Escalating the Critical Volume

by Laura Lark

Ponti Sister by Vanessa Beecroft
Lawing Gallery
Houston, Texas
March 9-April 13, 2002Her many works, her trademark living tableaux of scantily clad (or unclad) models, have been characterized as being"about" so many issues — from con­frontation of the artistic gaze to the role of viewer and artist in classical and post-classical art making — but it is the poli­tics of the group, the revenge of the object multiplied, that has become Vanessa Beecroft's signature. Its power comes from an anomaly: works that take aim at fashion, consumerism, objectification and visual politics are simultaneously as classical as they are contemporary.

With a new video installation, Ponti Sister, Vanessa Beecroft escalates the crit­ical volume with a drastic reduction in the number of subjects and dramatic attention to setting, giving the work an altogether different feel and edge. The two nearly identical works on DVD, projected simultaneously on both sides of a lone screen hanging from the ceil­ing, individually track the movements of the artist's own sister and another equal­ly statuesque model of African descent as each reclines and moves stiffly upon a designer couch. The viewer is only permitted to view one screen at a time; this enforced restriction underlines the beauty of the piece while setting the stage for its personal, and very political, ambitions.

With these dual projections, the artist adds a theatrical dimension to her leg­endary art of control over space and subject matter. Ponti Sister is set in a cavernous gallery with Classical architec­tural mouldings and features that have been painted from ceiling to floor with wide horizontal black and white stripes. In the simultaneously running projections, each model is positioned on a solitary couch, a minimally designed, black-and-white striped affair, fashioned by the legendary Gio Ponti. The spare quality of this piece of furniture makes it seem more like an ultra-trendy hospital gurney than anything anyone would want to lounge on for long, but that is just what each model does, each done up, Beecroft style, to match the decor. The white model, Beecroft's sister, is painted, face to feet, in horizontal black stripes to coincide with those of the Ponti sofa. On the opposing screen, the ebony-skinned model is painted in white stripes. From a distance — and there is a large one between the viewer and the model in the first half of these 50 minute projections — it is impossible to tell whether the models are wearing any­thing but their stripes.

In the first half of the projection, it is the character of the gallery and how the model is engulfed by her surround­ings that leaves a lasting impression. The whitish-gray floors of this space have been polished to such a brilliance that the reflections of the woman, the couch and the stark black-and-white stripes from the wall are beautiful and mesmerizing. The model appears to be stranded on her raft-like couch amidst the glittering, fluid ripples. The women, instructed only to move a tiny bit at a time in changing from a sitting position to that of full recline, emphasize the quality that in this world time moves at a dreamily slow rate.

This effect, as in any Vanessa Beecroft performance or video, is no accident. The structure filmed in the work is built in Italian "Fascist Architecture" style. This architectural trend, popular during the 19205 and 19308 and characterized by its grandiose Renaissance style, gained steam from Mussolini's political strategy of solidifying Italian nationalism by recreating the grandeur of Rome.

Something altogether different is sug­gested by the Modern black-and-white stripes and the stylings of Ponti. The clash between contemporary sensibilities and those of Renaissance art making underline the difficulty of creating radi­cally contemporary work in the birth­place of Classical one-point perspective. Interestingly, critic Dave Hickey suggests a connection between the fetish of per­spective and the world of fashion: (the) "traditional locus of the inno­cent gaze in Western art, has always been those subjects most deeply imbued with the iconography of fashion and desire ... the drafts­man's gaze strives to bring these icons closer, to override their status as representations by the immediacy of their presentation."

To create compelling art in the shadow of Leonardo is the basic chal­lenge shared by fellow Milanese artists Beecroft and Ponti. Vanessa Beecroft's solution to parrying the historical issue of the draftsman's gaze, of course, has been to poke it in her audience's and critics' faces. This notion comes into full play in the second half of Ponti Sister when the artist brings the camera up close to focus on the model, couch and immediate striped background. The artist has mentioned that Antonio Canova's rendering of Paolina Borghese, Napoleon Bonaparte's sister, inspired this work. It is in this second half of the projection, too, that the hitherto little noticed differences between the two models comes to the fore.

