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Vanessa Beecroft at the Neue Nationalgalerie

Vanessa Beecroft's VB55 at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Apr. 8, 2005

Vanessa Beecroft's VB55

Vanessa Beecroft's VB55

Vanessa Beecroft's VB55

Vanessa Beecroft's VB55
A Space, Not an Act
by Sidonie von Grasenabb

On the evening of Apr. 8, 2005, holders of tickets for Vanessa Beecroft's sold-out VB55 lined up around the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, an unfortunate repeat of the long queues that also attended the "Das MoMA in Berlin" exhibition last year. The monumental, four-sided pavilion of glass and steel, sited on its massive granite foundation, was the last project completed in his lifetime by the eminent architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Like none of his other buildings, the Neue Nationalgalerie creates an absolute dissolution of the boundaries between architecture and environment, with the most perfect proportions and a virtual elimination of any functional details.

It was of course a dream for Vanessa Beecroft to stage one of her tableaux-vivants in such a sublimely reflexive architecture, and considering her emotional attachment to Berlin, where she used to visit her grandmother in the former East German part of the city.

VB55 is the Italian artist's largest performance to date, featuring 100 naked women, from 18 to 65 years old, presented barefoot on the stone floor for three uninterrupted hours, wearing sheer panty hose, their heterogeneous bodies lubricated with almond oil. Aligned between the two colossal marble pillars that support the suspended steel roof, once one of the largest structures of its type, the human props are loosely ordered by hair color (and accordingly, pubic hair color), from red through yellow to black, a reverence to the German national flag.

Beecroft has already expressed her taste for military paraphernalia in VB38 and VB42, her only performances using the "stronger sex," which featured men in uniforms. The performance is also intended to function as a self-portrait, and indeed, the artist could be considered a perfect representation of her work, albeit remaining dressed and holding a bottle of water, roaming around with an artificially cool aura.

But we do not have here one of Santiago Sierra's brutal demonstrations putting "workers" through their sadistic paces. Despite Beecroft's set of rules that are allegedly "interpreted" by the models, none of the living sculptures fainted from the voyeuristic gaze of the amateurs in the audience (though mercifully both a psychoanalyst and an emergency nurse were on the ground ready to intervene.

Unlike with VB35, the memorable 1998 performance in the rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York [see "Nude at the Guggenheim," Apr. 24, 1998], the overcrowded flat space of the Neue Nationalgalerie did not permit an overview of the installation of nude flesh. The performance had felt more human, and in subtler interaction with the empty architecture, the day before, during the shooting of the photographs and video that are now the only record of this ephemeral work.

Notwithstanding the current attention for process-oriented art, Beecroft is keen to refer to Italian Mannerist painting or Neo-Classical sculpture rather than performances by Yves Klein or Gilbert & George, and even with her mimetic predilection for Rainer Werner Fassbinders cinema she avoids the inclination toward lesbian sadomasochism.

The work is about contradictions and this is what probably constitutes its contemporary magnetism. It is about internalized feminism and autobiographical eating disorders. It is not about fashion though Beecroft's 2000 wedding, VBGD (the couple's initials), was produced by Italian Vogue. It is not about fascism, but the "master" refuses to speak directly with her controlled human tools -- to keep what she called a "violent tension."

It is about a diverse and democratic ideal of beauty, but regardless of the quintessential transparency of this public building, the non-paying populace is kept far away -- one of the curators justified the policy as necessary to avoid sexual harassment, even though complete nudity can be seen in the citys parks all summer long.

In our post-political liberal society, public order is no longer maintained by dictatorial repression and strict regulation; our impulses, from sexual orientation to cultural behavior, are more and more often experienced as matters of free choice. In this hedonistic and permissive context, the rigidly codified, authoritarian relationship in Beecrofts performances becomes transgressive and appeals metaphorically to the need for structure in our chaotic social lives -- a freely chosen master/slave form of coexistence, which might provide deep esthetical and libidinal satisfaction, and which, along with naturism, provides two requisite German fetishes.

SIDONIE VON GRASENABB is a writer based in Berlin.