Vanessa Beecroft: vb.48 721, 2001

The Beecroft Case: The Reverberations of the ‘Transnational’ Turn

In this essay, Ana María Bresciani, curator at KORO, discusses Vanessa Beecroft’s work vb.48 721 , 2001. The essay was first presented as a paper at the Vigeland Seminar 12—13.June 2023.

Vanessa Beecroft is an artist who has prominently shaped a transnational identity through her practice, primarily by using the female body as a living sculpture. This concept of transnationality is critical to understanding the relations that the Italian artist has sought in her art by representing cultures beyond her own and the implications that such decisions later had in her career. Focusing on the performance work vb.48 721 (2001), held in its photodocumentary form in the collection of KORO — Public Art Norway and currently housed at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO),1 I seek to examine the disembodiment of gender, race and class and the questions that such representations bring forward today, two decades after its creation.

Beecroft began working with the female body while still a student in Milan. In her hometown of Genoa in 2001, she articulated her first performance with Black models at the Doge’s Palace, which evoked the narrative of the ‘new’ inhabitants of many Italian cities at the time. Days after the performance, the same building hosted the 27th G8 Summit.2 The G8 countries — the world’s highest-income countries, considered to have the most advanced economies — meet annually to address international issues, such as the oil crises in the 1970s, global environmental issues in the 1980s, the economic transition of formerly communist countries and debt and financial instability in the 1990s and the socioeconomic problems facing the African continent in the 2000s. Since the late 1990s, the meetings have become visible as mediatic events due to the anti-globalisation demonstrations that now always accompany them. In Genoa, at least 200,000 protesters from all over Europe gathered, and the city became the stage for significant human rights violations, police violence and other crimes against demonstrators.

The analysis of Beecroft’s artistic production contextualised against this more extensive set of transnational events will inevitably provoke questions about art’s ethics and economic value. My aim here is to articulate the social conditions of cancel culture, freedom of speech and censorship — concepts connected to building global agendas. It also opens up the possibility to look at the synergies and tensions of constructing the ‘local’ against the backdrop of what Europe defined a ‘migrant crisis’ in the twenty-first century.

I. The Call
Since 2004, the vb.48 721 photograph by Beecroft has been on display at KHiO. In 2020 and 2021, the artwork came under great attention when the Norwegian media heavily scrutinised it. Despite this scrutiny, I would argue that no honest discussion took place regarding representation, gender, race or class, nor about how art can generate change and bring about social justice and equity. What was witnessed instead was a polarisation of communities and positions. In an attempt to rebuild the pillars of the discussions that did not happen and move forward in examining how this artwork can help us position such discussions in relation to significant canonical art movements and the legacies of modernity, I will first recount the case.

The successive brutal and unjustified police killings of Black people in the US in the first months of 2020 shook the world.3 On 22 June, as part of an international call for more justice and equality, twelve PhD students sent an open letter to KHiO’s director, Annemarie Bechmann Hansen, and rector, Måns Wrange, expressing their support for Black Lives Matter and demanding KHiO ‘join the uprising’ and host a public forum on the topics of sexism, racism and abuse of power (among others).4 They proposed that Beecroft’s work provide the basis for the first event, as it would allow complex discussion on these topics. The week before the students sent the letter, a protest poster had already been affixed next to the photograph in the Vrimla Hall, reading: ‘We support the struggle against discrimination, violence, hate, and oppression. We work for a culture that is inclusive and conscious. Education starts here! All voices should be heard. And still I rise!’

