Action #4: VD as VB
VD as VB - Erdgeist, Earth Spirit #27-29 10827
Unlike a re-enactment of a historical event, which is concerned with the event and its traditions, the re-enactment of a performance necessarily entails a certain level of self-referencing. It is inevitable: the first concern regards the performance, the dynamics it sparks, the critical debate arising from it, the work of the artist and his or her position in art history, and then in second place come the issues raised by the work, the story it tells. The medium prevails over the message. All of this is especially true when the original is particularly recent, and has withstood the scrutiny of the institutions and the market but not yet that of history. In such cases a re-enactment inevitably risks becoming part of the critical success of the original, becoming part of its hype, functioning as a kind of explanatory note. For this reason, anyone undertaking this kind of re-enactment has to be fairly ingenuous (whether emulator or fan) or brave.
Courage is one thing that Vaginal Davis certainly does not lack, having cut her teeth on the Los Angeles drag scene before moving to Berlin, where she currently lives. Davis is an Afro-American drag queen, who over the last twenty years has been performance artist, actress, curator, musician and writer. Jennifer Doyle offers an incisive portrait of her in the book Sex Objects, which provides an in depth examination of her works: “Her presence, her voice, her charisma are all larger than life, amplified by an Amazonian physique. Well over six feet tall, she towers above her entourage. She is incredible to watch, partly because she welds a hard and intricate version of femininity to a super-sized black body: she could be Edith Piaf's mulatta gay brother, magnified.” .
At the time Vanessa Beecroft was a rising star in the international artistic firmament. Her elaborate performances had been round the world, garnering the most coveted stages, and were gaining institutional recognition. Her formula today remains the same, with a few - but significant - variations: she exhibits bodies, set out in orderly rows, or apparently at random, usually models who are completely naked or wearing a few selected items of clothing, often haute couture. The models are given a few simple instructions: no eye contact with spectators, and no looking directly at the video or camera recording the event; to look impassible, vaguely bored; to remain standing for as long as possible, and not to speak. Beecroft's performances relate to the context where they are staged: the venue and its history, and the aesthetic and cultural models it reflects or promotes. Ever-obsessed with issues connected to the body and its compliance with certain aesthetic canons, Vanessa Beecroft explores the links between art and sexuality, the commercialization of beauty, and the economies of desire, art and voyeurism. However her works are not a critique, in so far as they lack a polemical vein and moral 'clarity': they possess the ethical ambiguity typical of much mainstream art, which has entered the economy of luxury and a system of specularity, not opposing it, but rather choosing to address it from an oblique angle.
One of the most significant characteristics of the Beecroft phenomenon, and many other darlings of the art world (Matthew Barney, for example) is the impossibility of separating the work from the persona. And although Vanessa Beecroft hardly ever appears in her performances, her habit of entitling all her works with her own initials (VB), followed by a serial number, is an explicit invitation to view them as self portraits. For this reason, in her works entitled “VD as VB”, Vaginal Davis does more than just tackle individual performances, but reworks (and subverts) the entire VB phenomenon: the artist as celebrity and the subject of gossip, fully integrated not only into the art world, but also the realm of communications and advertising; the ritual nature of the performances, from the selection mechanism to the rules for the models (detachment, silence, endurance, etc.), and the cold, refined aesthetic of the images.
