Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Louis Vuitton and the artifice of Vanessa Beecroft

by Carmen Nge

“Shocking people is a very profound way to reach them,” pontificates the French high priestess of interior design, Andrée Putman, in reference to Vanessa Beecroft, the New York based Italian artist, who recently presented her work at Espace Louis Vuitton, the new 400-square-meter exhibition space of the leather goods giant.

For the Louis Vuitton flagship store along the Champs-Elysées, what could be more shocking than exorbitantly priced leather goods and accessories? But in the art gallery-esque space on the seventh floor of LV’s historic house, cow skin aficionados ogled at skin of a different animal: woman.

Beecroft, an artist best known for her live installations of nude and semi-nude women, inaugurated the opening of Espace with a three hour performance that employed the quintessential icon of boutiques: the mannequin. Instead of life-size synthetic replicas of human perfection, Beecroft used the real thing—black, brown, and white women artfully draped and posed on the shelves alongside LVclassics: studded leather suitcases, monogrammed handbags and pricey leather trunks.

Nude except for G-strings, these 30 toned models have their heads encased in transparent nylon skullcaps and their long hairless legs entwined in white leather straps, like ballerinas, but in LV heels. Their expressions are vacuous, their bodies motionless—live mannequins on display. Slender and silent, these women blend with their environment, their glistening, polished and shaved skins as deep-hued and richly coloured as the leather luggage that accompany them.

In the French language, there is no distinction between the word “fashion model” and “mannequin”. The same word, mannequin, is used to refer to both. What the artist has done is to inhabit the human model with the lifelessness of a mannequin and by design, to render the women as objects—as much “things” as their leather goods counterparts.

Will human skin someday be the new leather? Women, in particular, have been the palette for all manner of artistic interpretation for centuries. From the bodacious babes of Renaissance paintings to the thin-is-in fashion models of today, women have been valued as spectacles to be viewed, venerated and vaunted. It is only a matter of time before female materiality is recast as material goods.

It is not too surprising, therefore, to read that one of the audiences to a prior Beecroft live exhibition, titled VB46—showcasing entirely nude female models—enquired as to the price tag of the women on display.

Aside from the live performances, on the walls of the Espace Louis Vuitton, the artist hangs original artwork comprising 13 massive photographs. Entitled Alphabet Concept, these photographs are a playful representation of the all-too familiar Louis Vuitton logo. Once again using women—again, completely nude except for gaudy clown-like wigs—as her artistic tools, Beecroft recreated the logo anthropomorphically.

“My aim was to fold and bend the women to write the Louis Vuitton brand name, but in a way that also recalls classicism and beauty. Some of the women look like the pilasters of Italian Renaissance balconies,” the artist explains, in an LV interview.

Women as marble pillars, women as handbags, women as objects of art. It seems art has changed very little over the years.

In her interview with Clémence Boulouque, Andrée Putman remarks that Beecroft’s work suggests “the victory of a woman over the world of men” because a male artist could never execute such a work; to do so would be “unforgivable”. But what is it about Beecroft’s use of women that so entrances the critics?

Perhaps it is the satisfaction of being able to view live nude women, presented as objects, without guilt. Beautiful women on display can be enjoyed and delightfully pored over like LV handbags; in short, they can be willfully objectified without audiences fearful of being labeled politically incorrect. The French call it “porno chic”—the new face of art where sex and shopping, porn and advertising go hand in hand. “French luxury marques have always tended towards nudity and provocation,” confirms Isabelle Musnik, editor of the style magazine Influencia, to the BBC. How very postmodern.

And who better to tell us how to ogle women than a woman herself?

Vanessa Beecroft, who is widely known to have struggled with anorexia and exercise bulimia (psychiatrists define this as a compulsive need to burn off unwanted calories using excessive exercise), is the perfect conduit for our masochistic desire to flagellate ourselves on the altar of 21st century classical beauty. The live models for her show may be beautiful to look at but they are as lifeless and devoid of individuality as LV leather goods. Visually homogenous and united in their sameness, the race and ethnicity of the women are secondary because their skin tones define them. Their beauty lies in their ubiquity; their identities are culled from their surroundings.

Putman lauds the emptiness in the model’s look. She praises Beecroft for successfully recreating absence in her photographs of the feminized LV logo. The cavernous space within the Maison Vuitton allows the audience to experience a tangible sense of distance from the women shaped into alphabets. We see the logo before we see the women. When we move closer, the bodies, now visible, look like objects—artificial and motionless.

From models on the catwalk to models in advertisements, from pop stars to film stars, we have imbibed the culture of critical distance. In today’s mass consumer market, we objectify ourselves in an attempt to feel connected to a culture of rampant objectification. We scrutinize ourselves in the mirror, we angle our bodies to get a better view of the parts that need liposuctioning or body sculpting. We are DIY artists of the highest order and our bodies are our art tools. If we cannot shape the world, we can at least shape ourselves.

