November 2, 2007

Dolls Without Nipples

Unlike previous female “body artists” (Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke), Vanessa Beecroft does not use her own body in her art but prefers using other female bodies for her work. Since 1993, Beecroft has presented various self-initialed and numbered tableau as “performances.” These notably involve nude or near-nude models and feature accessorized fashion. Furthermore, the models’ “actions” are controlled by Beecroft’s “orders,” i.e., “do not move; do not talk, do not interact with the audience.” There are a number of ways to begin a discussion of Beecroft’s work but the emphasized components of nude femininity coupled with fragmentary and fetisihized fashion might raise one particular question: do some female artists re-enforce male objectification of women’s bodies through their sexualized imagery?

In many of Beecroft’s performances the models wear high-fashion clothing such as the Gucci bikinis in VB35. This was intensely juxtaposed with a few completely naked models, all of whom stood for hours in the Guggenheim’s rotunda. Beecroft’s blatant exploitation of the nudity clearly suggested that jaded viewing was required by museum visitors, both male and female alike.

Feminist theorists influenced by psychoanalysis have defined “the gaze” as active (male) and passive (female). As a simple binary, this theory has a definite structure that supports male-dominance. The words of Laura Mulvey may as well be describing one of Beecroft’s performances in this excerpt:

“The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Zeigfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.”(1)

If we “read” Beecroft through Mulvey’s theories of “the gaze” then Beecroft’s use of “erotic spectacle” perhaps becomes clearer and her re-affirmation of those male and female roles is evident: her “exhibitionist” models are passive objects presented for the controlling and objectifying “male gaze.”

This is far from being a subtle use of nudity, however, as one reviewer noted that Beecroft's fetishized fashion might have a suspicious intent:

“Beecroft treats her girls rather like pillars, requiring them to stand at attention for the long pointless hours of any one of her exhibitions. And although the girls may be spared the discomfort of a pediment on their heads, really Beecroft just redistributes the weight, since the girls are required to wear high heels. This has the effect of minimizing the area of surface contact between the model and the ground, literally reducing the plane of the foot to two points (a toe and a heel), thus making it more difficult for a girl to support her own bodyweight.”(2)

It must be stressed that Beecroft did not invent the high-heel shoe yet she conspires to use its hideous design to virtually cripple her females. Undoubtedly, if a male artist had presented the same tableau he would have been charged with cruelty to women. Yet Beecroft has been given a “pass” on her use of high-fashion heels on bikini-clad or nude women.

We should also note that the feminine archetype Beecroft prefers is the incessant high-fashion vision of “perfection.” Beecroft's models are extreme ectomorphs – tall and thin with long limbs – who represent a body type virtually unobtainable for most women. It might be argued that Beecroft’s adulation of this privileged archetypal female body was empowering to women but we cannot ignore its authentication of female erotic objects for male “phantasy.”

Dominance through image or control is at the root of Beecroft’s work. It is no accident that in her early tableau the models were arrayed in a phalanx like soldiers ready for the commands of the general. What is Beecroft’s strategy? Is she subversively “taking back” the objectified female body to assert feminine autonomy? This would be an easy response for the women artists who used their own nakedness in their performances. Instead, Beecroft uses other naked women as her medium yet seems uncomfortable with their nudity: “I’m ashamed of the nude body myself, and so I throw it in the face of people.”(3)

Marina Bolmini may represent the wholesale acceptance of female “phantasy” body-type as the “plaything” of men. Her digital “alter ego” is replicated in multiples in her “Play with me” series and we recognize Bolmini’s features in her virtual females. Her work shows a “new media” influence of video gaming and the art world legitimacy of feminist art figure references (Beecroft and Cindy Sherman are mimicked). However, her multiple nudes can also be imagined as literal simulacra of glossy skin-mag “puppet” objects for a “determining male gaze:”

“The manikins[sic] don’t want to be what they represent or replace: ‘I found a doll without nipples,’ shouts the artist excited by her creative gains. ‘I think it’s better suited for Beecrofts!’ It’s a clarifying statement about an operation which isn’t a ‘copying’ but an exasperation of the real protagonist’s tensions, artists or their works, to which Bolmini gives voice, hers. The puppet’s body is also her own body, but again it isn’t precisely represented, but it is standardized and optimized in order to be harmoniously adapted to the digitalized world round them.”(4)

If Bolmini represents a disturbing and irresponsible deployment of empty spectacle and fetishized feminine accoutrements, then she joins Beecroft in a post-feminist denial of gains made by 1970s era women artists. Their work is vapid in its passive acceptance of the patriarchal social coding without a critical questioning of the underlying implications for women artists. It is work that irrefutably continues the perpetuation of male-dominance in visuality through its use of combined ideologies of advertising, image manipulation and fashion fetishization.

Image: © Copyright by Marina Bolmini.

1. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.


3. Wallace, Susan. “The Life and Art of Vanessa Beecroft”,, 2002.

4. Giardino, Lucia. “Marina Bolmini in Play With Me”, Galleria Marconi.

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