On 3 July, another 130 students condemned the school’s silence on the PhD students’ open letter through another letter. They called for more postcolonial, feminist and queer theory in their curricula and declared that KHiO was not a safe space for BIPOC students, pointing at the white supremacy and Eurocentric history of art entrenched at Norwegian institutions.5 On 7 July, Wrange, the rector, drafted a proposal to employees and students to start an internal teaching process on norm criticism, ethics, discrimination law and sexual harassment. On 2 August, a different group of five students claimed that indoctrination and ideology were threatening their academic freedom in the weekly cultural newspaper Morgenbladet.6 On 8 August, Wrange publicly acknowledged the structural racism of the school and the art field in general and presented plans to address these issues at the school in a newspaper interview with the leftist newspaper Klassekampen.7 In sum, Wrange did not deny the sentiments expressed by the students and affirmed he would begin an investigation process into and start to implement measures to address the systemic issues; these same sentiments were, in principle, at the core of Wrange’s mission statement when he had started his position as rector one year earlier. In October, KHiO’s director and rector both resigned. In December, students covered the photograph with a curtain.

The new rector, Markus Degerman, was elected in March 2021. In November, KORO and KHiO decided to move the work to another site on campus — the entrance to various storage areas and specialised workspaces for the performing arts — accompanied by a new label describing the action the two institutions had taken ‘in recognition of the historical location and [as] a signal that a work is not unassailable’.8 We could analyse what subsequently happened in the media through the lens of Chantal Mouffe’s theory of agonistic democracy to seek the value of conflict in such forms of polarisation and the ways in which this incident could lead to forming democracy.9 In the mediatic upheaval experienced at KHiO, one could say there was no ‘democratic’ discussion, as the case was shut down. KORO and KHiO were criticised for not handling the situation fairly but simply allowing five students to prevail over the remaining 144.10 The evident paradox is highlighted by a later declaration from one of the five students who made the claim about ‘indoctrination and ideology’, leading to Hansen’s and Wrange’s resignations, that she does not see anything racist or sexist in Beecroft’s work. She goes on to describe a real consequent frustration, however, at not having been provided historical evidence on the racism or sexism inscribed in the work, which a standard art historical enquiry would have been able to provide. Such further discussion would have been a matter of reconstructing the aesthetic elements that connect the work to identity politics, class and race, if one is to think about decolonising the gaze in the sense of sociologist Françoise Vergès.11

II. The Artist
Born in Genoa, Italy, in 1969, Beecroft enrolled in the set design programme at the Brera Academy in Milan in 1988, after leaving the painting course at the Genoa Ligustica Academy of Fine Arts due to its highly pictorial and nihilistic emphasis.12 Early in her studies, she became interested in the internationalisation of art. Two notable events marked her career at the beginning of the 1990s. The first was her encounter with the work of neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer at the American Pavilion at the 1990 Venice Biennale, showing a series of texts chiselled into Italian marble tile floors alongside LED signs displaying the type of electronic messages for which she is best known.13

The second was Beecroft’s visit to the group exhibition Metropolis at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 1991. Metropolis combined works by seventy-two artists from twenty countries, displayed in some 50,000 square metres of exhibition space. The exhibition presented an investigation of contemporary art in a post-ideological era, concretising the idea of Berlin as a now undivided city. Referring to the original meaning of the Greek word ‘metropolis’, the exhibition posited that Berlin had turned into the ‘mother city’, ruling over other cities. Curated by Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal, some 50 percent of the exhibited works were — despite the curators’ claims to a new world order — by American and West German artists.

So, we have now arrived at the beginning of the 1990s, and we have immersed ourselves in some of its atmospheres. Let us, then, return our focus to Vanessa Beecroft herself.

The artist’s first work to reach public display was Despair (1993), shown at the Galleria Luciano Inga-Pin in Milan. It presents drawings of heads and bodies choking and vomiting in stark green and red tones. Despair connected directly to her earlier The Book of Food, comprising typewritten lists of food Beecroft had ingested each day since 1987. For the exhibition, the diary was typed and made into a book in the shape of a white cube, like a minimal sculpture, and installed in the empty gallery. A performance was also held as part of the exhibition. Beecroft invited thirty ‘girls’ to perform as visual references to the book’s content. These women were acquaintances and fellow students from the Academy. The work is also known as vb01, commencing the system the artist now uses to title all her works. vb01 is best known for exposing private obsessions in public.14