The subversion occurs by means of various strategies, the first of which is a change of “context”: VB’s performances are staged in leading galleries (from the Deitch to the Gagosian), museums or elegant, prestigious venues - like Vinsebeck Castle for VB61 - while Davis puts on her performances in gay clubs, alternative venues or marginal art galleries. In these contexts the reference to the original performances may or may not be decodable, on various levels. Davis uses this situation to great effect, in order to break out of the vicious circle of self-referencing, and direct the audience’s focus to the issues raised by her own performance. Beecroft’s level of fame has transformed her works into a cultural stereotype, reworked for advertising purposes by the main glossy magazines, and this makes Davis’s version legible to those who have never heard of VB, or have only superficial knowledge of her works. This can be observed in VD as VB - Erdgeist, Earth Spirit #27-29 10827, performed in June 2007 at the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, a no-profit exhibition venue which attracts both the establishment and the general public. This performance was inspired by VB53, produced in 2004 by the Fondazione Pitti Immagine Discovery of Florence. On that occasion Beecroft, in the middle of the Tepidarium in Florence, an elegant, airy 19th century structure in iron and glass, installed a heap of dark earth, upon which models, in the usual sculpturesque poses, and wearing high-heeled sandals and long wigs, offered themselves to the public eye. The image drew explicitly on the Renaissance iconography of Mary Magdalene, observed by Beecroft in a museum in Florence. The artist, as usual, did not take part in the performance. 
At this point, in the light of what we have seen, it can be useful to return to the previously mentioned concept of 'moral ambiguity'. In her work Beecroft creates a mechanism for repressing natural urges and standardizing the body and aesthetic tastes, and she does this without passing judgement. Her work is seductive yet unsettling: it appears to want to make us reflect on an issue, but it acts with the complicity and active support of the system which is the root of the problem. It is both statement and negation. It tackles something obscure, but does not combat it, seemingly more interested in getting us to reflect on the reasons behind its success. Why are models still dying of anorexia? Why are car adverts still presenting us with these visions of Aryan-looking, glamorous, aggressively sexual, inaccessible women? Why does the image of the soldier continue to function as a symbol of power and masculinity? Beecroft does not critique these models, but exposes us – with a force never acheived by advertising – to their power of seduction.
As for Vaginal Davis, she manipulates much more direct expressive codes, such as homosexual exhibitionism, the extroverted nature of the gay world, but also cultural guerilla action and political activism. This puts her in the position to understand the pernicious nature of Beecroft's work (and the same goes for Koons, Richard Prince and many other artists, from Warhol onwards): by veiling criticism in the language of power, and presenting it in a way that pleases the system, Beecroft (like Warhol, like Koons) produces works that may be more mature and lasting from the artistic point of view, but are useless, even counterproductive, when it comes to cultural guerrilla action. The difference between the work of VB and VD could be likened to the difference between Pop Art (critical? conservative? the jury is still out), and situationist art, which is without a doubt critical. This is why the target of the détournement is Beecroft, rather than just any kind of image from the world of advertising. Davis uses Beecroft's performances as a Trojan horse to attack the institutions of the art world, and through them, the mainstream, the image of reactionary political power, aesthetic conservatism, which is culturally white and sexually hypocritical.
This approach returns to great effect in The Madonna of Laibachdorf (2007), the image produced during Davis's stay in Ljubljana, as a response to Beecroft's White Madonna with twins (2006). The latter is part of a series of works which came out of a trip to Sudan in November 2005. In this war-torn country, Beecroft – the guest of a Catholic mission – created a number of sacred shots, including this one, which shows her as an ethereal presence clad in the wonderful dress created for the occasion by the designer Martin Margiela, breastfeeding two African children. The children were Sudanese twins whose mother had died, and who were actually breastfed by the artist during her stay (she had recently given birth to her second child). There is no need to say that the image – like the others in that series – is a masterpiece of ambiguity. Springing from her desire to report her encounter with History, but also the contradictions of the humanitarian effort, these images feature a striking contrast between content and form, which is formal to the point of kitsch: the models (all Sudanese apart from the artist) are beautiful, the clothes they wear simple but elegant, the photography as cold and impeccable as ever, and the Christian iconography is presented in a mawkish, scholastic way. The moving gesture of breastfeeding two orphaned children sits awkwardly with the Margiela dress. In an interview the artist declared: 'Yes, it is an ambivalent image – everyone is either very happy or very angry.” 
