ESSAYS Mousse 16
by Jennifer Allen
What happens when the action is over and the army of models breaks rank? What happens to Vanessa’s women? Are they part of the work that disperses in the world, continuing to “perform” with their special Renaissance aura for which they were chosen? Are they now permanently marked with the VB brand? And who is this Claire Fontaine who stole her name from a brand of school notebooks? Is she really a woman? Is she really French? And Nairy Baghramian, the young woman on the beach, wearing outfits somewhere between an abaya and a ninja suit, through which the mark of a luxury brand can be glimpsed… is it really her, or is it a personification of her acronym? Jennifer Allen explores three entities/works/brands about which we already know everything, without knowing anything.
Vanessa Beecroft, VB55, 2005. © Vanessa Beecroft
I saw her again today. She was standing with other pedestrians, waiting to cross the busy avenue of Schönhauserallee in Berlin. Although I had not seen her for more than a year, little had changed. She still had that bored look on her face, surrounded by her unkempt blond tresses. And she was wearing what could only be described as retro H&M: not new enough to be fashionable, not old enough to be vintage. I stood right beside her but could not catch her gaze. Suddenly she walked away, cued by the movement of the bodies around us. The light had changed.
The first time I saw her was in April 2005 at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Mies van der Rohe’s glass box museum. At that moment, she was wearing nothing more than a pair of skin-coloured panty hose and a sheer coat of almond oil on her skin. Despite her nudity, I didn’t notice her, because she was surrounded ninety-nine other naked women who were also taking part in Vanessa Beecroft’s performance VB55, 2004, the largest VB to date. Instead of casting models, Vanessa Beecroft had assembled one hundred ordinary women, aged eighteen to sixty-five. They had either red, golden or black hair: the colours of the German flag. It was a strange homage to flags and heads.
She caught my attention during the press conference, as Vanessa Beecroft took questions from journalists. Asked if the performance had fascist undertones, the artist denied such associations. After all, she was from Italy, the land of the Renaissance nude. Mussolini didn’t enter her mind. Looking beyond Vanessa Beecroft, I noticed her twitching out of boredom in the rows of naked women standing at attention. (Indicating her exact position would confuse the intimacy of finding high school mates in an old class picture with the taboo of identifying a person who wishes to be anonymous, despite being so visible). Instead of following Vanessa Beecroft’s rules—no talking, no laughing, no rapid moving—she followed her own: standing with her arms akimbo and swinging one of her long legs, back and forth, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
I wrote my review and forgot about VB55. About a week after the performance, I saw her walking among the crowds near the fashion shops on Alte Schönhauser Strasse. Without exaggeration, I can say I was shocked—mostly because she was fully dressed. My first thought was: “She came here to get some clothes…” It was not unlike watching an animated modern version of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus, blown forward by a crowd of hipsters instead of the Zephyrs and wearing that retro H&M instead of Horae’s flowered cloak. Maybe Vanessa Beecroft had had a point about the Renaissance nude. Her clothing, however banal, seemed like one more transgression against the artist, yet another broken rule, which had first grabbed my attention in the museum. I stopped and wanted to say something, but what? “Hey, VB55!”? She walked right by me, oblivious to my dumb amazement.
About a year after that encounter, I spotted her again in a photocopy shop, of all places, on Kastanienallee. Was she a copy of Beecroft’s work? An even more animated version of the photographs and films that Vanessa Beecroft produced to document each performance, to transform the fleeting event into a lasting artwork, if not a commodity? Indeed, the artist seemed to want her photographs and films to be the only remnants of the performances. But what about the other visual left-overs—the performers—who end up haunting the cities that people VB castings and audiences? This revenant was too real to be a ghost; too exposed to be the passante who caught Baudelaire’s eye. Without Vanessa Beecroft’s performance, I never would have noticed her in the crowd. Yet only when the performance was over, did the new one begin: A never-ending encore of VB55, wandering around the streets of Berlin, growing older every year and yet staying more or less the same. What has endured is the silence between us.
Claire Fontaine, Untitled (Clairefontaine), 2008. Courtesy: Galerie Neu, Berlin
I love Clairefontaine stationery, especially the notebooks. Founded in 1858 in France, Clairefontaine changed little over the years. “Today, Clairefontaine is the only manufacturer to fabricate and to guarantee its own paper for its products,” announces the website with modest pride. “This paper—extra white and very resistant—is reputed for its extreme softness to writing.” Just below the logo—an Art Nouveau-cum-Space Age woman, whose long mane is illuminated by a lamp (or a full moon)—one finds her unbroken promise: “the softness of writing, velvety paper, 90 g/m2.” Dolce vita meets dolce scritta.
Apart from the paper—as welcoming to the timid writer as a bubble bath to the unwashed child—the spines are sewn together and glued with cloth. No matter how far one opens a Clairefontaine notebook, the spine simply cannot be broken. Unlike those Italian Moleskin notebooks—which are in fact manufactured in China—Clairefontaine stationery has not risen in price with its popularity. Like coins, the notebooks have a literal face value; they are utterly indestructible; and they fit nicely into your pocket. That Clairefontaine has outlived the French Franc is another telling testimony to its singular combination of extreme softness with extreme resilience.
