“Provocation, pushing forward the limits of society, or seeing what happens if certain taboos are touched upon, is one of the things that stimulates my artistic creativity. But the primary reason for my work remains poetic, introspective, psychoanalytical, social, formal, chromatic, compositional.”                                                                                                          Vanessa Beecroft

“As a critic, it is easy to feel cornered by Beecroft's work, “ says art critic Jennifer Doyle in her book Sex Objects. Art and the Dialectics of Desire. Doyle is not the only one who feels bewildered by Vanessa Beecroft's work. The sentiment stems from the fact that the artist presents the public with an ambiguous message. On the one hand, Beecroft's performances provide a venue for the critique of the objectification of women. One the other hand, the fact that Beecroft exhibits in exclusive galleries and museums and works with high-profile fashion brands which are meant to perpetuate luxury and commodity seems to undermine the positive feminist reading of her work. Is Vanessa Beecroft a compromised artist who simply follows big-business scenario of glamor industry? Or does she perform critique of art institution by skillfully infiltrating its structure with the exaggerated message of art-as-an-object-of-desire?

Since 1993, the year of the first performance, Vanessa Beecroft adheres to the same modus operandi: her performances consist of a group of people (usually women, sometimes men) who are “installed” in a gallery for the duration of several hours. Models are often scantily clad or naked. They typically wear some form of make-up and feature some accessories, such as wigs, lingerie, pantyhose, hats, or designer shoes. Models are arranged in a geometric pattern. They are supposed to remain in the assigned position as long as possible and then relax assuming a comfortable pose. Through years of performances Beecroft has developed a set of rules which she now distributes among the models before the show. The rules are as follows:

do not talk, do not interact with the others, do not whisper, do not laugh, do not move theatrically, do not move too quickly, do no move too slowly, be simple, be natural, be detached, be classic, be unapproachable, be tall, be strong, do not be sexy, do not be rigid, do not be casual, assume the state of mind that you prefer (calm, strong, neutral,            indifferent, proud, polite, superior), behave as if you were dressed, behave as if no one were in the room, you are like an image, do not establish contact with the outside, maintain your position as much as you can, remember the position that you have been assigned, do not sit down all at the same time, do not make the same movements at the           same time, alternate resting and attentive position, if you are tired, sit, if you have to leave, do so in silence, hold out until the end of the performance, interpret the rules naturally, do not break the rules, you are the essential element of the composition, your actions reflect on the group, towards the end you can lie down, just before the end stand straight up.

The rules suggest that the models are supposed to abandon their individuality and transform themselves into mere objects of viewing. Instead of creating representations of human bodies for the purpose of viewing, Beecroft appropriates actual bodies and through her artistic practice transforms them into allegorical representations of 'the body'. In this respect Beecroft's artistic material falls into a category of a readymade, a real object which exists in the world and is simply borrowed by the artist and recontextualized in the gallery space. Beecroft's artistic practice parallels that of Marcel Duchamp's. Perhaps not accidently Vanessa Beecroft titles her performances as VB similarly to Duchamp who often abbreviated his signature as MD.

Although the act of appropriation has become a staple since Duchamp's Fountain (1917) Beecroft's has managed to discover her own personal artistic language using readymade medium: she is one of the first contemporary figurative artists who presents rather than represents the body in order to create her 'performative paintings'. As a consequence, Beecroft's performances defy clear genre categorization. They posses compositional complexity of large figurative paintings, spatial quality of sculptural tableaux, and the immediacy of live events. In general, critics agree that Beecroft's work comes less from the tradition of theater and more from a tradition of painting, sculpture and film. Her performances have no narrative structure, thus operating more on the visual rather than theatrical level.

Artist's own explanation of her work medium supports suggested interpretation: «What I am after – setting people in the place of images – is to get close to two-dimensional surfaces, like a painted picture instead of painting a picture. Those people hold the importance of portraits. We already know the girls through painting and cinema, but still we found them in the street. It is just a matter of recognizing them and bringing them into perspective. In my view, they fit like a surface and an image; they stand as icons, or models, before being portrayed as a final synthesis I defer and postpone. The real painting is much better replaced by other sorts of pictures that we sill don't know too well».

Thus formally Beecroft is engaged in the process of searching for alternative ways of representing the world, expanding established artistic media. Borrowing from the domain of painting Beecroft sometimes provides subtle references to existing canvases or well-known artists who influenced her. She often articulates these visual quotes in describing her work. For example, she states that her VB11 performance (1995) compositionally refers to the Holbein painting The Ambassadors. VB25 (1996) is inspired by Rembrandt's group portraits. VB47 ( 2001) echoes de Chirico's metaphysical sculptures and drawings, and VB48 (2001) makes use of Caravaggesque lighting.

