Tag Archives: vanessa beecroft

Standing for Attention


Vanessa Beecroft, VB 39: U.S. Navy SEALS, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, digital chromogenic print, 1999

Vanessa Beecroft’s VB 39 is a photograph made during a performance created at the San Diego Museum of Art in 1999.

Beecroft (b. 1969) is an Italian-born artist working in New York. Her large-scale, voyeuristic performances, which are highly repetitive in their form and content, focus on the importance of the encounters between model, artists, and audience. Scholars have suggested that these performances situate the models as “something between an object and an image.” [1] Beecroft’s work recalls tableaux vivants, the “living pictures” popular among nineteenth century aristocracy. Her performances are created for specific locations; each is informed by and remains entrenched in the social, historical, and political conditions of its setting. She typically uses female models; her earliest works “featured almost identically dressed women in wigs, either standing, sitting or moving in slow formation.” [2] Starting in 1999 with VB 39, Beecroft began to explore androcentric performances. [3]

In VB 39, Beecroft’s first all-male performance, 16 Navy SEALs from Naval Special Warfare Command in San Diego, CA alternately stood at attention or at ease in the Farris Galleries of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. In a photograph taken during the performance, sixteen identically dressed men stand in a choreographed arrangement in a stark white room. The men’s clothes are similarly white. All the men have neatly cropped hair, and most are clean-shaven, although three sport trim moustaches. One participant stands in front of the larger group, which is lined up five across, three rows deep. Each man adopts the same posture: legs spread hip-width, back straight, shoulders back, arms bent at a forty-five degree angle, hands clasped behind back, eyes forward.

We recognize the men as members of the United States Navy by their distinctive uniforms. As the wife and daughter of former naval officers, I look at this photograph and see information that might be lost on viewers unaffiliated with the Navy. At a distance – visual or critical – the soldiers’ outfits appear identical, but those familiar with military semiotics can decode each man’s rank and educational history through the variations in their attire. The men are not wearing their “covers” (hats); covers are worn exclusively outside, never inside. The SEALs wear “summer whites”, not full dress uniforms. This suggests a measure of informality within Beecroft’s rigidly constructed performance. The uniforms are clearly differentiated by a collection of status markers. White or black shoes indicate whether a soldier is, respectively, an officer or enlisted. Similarly, epaulets signify an officer, while a sleeve insignia marks enlisted. Seal pins, jump wings, and war ribbons further differentiate the men by rank.

The number of soldiers – 16 – is also significant; it represents the number of members in a SEAL platoon. Further, the models chosen embody the actual composition of platoon: although this may not be a specific platoon, the correct number of soldiers are present in the right distribution of ranks; thus, the group could be a functioning SEAL platoon. The group comprises non-commissioned officers, including 1st class petty officers, 2nd class petty officers, and chief petty officers, one line officer, and one limited duty officer.

VB 39 explores individual and collective identities. The soldiers’ uniforms signify the organizational norms established by the Navy and the subsumption of the individual to the institution. The uniform also suggests adherence to traditional norms masculinity, which require conformity from individual men. However, the soldiers’ status markers and physical attributes – age, hair color, skin color, facial hair, musculature, tattoos – are also a set of coded, legible signs. Despite the homogeneity imposed by the Navy uniform and Beecroft’s performance, each man has a personal narrative, an individual history. The standardization of their dress and behavior in formation reinscribe the importance of homogeneity in the collective identity, while the unique visual attributes of each soldier remind the viewer of each man’s suppressed individuality.

Christine Ross suggests that VB 39 is “masculinizing the female role of to-be-looked-at-ness.” [5] As in her earlier works, VB 39 objectifies its participants. Like the lithe fashion models populating most of Beecroft’s performances, Navy SEALs are popular sex symbols. [6] In VB 39, as in all of her works, Beecroft plays on the disjuncture of collective identity (from which sexual appeal is born) and the individual identity (which might actually spoil desire) and the effects of this rupture on the viewer’s attraction to the performers. Thus, despite a shift from female to male performers, Beecroft’s choice of subject falls neatly in line with her prior works.

[1] Francis Summers, “Vanessa Beecroft”, Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, November 16, 2007, http://www.groveart.com/

[2] Summers

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanessa_Beecroft

[4] Summers

[5] Christine Ross, The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (University Of Minnesota Press, 2006) 213, n14.

[6] Annys Shin, “SEALs go from superhero to sex symbol”, Washington Post, May 8, 2011.