Beecroft has claimed that in the hallways of the Brera Academy she had noted the presence of ‘unique girls’ who resembled figures found in the paintings of Piero della Francesca, the films of Jean-Luc Godard and the pages of Vogue.15 She has called such figures ‘saints in paintings who always carry things’ and was sure that food was an obsession they all shared.16 Beecroft was particularly interested in their ‘sense of shame’. When recalling this work years later, she described the public as confused and irritated, and more repulsed than charmed by these bodies. The artist also defined these human bodies as a new ‘material’ with a strong visual impact: ‘It was a controversial moment when I decided to continue using girls as material’.17

It is clear that, from the beginning of Beecroft’s practice of exposing these bodies, there has been a typology they embody, reminiscent of those suffering anorexia nervosa. The artist’s use of the word ‘material’ is also significant. Moreover, in such an investigation one should also focus on her use of the word ‘girls’ as a specific obsession and as referring to, according to the male gaze, a gendered, racialised, ageless, sexualised and universal idea of beauty. This typology appears again and again throughout art history, and Beecroft indirectly refers to it by naming Piero della Francesca. Additionally, we could read Beecroft’s ‘girls’ through the iconographic visual history of the famous Atlas Mnemosyne by Aby Warburg, begun in February 1927, in which he retraces the nymph as a Western historical subject.

III. The City
Now let us return to Genoa in 2001, in the midst of the G8 Summit. The municipality had invited Beecroft to hold a performance during the meeting of these world powers. The local newspaper proffered the headline: ‘Vanessa comes back home’.18 At the time, however, her home was Brooklyn, New York City. While searching for a location for her performance in the city centre — one of the largest and most densely populated historical centres in Europe — the artist was attracted on the one hand by the beauty of the city’s palazzos and, on the other, by the ‘illegal Nigerian immigrants who walk[ed] its streets’.19

She eventually settled on the same room in the Doge’s Palace where the world’s eight most powerful leaders would meet and legislate for the world’s future — a confirmation of Western countries’ continued imperialism. Exactly these political figures would, directly and indirectly, decide the future of the Nigerian people deemed illegal on Italy’s streets. For the occasion, Beecroft decided to cast only cis women (in her words, ‘girls’) of ‘African origin’. The artist instructed the lighting designer to imitate Caravaggio’s style of high-contrast illumination and the makeup artist to paint the casted bodies a matte black, like a fresco. Beecroft also directed the still photographer to take pictures that could be reproduced life-size, like Renaissance or baroque statues.

When, in 2003, Beecroft was the subject of a major career survey at the relatively young age of thirty-four, held at Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, curator Marcella Beccaria asked her if there had been a direct relationship between her performance at the Doge’s Palace and the social context surrounding the events of the G8 Summit. The artist answered that, yes, the work had been a statement on the G8. But, in her words, it had been ‘not only that’. She stated: ‘Usually, the performers represent me, and in this case, in my native city, I identified more with the women of color than with the local girls. Also it was a recognition of the large presence of the young black women who work on the street, without supervision or protection’.20 Most of the women Beecroft mentions arrived to the country under the most challenging of conditions, and their lack of documents was the prerequisite that made them vulnerable and thus useable as ‘material’. In this sense, it is crucial to understand what happens to a body that is used as an extractivist material. Philosopher and visual artist Denise Ferreira da Silva may help us here to rethink what it means for a Black body to be considered just matter, a ‘substance’, including its political implications and discriminations and the limits of the law.21

Fifteen days after Beecroft’s performance, the city of Genoa was to become a world theatre for testing the new politics of the twenty-first century. Autonomous institutions like NGOs and citizens were readying to enact civil disobedience and preparing discussions on topics such as migration; simultaneously, the state and the city were concentrating on surveillance and security, creating a fortress inside the city. Beecroft, willingly or not, provoked discussion of the illegal or clandestine subject inside the Doge’s Palace. Not by chance, the motto of the protesters in Genoa was, ‘We are all clandestine’.22

IV. Post-G8
The 2000s were whimsical years in Beecroft’s practice. She continued to gain international recognition from the art world, with exhibitions at major institutions like Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and the Venice Biennale, following shows at MoMA PS1 and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Quickly, though, she withdrew from the gallery circuit in 2006 and then entirely from the art world in 2016. A series of events had led to outcry against her art practice and precipitated this career turn.

