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Vanessa Beecroft

ITALIAN ARTIST VANESSA BEECROFT, WHO CAME out of such prestigious art venues as ICA London and the Venice Biennale, has established herself as one of the most provocative fresh faces on the international art scene. More tableaux vivants than theater, Beecroft's performances -- in which she never appears -- seem to be banal statements about the designer fashion industry with a bit of nudity thrown in. In SHOW, her Guggenheim performance last year, some 20 high-profile models wore bikinis (or nothing) and high heels provided by Gucci. But Beecroft's stiletto nudes are far less confrontational than, say, the natural body statements of her predecessors Carolee Schneeman, Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle; identical thin mannequin bodies don't allude to fertility, or pornography. There are "no accents on the women's personalities or origin," claims Beecroft, "nor is any emphasis on femininity intended."

If SHOW's models represented an extreme female ideal, Beecroft's performance last month at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Vanessa Beecroft U.S. NAVY, used the military's ultimate marine warriors, the SEALs, to stand in for the male. Beecroft placed the men, dressed impeccably in their formal summer white uniforms, in military formation in a large white gallery. The action was typically minimal; the men changed position every five minutes, from standing with arms at side, feet together, to hands clasped behind butt, feet spread. After 20 minutes, they did an impressive single file exit. Following a 10-minute break, they repeated the routine -- twice.

Not used to being hired out for assignments outside the military -- specifically, inside museums of contemporary art -- few of the 16 SEALs were able to remain poker-faced (the guards at Buckingham Palace would have surely succeeded). Some became watery-eyed, and many appeared uncomfortable. The most visibly troubled soldier alternated between laughing and glaring psychotically.

The 200-person audience was a strange mix of mink and uniform -- MCA donors and subscribers, a few art- world personalities and an equal measure of Navy compatriots. Attentive at the start, the crowd quickly digressed into a loud cocktail party, slowly moving in closer to the performers. The lack of irony in U.S. NAVY was troubling, given that on that day there was still a war of sorts going on in Yugoslavia. Both Beecroft and the Navy spokesperson rebuked the notion that the performance had any relevance to the war. Beecroft reiterated the invitation's claim that U.S. NAVY is "a portrait of the U.S. Navy's Core Values of Honor, Courage and Commitment, as well as the SEALs' sense of Mission and Team Spirit, [and] the formation will reflect an intersection of military rules and aesthetics."

At the reception afterward, Beecroft's Navy liaison, Senior Chief Terence Hoey -- who is, as he puts it, very close with Beecroft -- was defensive about my Balkan War question, but feeling enthusiastic nonetheless: "There's no political statement here. What you've got is modern-day Greek statues. The result of this entire project is going to be so positive, not only from the military point of view, but I think also from the art point of view. I think then the other services will say, 'Hey, why can't we memorialize our people, men and women, like the Greek gods?'"

The Navy officers failed to comprehend that in complying with this public appearance, the SEALs became SHOW Part II. Not that the SEALs completely played the fool. They participated on their own terms, under their own restrictions. Force Master Chief Andrew Tafelski handpicked the men himself. The formation and uniforms were U.S. Navy. The event was by invite only, and heavily populated with Navy staff and family. Though it was Beecroft's performance, she was not allowed to bring anything except photographers, the gallerist, promoters, and, of course, her reputation.

In the end, these restrictions don't really matter. Somehow Beecroft gained access to the U.S. military and exploited its image for the sake of her art. For all the strangeness of the MCA performance, it served brilliantly as a photo shoot for her upcoming gallery show in New York City. There, far from the Navy town and in the context of an art scene that disregards patriotic authority, Vanessa Beecroft U.S. NAVY will breathe a little easier.

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