Vanessa Beecroft (b. 1969)

Striptease (2011)

Vanessa Beecroft experienced a meteoric rise to fame in the art world. She was twenty-four when she had her first exhibition and, only five years later, her work was on display in New York's renowned Guggenheim Museum. Photographs of her performances fetch large sums of money at art fairs and auctions; on 30 June 2000, Sotheby's in London sold one of her photographs for more than $30,000!

Beecroft's medium' is usually young women, who appear in her performances either scantily clad or naked. I regard them as subjects of a painting,' says the artist. There is a design of the performance before it happens, made by colors and numbers... The girls always change it during the four to five hours' time they are installed. I get disappointed, but it is the gap between what I'm expecting and what happens that I'm interested in.'

The daughter of an Englishman and an Italian professor of literature, Beecroft spent the first four years of her life in London. When her parents separated, she went to live with her mother near Lake Garda in northern Italy. She later studied classical art, architecture and stage design in Genoa and Milan. For her first exhibition in Milan's Galerie Inga Pinn, in 1993, Beecroft showed watercolor drawings and excerpts from a diary that described her struggle with an eating disorder - while thirty specially chosen young women mingled with the guests. This staged installation established the boundaries of her work. In subsequent performances, she refined and varied her technique. She hired long-legged models of perfect proportions and installed them wearing designer lingerie and high heels. Wearing wigs and make-up, her models all looked similar and anonymous, underlining the artificiality of their performance. The artist instructed them to avoid eye contact with the spectators, not to speak and to remain motionless whenever possible.

Beecroft's discovery by influential New York gallery owners, such as Jeffrey Deitch and, later, Larry Gagosian, paved the way for her admission to the great museums of contemporary art. At her VB 35 performance in the Guggenheim Museum in 1998, fifteen tall, slender models appeared in glittering Gucci bikinis alongside five other women who were naked except for their stilettos. The effect was striking: the 'show', as Beecroft called it, was reminiscent of fashion shows or contemporary theatre performances, but at the same time the women seemed like mannequins or classical sculptures, their high heels the pedestals of today. During the performance, the originally planned strict order of events disintegrated, and some of the women crouched or sat down on the ground. The models' nudity in the museum setting was a source of irritation, but it fell short of the shock effect associated with the happenings of Performance art (Fluxus. for instance) and Body art in the 1970s and 1980s. While it attacks artistic tradition and social norms, Beecroft's work deals with contemporary trends in culture, such as the prevailing ideal of beauty and the cult of body in advertising-without openly criticizing them, however. The artist's work is also inspired by film, literature and current events.

Reactions to Beecroft's provocative installations vary: some critics see her as a radical exponent of Performance art who has redefined the role of the nude in art, while others describe her work as voyeuristic and peddling cliched images of women as objects of sexual desire.