In 2005, Beecroft began to travel to South Sudan while attempting to adopt twin children for a new body of work. In 2006, she met the New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly, who filmed the artist for sixteen months, following her personal journey and artistic project. In 2007, the project resulted in a public performance, held in Venice’s fish market, entitled vb61: Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?. It presented thirty nude Sudanese cis women painted in black and covered with buckets of fake blood and lying on a white canvas. The public reaction to this last performance was starkly different to the reception of her earlier works. Audiences were no longer making connections to an understanding of the human body and its problematic portrayal in art history; rather, tourists and passers-by reportedly were giggling and not reading the scene as an artwork. Beecroft’s Italian galleries, Galleria Massimo Minini and Galleria Lia Rumma, tried to contextualise the performance as one of the artist’s most politicised projects, denouncing the war in South Sudan. They also tried to historicise the performance in line with major Western references such as the drip paintings of the American expressionist Jackson Pollock and the actionist performances of Austrian painter Hermann Nitsch.23 This attempt to maintain Beecroft’s credibility as a relevant contemporary artist through her commitment to ‘the other’, however, had no impact. A year later, in 2008, Brettkelly’s documentary The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins was shown at Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The film depicts a ‘complex’ Beecroft deprived of any ‘maternal qualities’ as she attempts to adopt two Sudanese orphans and ‘use’ them as subjects in her work. By this point, the film and the South Sudan Project, a photographic series portraying the subjects as Christian icons begun in 2007, had unveiled the complex relations of the artist to her subjects, leading to complications in both her private life and her career.24

During this period, Beecroft moved from New York to Los Angeles. Here she met musician and fashion designer Kanye West, who hired Beecroft to choreograph his fashion shows and made her a star of the US fashion scene. One could ask if this retreat into the world of fashion was connected to the fact that discussions on the ethics and effects sparked by intersectional theories on class, gender and race, which have resulted in stronger pushes for more equity in the art world, were and are taking more time to be integrated in the realm of fashion.

V. Concluding Remarks
Beecroft’s history in Norway begins in 2001, with her solo presentation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo. The exhibition included 360 framed drawings and six videos of her performances of varying lengths, depicting women in their underwear, female fashion models and women performing slow movements. To this day, vb.48 721 remains the only work by the artist to be accessioned by a public or museum collection in the country.

Fully contextualising this work in the history of painting and women’s gendered and subordinate position in history, let alone in terms of race and class, far exceeds the limits of this essay. Thus my only conclusion can be that several questions remain open. Nevertheless, my intention was to provide more ground for the historical contextualisation of vb.48 721, not only in terms of recent events but also in the long history of modernity, in order to reopen the fruitful discussions that can stem from the Beecroft case. How, then, should we continue to approach this work from an institutional perspective? How should we face criticism and lead democratic discussions within both institutional and non-institutional communities when it comes to controversial artworks with complex contexts?

For institution-affiliated art historians such as myself, it is essential to bring forward such cases that can show different — hopefully inspiring — outcomes for pushing forward important societal issues, including correcting, healing and repairing through art history and the management of our collections. With such motivation in mind, I continue to collect case studies that may help navigate the future of this case and propose them for future parts of this discussion — on cancel culture, freedom of speech and censorship — as it continues to unfold.