Compositionally Beecroft's performances resemble a minimalist structure grid. She arranges her models symmetrically in concentric circles or squares. However, the regimented structure never lasts for long. The models begin to feel tired and break the composition by sitting down, moving to a different place, leaning against the walls. Thus, Beecroft's performance acquires a new shape based on the movements of the models. The structure proceeds from the state of order into chaos exemplifying the process of entropy, the undoing of form into anti-form. In his article “Performance That Makes Itself” Jeffrey Deitch draws parallels between Beecroft's work and that of John Cage who was also interested in working with structures that are constructed around change. Beecroft simultaneously celebrates and dreads the entropic process of the development of her performances. On one occasion she says that she enjoys watching how the structure disintegrates: “I am very attached to what they (the models - ed) display. The way they fall apart is feminine and delicate, it is very gender.” At the same time Beecroft feels anxious about the disintegration of her initial structure: «I usually have a very clean, precise, asexual, iconic idea, geometrical, with references to paintings. Then the girls come in, and they're real, they're physical, they have hair, hair-dos, make-up, and all that vulgarity destroys it. In that moment, while I'm about to realize     a performance I lose consciousness because I cannot deal with the reality of it».

Compositional references comprise only one aspect of Beecrotf's engagement with the painting medium. Another important formal consideration for her work is color. She often constructs her performances as monochrome, which  invokes the Modernist key concern, the purity of color: «I always envied Abstract Expressionism or Malevich and whoever had the courage to concentrate on monochrome. I don't manage it except in the indirect form of          representation. I am not capable of creating abstract work, which I feel are more noble, but which burden me with doubts about being decorative. And so I limit myself to declaring a color through representation, such as VB39 or VB46, where a dominant color exist and which I let myself classify as monochromes, even if they are not».

Two performances VB39 and VB46 that she mentions in the above quote are perhaps the most discussed works in relations to the ideas of Minimalism. In VB46 Beecroft arranges a group of androgynous looking women with short bleached white hair and white body make-up. They are 'installed' in a stark white cube of a modernist gallery serving as white picture plane on a white background. Similarly to that, VB39 features a regiment of the U.S. Navy SEAL officers in their white uniforms positioned in a white cube of one of the galleries of San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. Many other Beecroft performances are arranged around a dominant color thus references Minimalist color compositions. For example, VB16, VB17, VB18 (1996) – beige; VB19 (1996),  VB45 (2001), and VB48(2001) – black; VB30 (1997) – yellow; VB31 (1997) – blue; VB40 (1999) and VB43 (2000) – red, just to name the few.

Beecroft also draws inspiration from movies, casting her central models who she often calls characters according to some cinematographic references. Thus VB02 (1994) featured three girls who wore red wigs as a reference to Jean-Luc Godard's character Anna Wiazemsky in La Chinoise (1967). In VB09 (1994) Beecroft cast thirty young German girls who resembled Edmund in Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1947). The models/characters wore grey sweaters and bright yellow wigs in reference to the main character of the movie. VB14 (1995) had only one girl in a red braided wig who walked alone in the gallery similarly to the main character in Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960). Visconti's Conversation Piece (1974) serves as a reference for VB21 (1996). In this performance Beecroft used her own brother and the sister of the director of the gallery whose presence was supposed to be a visual quote for Visconti's movie. Overall, Beecroft was more preoccupied with the cinematic references in her early performances. She has structured her recent work according to color and space considerations which reflect specific locations and cultures Beecroft is invited to work with.

The bulk of criticism on Beecroft's work primarily treats formal aspects of the artist's performances. However, the complex message of Beecroft's projects extends beyond the mere search for the new medium of representation and postmodern play of references. Since Beecroft's main 'readymade' material is mostly a female body, her performances invite a range of feminist readings. Surprisingly, the existing feminist interpretations of Beecroft's performances often contradict each other to the maximum degree: her work is simultaneously said to sustain the dominant heterosexual and patriarchal concept of feminine beauty and to provide its deconstructive critique.

Thus, Julia Steinmetz and her co-authors argue against what they call accepted readings of Beecroft's work. Steinmetz states that viewing Beecroft's performances only within the discourse of painting limits the scope of the artist's actual projects. At the same time Steinmetz rejects claims that Beecroft performs a critique of objectification of women. Steinmetz searches for the visible signs of Beecroft's critical position as to the deconstruction of the dominant patriarchal idea of femininity and concludes that Beecroft conforms to it rather than critics it.

In order to demonstrate Beecroft's conformity Steinmetz compares Beecroft's performances to the ones of Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic, the leading practitioners of feminist art of the 1970s and 1980s. In their performances both Ono and Abramovic often place themselves in a sexualized and objectified positions. Thus Yoko Ono in her performance Cut Piece (1965) simultaneously served the role of a subject (as she was the author and initiator of the performance) and an object (as she was a recipient of the action of the performance). In this work Ono invited the audience to cut pieces of her clothing. She motionlessly sat on stage during the performance while audience members stripped pieces of her shirt.