Imagine my joy when I came upon Clairefontaine at the Frieze art fair (especially since Moleskin had fabricated a special Frieze fair notebook a few years back). I would recognize her soft yet sturdy gaze anywhere, even among the crowds and the clutter of a fair. She wasn’t at the bookstore but stared discreetly—how else?—from the wrapping around several blocks of paper, which had been stacked on the floor in the corner of the Galerie Neu stand. It was the kind of stationery used for photocopying and printing. But when I tried pick up a block, I could not lift it.
An overly charming assistant explained that the stack was a work by that artist Claire Fontaine: Untitled (Clairefontaine), 2008. In each package, the paper had been replaced by a block of granite, cut in the A4 shape. That was the first of many deceptions. Claire Fontaine was founded by two artists in Paris in 2004: James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale, who seemed as French as French fries. They appropriated Claire Fontaine as “a ready-made artist” because she, too, was a fiction, although one known to every French citizen and stationery lover. A parade of artworks—flags, key-rings of picklocks, a neon sign “We are with you in the night”—flashed before me. Claire Fontaine had even made coins (!), albeit American quarters outfitted with a little retractable blade.
Although I liked the work a lot—I nicked the assistant’s finger with one of those coins at Art Basel—I immediately despised the artists. It’s one thing to appropriate the name, but to break the promise of écriture douce with a solid, cold block of granite that can be inscribed only with a chisel and a hammer… I hoped that Clairefontaine would sue their asses off and then some. The assistant tried to calm me down by telling me all about the exceptional quality of the granite, which had been shipped all the way from Italy (just like those Moleskins, right?). What do I care about granite, Italian or Chinese? I wanted to know what happened to the paper! But the assistant could not tell me. All those velvety pages… gone.
Nairy Baghramian, New Waves (am Kaspischen Meer), 2003. Courtesy: the artist
Nairy Baghramian loves to laugh. Whenever I ask her a question—funny, serious, banal—the answer is always the same: peals of laughter. She’s lucky that she has such great teeth because when she laughs you can see not only her molars but also right down her throat. She did not have to tell me that she got her tonsils removed. That was one of the first things I learned about Nairy Baghramian, shortly after finding out that the artist was born in Isfahan, Iran in 1971 and came at the age of fourteen to Berlin, where she has lived ever since. But that was as far—and as familiar—as I would get with her.
I searched for some clues about her in her work. It’s a curious melange of geometric abstraction and human figuration. There are discreet Minimalist sculptures and photographs of women, although their faces are often hidden from full view. One woman’s face is completely covered by her hair: a golden caramel wave that matches the colour and the curve of a butternut banister beside her head. In contrast to many artist-migrants, Nairy Baghramian did not seem to be interested in reclaiming her roots, let alone retracing her trajectory from Isfahan to Berlin. She has preferred to forge links through her work with the filmmaker Agnès Varda, the novelist Jane Bowles and, most recently, the designer Jeannette Laverrière.
Since there was nothing overtly autobiographical in Nairy Baghramian’s work, I was surprised when I came upon a pair of colour photographs of her face. For once, she was not laughing; it was hardly a self-portrait. Photography had somehow created a different space, a different subjectivity, a different subject, who stared with such intensity at the camera lens that she seemed to be taking the picture with her own eyes: capturing both the photographer and the viewer. According to the title—Waves (am kaspischen Meer) (Waves on the Caspian Sea), 2000—the photographs were taken on the beach of the oil-rich sea, which is a geopolitical interval between Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation.
Wherever she was walking along the sea, Nairy Baghramian had chosen an incongruous wardrobe. Instead of colourful swimwear, she is wearing black wool, a ski cap and a man’s tie. It’s a biting satire on Iranian laws that have forced women to live undercover in the name of modesty. Peering out of her ski cap, Nairy Baghramian looks more like she has just robbed a bank. Law-abiding and criminal. Since the two photographs are shown beside each other, they seem to be stills in a little movie. In the first, the tie looks like a scarf, blowing in the wind; in the second, we see the luxury label: Yves Saint Laurent. It’s another satire on Iranian women who manage to flash exclusive designer labels despite being covered up, although men’s ties are an unlikely choice for female conspicuous consumption in any country.
There are other versions of the same two photographs: New Waves, 2001, and Yves Saint Laurent (am kaspischen Meer) (Yves Saint Laurent on the Caspian Sea), 2008. Like the first title, the title of the later versions—these encores of the first set of waves—only confirm that the photographs are not self-portraits of Nairy Baghramian. They are ready-mades, which thrive through repetition and recognition. “Haven’t I seen you some place before?” As a urinal, a performance, a notebook or an artist? The first encounter tends to be banal and forgettable; the second encounter—out of context—comes as a surprise, which makes us recall the first as an exceptional event. Through the readymade, we re-evaluate and rewrite our own history. Yet this history will always remain incomplete. Somewhere, sometime, we could always be called upon to witness yet another siting: VB, CF or NB as YSL. It’s a contract of complicity that we sign in absentia and fulfill belatedly.
Originally published on Mousse 16 (December 2008-January 2009)