In The Madonna of Laibachdorf, Davis, wrapped in an immaculate sheet, holds two white children. She is not breastfeeding them, but gazes at them maternally, an absurd expression on the face of a drag queen. While the image of Beecroft was taken in a difficult situation, The Madonna of Laibachdorf is the result of a fun session, which involved not only the babies but also their respective mothers. Once more, Davis, rather than attempting to re-enact the project faithfully, appropriates the figure and her hallmark style to develop an entirely independent discourse of her own. While Beecroft's Madonna is the symbol – successful or otherwise, this is of little importance - of our troubled relationship with the southern hemisphere, Davis' Madonna is an emblem of our atavic fear of diversity, be it racial or sexual. By breastfeeding the Sudanese twins, the wealthy white woman attempts a gesture of charity, but actually perpetrates an act of colonialism, while by cradling two chubby white babies, the black homosexual reveals the hypocrisy that lies under the thin veneer of tolerance, brandishing diversity like a threat. A genial threat, because the fear lies not in Davis, but in the eyes of the spectator.
From Jennifer Doyle, Sex Objects, University of Minnesota Press, 2006
“The sexual possibilities embedded within and contained by Beecroft's installations lend her work a gallery-sanctioned radicalism. Just as sex, as a signifier, does the work of, for instance, Jeff Koons. In this space, in which the making visible of the spectator's desires institutionally signifies art's failure to transcend the body, sex is removed from sexuality as a practice. Beecroft's work literalizes the containment of sex and the aggressive regulation of pleasure by art institutions. But Davis's appropriation of Beecroft forces the question: is this enough?” [p. 133]
“We see in Beecroft's installations of nude women – and, implicitly, in much contemporary art that looks as if it is about sex – the reproduction of the repressive hypothesis (as defined by Foucault in The History of Sexuality), insofar as the installations' shock value rests on the exposure of our supposedly disavowed libidinal investment in art. Davis's performances as Beecroft not only satirize this aspect of contemporary art, they in fact model an alternative means for making sex the subject of art – one not invested in uncovering sex as the ultimate truth of art but in using sex to make the social regulation of 'art' visible. Art, as understood by Davis in her citation of Beecroft, is a form of class warfare.” [p. 123]“By injecting art's institutional force into the spectacle of queer sex (same sex, as well as drunken, casual, and nonejaculatory), the piece raised questions about the line between sex and art – but from a different angle than that described by the exemplary figures in gay studies in art history (like Robert Mapplethorpe). Davis's work does not disturb the boundary between art and sex by making art that is overtly sexual or that formally anticipates its own censorship (as Richard Meyer theorizes a tradirion of expression of homosexuality in twentieth-century art making). More nearly, Davis troubles the art-sex distinction by invoking high-art traditions in the most inappropriate spaces (rather than inappropriate acts in high-art spaces), by reminding us that a bohemian life is about sexual possibility as well as style and innovation.” [p. 139]
VD as VB - Erdgeist, Earth Spirit #27-29 10827
Kapelica gallery, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 21 June 2007
Performer: Vaginal Davis
Original music: Tim Blue - the Cheap Kollective, Berlin
Camera and editing: Janez Janša
Photos: Nada Zgank/Memento
Installation design: Janez Janša
Supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia
the Municipality of Ljubljana
the European Cultural Foundation
Thanks: Andy Warhol Museum, Moderna galerija Ljubljana, OLOOP, Nada Žgank/Memento, Metka Megušar Bizjan, Jure Sajovic, Brane Zorman and all participating boys and girls.
VD as VB
Erdgeist, Earth Spirit
VD as VB
The Madonna of Laibachdorf
Sex Objects [excerpt]
The Mother of Invention
Sexual Generosity in Two Reenactments
June 22nd 2007 at 7 pm
Kapelica Gallery, Ljubljana
Jennifer Doyle introduces her new work Between Friends that builds on her latest publication Sex Objects (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) focusing particularly on her work on Andy Warhol's film "Blue Movie" (1970).
Official clips of this rarely seen film, kindly provided by the Andy Warhol Museum, will be screened during the lecture.
Still from the film Blue Movie
Courtesy: Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh