The Self-Discipline Artist

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Vanessa Beecroft, VB16, 1996.

Maybe it’s an American thing, a hanger-on Puritan fetish, but I can think of few qualities more seductive than discipline. It seems like the quickest path to perfection, and as much as I purport to accept—even celebrate—“idiosyncrasy,” “peculiarity,” “limitation,” they’re all consolation prizes, the realities you force yourself to love once you realize that features as smoothly angular Grace Jones’ are improbable and that no one can maintain as dogged a schedule as Olivia Dunham does in Fox’s Fringe. Perfection, it turns out, exists to push its opposite into stark relief.

Because of its discipline, Vanessa Beecroft’s work appeals to me in spite of myself. The artist, notorious for indulging in prefab beauty and unwarily participating in a legacy of objectification, uses hired, carefully selected bodies as her subjects. She dresses them in lingerie and heels, often shaves them thoroughly and has them pose in front of audiences for ungodly periods of time. Often, they get so tired they can no longer stand. In the best scenarios, Beecroft’s manicured models bring to fore the ugliness of wanting too much of yourself and watching yourself fail to achieve it. In the worst, they suck the individuality out of bodies, turning them into minions controlled not by beauty, but by an artist’s vacant desire for it. In either scenario, the work is perversely resolute.

Three of Beecroft’s performance stills currently hang in MoCA’s The Artists’ Museum, a sprawling exhibition that pools together contemporary artists from the museum’s collection. The stills are sort of crammed in a corner–you encounter them as soon as you exit Doug Aitken’s over-produced video installation–and the camera’s cool, journalistic gaze undercuts any Helmut Newton style glamor the performances might have had in person. A 1998 photograph from VB 35 (each performance is numbered sequentially) at the Guggenheim depicts women in black lingerie standing staggered in an austere gallery;  a still from VB 11 hones in on the cherubic but comatose face of one performer; and a still from VB 16 shows two fake blonds in neutral jackets sitting in front of an army of girls  in flesh-toned underwear.

Ron Athey, "Self-Obliteration," 2003; Vanessa Beecroft, from VB 16, 1996.

The most interesting thing about these three images is the company they keep. Across the hall from the Beecroft corner, is the Ron Athey alcove, a small square space receding into the wall. It features performance stills and props from Athey’s Self-Obliteration and Solar Anus projects, more kinetic than the VB images but equally neurotic. If Beecroft works in the extreme discipline of making yourself perfect, Athey works in the equally extreme discipline of pulling yourself out of your own body. And if Beecroft strives for an ideal, Athey strives to break out of one. “Open wounds seep, or sprinkle, or tinkle the blood,” Athey has written, “without which, the body would be waxen, the golden light over-saturated and brassy, a dis-intoxicant.”

Ron Athey, Performance Still, "Self-Obliteration #1: Ecstatic," 2008.

The Self-Obliteration series, an experiment in self-torture, involved “ecstatic” performances. In one, Athey appeared on stage, vigorously brushing long blond hair that fell down over his naked body. It was only when he removed the hair, held onto his bald head by surgical pins, that viewers realized just how much pain he’d been inflicting on himself.

Around 2003, Vanessa Beecroft purportedly shaved off her hair (though I’ve been unable to find any documentation of this). “I watched a few too many Holocaust films,” she told The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman. Nothing screams stoicism like self-inflicted baldness. It bucks nature, and bucking nature requires self-discipline, something Beecroft and Athey both thrive on. In that one corridor of the MoCA show, the two artists seem to be in the midst of  an accidental collaboration, something unlikely to occur in reality (their fundamental interests and audiences are too different). Athey’s toxic body counteract Beecroft’s sterilized, posed ones, and I imagine the blood that pours out of Athey splashing across the hallway and startling the VB women out of their plastic poses.