Similarly, Marina Abramovic positioned herself as a passive object in her performance Rhythm O (1974). Abramovic sat naked in the gallery for six hours in front of a table there were 72 objects including a rose, a chain, an axe, scissors and a loaded gun. Abramovic invited the audience to perform any action they wanted upon her. During the course of the performance she was physically injured and threatened. The performance had to be stopped when one of the visitors aimed a loaded gun at Abramovic.

By placing themselves in the contradictory position of subject and object Ono and Abramovic were able to comment on the position of women who are often stripped of their subjectivity and only viewed as passive recipient of men's actions. Contrary to that Beecroft removes herself from the visual order of her performances.  Instead, according to Steinmetz, Beecroft puts her models in an exploitative position. Moreover, Beecroft tries to conceal that position. Typically Beecroft's models work long hours two or three days before the actual performance, undergoing emotional and to a certain degree physical violence in the process of transformation into object to be viewed. However, Beecroft's final product comes to the viewer as a glossy, glamorous picture which does not reveal the hardships and humiliation that the models experience. Steinmetz concludes that by concealing the behind-the-scene production Beecroft fails to produce feminist critic of the prevalent visual order of patriarchal femininity.

Jennifer Doyle is more favorable of Beecroft's projects. Doyle argues that Beecroft is successful in literalizing the place of a woman as object in the world of consumption. Moreover, through exaggerating practices of fashion industry Beecroft also manages to comment on art institution and provide the powerful critique of art-as-an-object-of-desire.

Upon encountering a range of naked women in Beecroft's performances the viewer often feels guilty or ashamed. Beecroft's work activates regressive impulses in people. Thus her performances are often cathartic because the viewer is able to confront his/her guilt, admit its existence and potentially release it.

Beecroft's work can also be viewed as a comment on the general lust for the spectacle. In this framework, the artwork becomes an object of desire, the artist enables the erotic-economic exchange, and the viewer is implicated as a consumer of the “scopic prostitution”. Doyle suggests that Manet's Olympia (1863) was the first work that suggested symbolic prostitution as a constituent part of high art, in which aesthetic impulse merged with sexual impulse. Beecroft continues the thread of critique started by Manet by making visible the spectator's desire and in this way exposing the aggressive regulation of pleasure by art institution.

Vanessa Beecroft is considered one of the international art stars nowadays. She exhibits in the most prestigious galleries and museums, she is commissioned work around the globe and is invited to participate in various Biennials. Moreover, in conformity with her stardom status she is often featured in such magazines as Vogue and is firmly associated with the world of fashion. Critical reception of Beecroft's work is as ambiguous as the message she produces. Some critics are put off by her associations with the fashion industry claiming that she undermines the critical value of her own work. Others are able to read powerful critiques of art institution and contemporary femininity. However, the art community seems to be in accord about at least one aspect of Beecroft's work: that is her expansion of the art medium and her successful search for the new modes of representation of human body.

For the visual material please go to Vanessa Beecroft official web page where multiple photos of her performances can be found under “performances” section. They are arranged by years and also numerical numbers which correspond to the order in which they were performed. Thus, for example, VB01 (1993) corresponds to Vanessa Beecroft first performance which took place in 1993.


1. Beccaria, Marcella, ed. “Conversation Piece.” Vanessa Beecroft Performances 1993 – 2003. (Milano: Skira; New York: Distributed in North America and Latin America by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. through St. Martin’s Press, 2003) 18.

2. Doyle, Jennifer. Sex Objects. Art and the Dialectics of Desire. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 130.

3. Beccaria 19.

4. Dave Hickey is the first one to establish the reading of Beecroft's work as moving paintings in “Vanessa Beecroft's Painted Ladies,” VB 08-36: Vanessa Beecrof Performances (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2000).

5. Beccaria 25.

6. Beccaria 88-91, 155 – 160, 340 – 352, 362 – 385.

7. Deitch, Jeffrey. “Performance That Makes Itself.” Vanessa Beecroft Performances 1993 – 2003. (Milano: Skira ;New York: Distributed in North America and Latin America by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. through St. Martin’s Press, 2003) 27.

8. Kellein, Thomas. Interview with Vanessa Beecroft. Vanessa Beecroft. Photographs, Films, Drawings, ed. Thomas Kellein. (Kunsthalle Bielefeld: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004) 146.

9. Kellein 137.

10. Beccaria 19.

11. Steinmetz, Julia and Heather Cassils, Clover Leary. “Behind Enemy Lines: Toxic Titties Infiltrate Vanessa Beecroft.” Sings: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31 (2006) 753 – 783.

12.  Doyle 121 – 140.

13. The phrase 'scopic prostitution' comes from Benjamin Buchloh's article “Andy Warhol's One-Dimensional Art,” in Andy Warhol: A Retrospective, ed. Kynaston McShine (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989). It is quoted in Doyle 131.