From close range, each figure is intensely, powerfully individual. You are confronted by the projection of a lean, long-legged woman with straight, blonde-ish hair and enormous blue eyes. This is Beecroft's sister. Remarkably adept at sitting still for long stretches of time, she just barely moves between appointed intervals. She looks fantasti­cally bored, or rather, removed from it all. The projections are now life-sized, so that when the model peers out, one feels as Manet might have felt, confronting his Olympia. The model's ennui and chilly lack of concern about the viewer's pres­ence is startling. After all, the viewer is obviously not Manet or Canova; what one is doing standing there, gazing at such a scene and at such close range, is unnerving for the audience. The power of intimidation that characterized Beecroft's previous performances has found its emblem in the single figure of the artist's sister.

The confrontational issues for which Beecroft is already well known are ratch­eted up two notches, however, when onemoves to view the flip side of the pro­jected installation, that filled with her sister's black counterpart. Engaging with this part of Ponti Sister demonstrates that Vanessa Beecroft has not lost her razor-sharp edge.

This second model, unlike her white counterpart, is not at all at ease in her role. In contrast to the first model's cool, professional demeanor, the second strug­gles to remain still. Her chest heaves with every drawn breath, and her eyes dart back and forth nervously. Her white painted stripes immediately recall forced incarceration, and when her eyes do address the viewer, her expression is almost pained. Both models shrink the viewer down to size with their gaze, seeming to ask, "What gives you the right to do this?" However, the fidgety gestures of the second woman add a chilling harmonic to the work.

Whether a different type of paint was used on the models or whether the second model's skin type was less accommodating to the medium is unknown; whatever the difference, though, the paint does not adhere to the black woman's skin as successfully as it does to the white's. There is only a small smear beneath Beecroft's sis­ter's right arm, even toward theend of the projection. In contrast, the white stripes on the black woman smear everywhere: on the Ponti sofa, on the unpainted portions of her body. Her restlessness and impatience give these smudges a ritualistic feel. Further, the white spandex bandeaux that cover the second model's chest and pelvic region do not fit her as well as the black ban­deaux fit her counterpart. With her agi­tated movements, the small garments creep up, smear the paint more and seem to exacerbate the woman's discomfort.

Here the much explored terrain of the gaze in art making yields something new: faced with this second woman's very vibrant and seemingly unwilling presence, one becomes attuned to the absence of her type in Western art. This is not one of Gauguin's calm and willing natives nor is she the comic Hat-tie McDaniel hovering in the wings of Manet's Olympia. She is tense, gorgeous, African-featured, but with shoulder length styled iron-straight hair — and one cannot help but feel that she resents the position she has been put in. Like many of Beecroft's previous projected performances, this one references the contemporary world of fashionable gaz­ing, a world where the African-featured model is rarely the norm. Her close, life-sized presence in this work brings home what this means. Unaccustomed to such a sight, we hardly know what to do with it.
In Beecroft's work it has always been hard to know whether we should be viewing women as goddesses or pris­oners. But the introduction of a black model in Ponti Sister here raises the stakes of the ambiguity. Only recently has Beecroft included more than one African featured model in her group performances; Beecroft's VB 48, 2001, for example, consisted of all black and black-painted women. The addition of race to her already provocative iconogra­phy of cultural and political motifs is tantalizing and ambiguous. If there is social commentary here, is it merely that the artist, like many in mid-career, sim­ply wants to alter her palette a bit?

Perhaps this gesture, like the one she made in VB 39, the US Navy, in 1999, is simply a kind of experiment to see how a different type will react in a standard Beecroft staging. Or maybe the choice is at bottom visual, indicating just how confident and powerful an artist Beecroft has become. A white woman utilizing black women in her own art is rare and daring move. It could be that Beecroft's visual voice has become strong enough to endure the sanctions of this social gesture.

In a Vogue interview, Vanessa Beecroft once confessed to being "ashamed of the nude body," which was why she chose to "throw it in the face of people." Perhaps, like many of us who are white in the predominantly white worlds of art, fashion, society and poli­tics, Beecroft is addressing yet another area of shame and self-consciousness in order to expose our uneasiness. Or per­haps the black model is just a very good friend of the artist's sister, and Vanessa really likes the way she looks. Whatever the case, Ponti Sister is a beautiful and compelling foray into territory that, for Vanessa Beecroft, is simultaneously strange and familiar.

All photographs by Vanessa Beecroft. © 2003 Courtesy of Deitch Projects, NY