  1. KORO’s mandate includes the acquisition of artworks for public buildings. The acquisition committee of what was then called Utsmykkingsfondet (The Decoration Fund) acquired vb.48 721 in 2004 specifically for KHiO’s newly renovated building, and it decided to place it near the theatres, where dance, ballet and theatre students move in their daily life at the academy. In 2006, Utsmykkingsfondet changed its name to KORO — Public Art Norway.
  2. The G8 Summit brings together the eight most powerful economic countries to address international issues and tackle the most pressing global challenges. The Group of Six was founded in 1974 to include France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Canada joined in 1976. Russia followed in 1997 and was expelled in 2014.
  3. The unjust deaths in the US during the first five months of 2020 shifted public sentiment towards solidarity with Black communities and increased public awareness of structural racism. Those killed during this period were: Kwame Jones (5 January), William Howard Green (27 January), Jaquyn Oneill Light (28 January), Leonard Parker Jr. (1 February), Manuel Ellis (3 March), Barry Gedeus (8 March), Donnie Sanders (12 March), Breonna Taylor (13 March), Daniel Prude (23 March), Fred Brown (23 April), Denzel Marshal Taylor (29 April), Shaun Fuhr (1 May), Maurice Gordon (23 May) and George Floyd (25 May).
  4. The original open letter sent by the 12 PhD students was forwarded to KORO upon request to facilitate the writing of this paper. KORO archives.
  5. The original open letter sent by the 130 students was forwarded to KORO upon request to facilitate the writing of this paper. KORO archives.
  6. Vebjørn Pedersen, Magnus Vanebo, Andrea Veiden, Iris April Andresen, Elias Kallestein, in ‘Identitetspolitikk erstatter undervisning og fagmiljø på Kunsthøgskolen i Oslo’ [Identity politics replaces teaching and academic environment at Oslo National Academy of the Arts], Morgenbladet, 4 August 2020.
  7. Måns Wrange, in ‘Skal gjør skolen trygg’ [Making the school safe], Klassekampen, 28 August 2020.
  8. KORO archives.
  9. Chantal Mouffe, ‘Art and Democracy: Art as an Agnostic Intervention in Public Space’, in Open 14: Art as a Public Issue (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008).
  10. Here I reference an Instagram post by Melanie Kitti and Andrea Veiden’s statement for the online magazine Subjekt published on 10 November 2021, which includes the only statement by the KORO director.
  11. Françoise Vergès, A Decolonial Feminism (London: Pluto, 2021).
  12. Vanessa Beecroft and Marcella Beccaria, ‘Conversation Piece’, in Vanessa Beecroft Performances 1993–2003, ed. Marcella Beccaria (Milan: Skira Publishers, 2004), 17.
  13. Holzer’s first series of text-based public artworks, called TRUISMS, appeared as broadsides throughout New York in 1977, employing written language in various formats. These works include the famous lines ‘Protect me from what I want’ and ‘I am indifferent to myself’.
  14. Beecroft and Beccaria, ‘Conversation Piece’, 17.
  15. Beecroft and Beccaria, ‘Conversation Piece’, 17.
  16. Beecroft and Beccaria, ‘Conversation Piece’, 17.
  17. Beecroft and Beccaria, ‘Conversation Piece’, 17. My emphasis.
  18. I still need to track down the article in the newspaper Il Secolo XIX di Genova. However, a reference is made to it in Vanessa Beecroft, in conversation with Massimiliano Gioni and Elena Kontova, Flash Art, 29 November 2016, https://flash—
  19. Vanessa Beecroft, ‘Vanessa Beecroft Performances, 1993–2003’, in Vanessa Beecroft Performances 1993–2003, 363.
  20. Beecroft, ‘Vanessa Beecroft Performances, 1993–2003’, 363.
  21. See Denise Ferreira da Silva, ‘1 (life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value’, ¬e-flux journal, no. 79 (February 2007):
  22. ‘We are all illegals’ was another official translation of the motto.
  23. See Galleria Massimo Mini’s 2008 press release on the matter: ‘Vanessa Beecroft VB61 e VB South Sudan,’ 2018,
  24. Clayton Campbell, ‘Vanessa Beecroft and Petra Brettkelly’, Flash Art, 16 December 2016: https://flash—