when West, a black man, puts out a call for only “multiracial” women, the stakes are different. West isn’t entirely innocent, or uninterested, in displays of exploited women’s bodies. He is a student of the industry, after all. But Beecroft, a white woman, has a 25-year history of working women’s bodies to exhaustion, and troubling personal politics that taint her choreography.

bell hooks developed a theory to encapsulate white desire to capture black and brown ethnicity for consumption, called “eating the other.” Beecroft eats the other too, and then appears defensive when the bodies she’s treated as items start to give out. Her practice may be performance art, but because of her predilection for pushing people past humane standards, she fits right in with the fashion industry. Fashion is based, after all, on clandestine cruelty to women — from the girls who suspend their weight to walk the runway to the women in factories who work in horrifying conditions for terrible pay to mass-produce clothes they could never afford to wear. In that way, Beecroft may be fashion’s most appropriate ambassador.