And what better shape to mold ourselves into if not a famous brand?

This article was first published in Off The Edge magazine, August issue.

Tokyo Notes : An Interview with Oriza Hirata

by Carmen Nge

Theatregoers used to plays of the Actors Studio variety were rather taken aback by Tokyo Notes, an acclaimed and award-winning Japanese drama staged last month at the KL Performing Arts Centre. The play adopts a theatrical style that appears not to be very theatrical at all. Actors often had their backs to the audience; their voices were sometimes inaudible; and more than one actor would speak at the same time. It was acting that felt curiously like life.

The brainchild of playwright-director, Oriza Hirata, Tokyo Notes is the manifestation of “contemporary colloquial theater theory” a theatrical style that eschews theatre conventions in favour of “a theatre that is a direct portrayal of the world,” according to the director. The play is performed by Seinendan Theatre Company, which was founded in 1983 and has had a strong influence on the younger generation of the theatre community in Japan.

Winner of the 39th Kishida Kunio Drama Award in 1995—the most important and prestigious award for Japanese playwrights—Tokyo Notes has been translated into 7 languages and performed in 12 cities in 9 countries since its premier in 1994. In an email interview with Off the Edge, Hirata reflects on the genesis of his play and the implications of its significance.

Carmen Nge: From my understanding of your “contemporary colloquial theatre theory”, it appears that you are celebrating real life more than theatre in its typical sense. You do not try to heighten the every day actions and realities of people to make them dramatic but instead, you present them as they are. If this is so, then why did you still choose to locate Tokyo Notes in a theatrical space? Why not have the actors perform in a real art gallery or in a public space to emphasize its realism?

Oriza Hirata: I am not celebrating the real life. My belief is that our lives exist only in reality and so there are no other ways for us but to depict reality. I'm not celebrating it. I take something from the real world and abstract it. That's how I create my pieces. It's not reality itself that I would like to delineate. I present my work, abstraction of reality, in a place suited for the piece, may it be a theater or an art gallery. We do sometimes present our show in a real art gallery.

CN: Your play has been labeled “non-dramatic” but at the same time, it has won many drama awards. What is your comment about this seeming contradiction? Do you still consider your work to be “plays” or “drama”?

Oriza Hirata: I have never once said that my work is non-dramatic. I only eliminated the incidents and events what had been considered 'dramatic' in the Western theater. I am creating very orthodox theater. There is a play script, a director and actors on stage speaking and moving in accordance with the script. And it is not my concern what it is called as the result.

CN: Tokyo Notes, written in 1994, is said to be your reaction to the first Gulf War. Why do you think you were so inspired by the war? What impact did it have in your life at the time?

Oriza Hirata: It was not so much the impact of the war itself. The impact I got was more from the fact that we were still leading our ordinary lives watching the war on TV.

CN: The setting of Tokyo Notes is in an art museum, usually a place where there is more looking and viewing than there is talking and dialogue. Why did you choose this setting? Is it perhaps symbolic of Japan’s position in the war—as neutral observers, commenting only on the sidelines but not directly involved?

Oriza Hirata: I don't mind your taking it that way.

CN: Tokyo Notes appears to be a piece that challenges the role of the audience as spectator to a dramatic event. According to reviews of your work, audience members have expressed frustration and discomfort when watching the play. How important is the audience in Tokyo Notes? What kind of effect did you want your audience to have?

Oriza Hirata: I always hope that the audience members feel as if they are also on the stage sharing the same space. I would like them to feel and think about what's happening on stage as if it is happening to them. It's different from audience sympathizing with the protagonist, which often is the case in many theatrical presentations. It's not like Brechtian plays that teach something to the audience either. I would like the audience to 'be there' when something happens on stage.

CN: Tokyo Notes is said to be your homage to Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Do you see any similarity between your own work and Ozu’s? How and why did Tokyo Story inspire you?

Oriza Hirata: Although Ozu is the filmmaker I most respect, I am not affected directly by his methods. From his Tokyo Story I only borrowed two things: the basic setting (that someone from the countryside comes to see the family) and the essential theme (who will look after the parents).

CN: Cody Poulton, your English translator, has said that your Tokyo Notes exhibits a new form that is a lens through which to gaze at the Japanese and how they see the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Do you agree with this characterization of your work? If yes, then how would you say the Japanese see the world today and is Tokyo Notes an accurate reflection of that?

Oriza Hirata: The Japanese do not see the world in any way whatsoever. The Japanese are surprisingly apathetic about the world. That is what Tokyo Notes is about.

This interview was first published in Off The Edge magazine, August issue.