Number 40 Winter 2008
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Beecroft & Broadhead Bared

By Kathy Dudding

On the surface, the subjects of the two local documentaries The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins (Pietra Brettkelly, New Zealand, 2008) and Rubbings from a Live Man (Florian Habicht, New Zealand, 2008) seem to be worlds apart. One features a mid-career Italian-born New York performance artist of international standing whose work using live nude models in the gallery was exhibited recently at the Venice Biennale. The other an underground Auckland theatre director and performer at the mature end of his career whose recent work is performed solo to small groups in people's lounge rooms in New Zealand and overseas.

However, regardless of where one is, either geographically or within their artistic career, life and art will intersect; a journey will be taken; lessons will be learnt. And these experiences will feed back into the work. By allowing a camera into their lives, both Vanessa Beecroft and Warwick Broadhead let the audience bear witness to this sometimes painful process.

In an interview with Beecroft at Sundance Film Festival, the artist talks about the impact of Brettkelly's film: "Her documentary has affected my personal life and interfered with the adoption process, but I accepted it as part of life's circumstances".(1) Likewise, in the Rubbings' press notes, Broadhead refers to the effect the process of making the film has had on him: "[...] through making the film, I've had an opportunity to look at the fears, not run away from them, not take drugs because they're too scary, not distract myself.... so out of that has come more peacefulness."(2) There is a three-way relationship going on between the private life of the subject, their work, and the film.

At times the camera becomes the stand in for the confessional, and an element of catharsis on the part of both participants is evident. Vanessa Beecroft, holding up a handful of pills she is taking, admits to having volatile moods - one outburst with her husband resulting in the police coming to their hotel room. Broadhead acknowledges the guilt he feels from being mean to his mother as a teenager shortly before she took her own life. Raw emotions are laid bare in a manner reminiscent of recent self-reflexive films such as Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003).

The crossover between life and art is depicted by both artists in The Art Star and Rubbings in their interpretations of that central icon of Christianity, the Madonna and Child. Both Beecroft and Broadhead place themselves in their work, Beecroft in a photograph and Broadhead as his alter ego for a scene in the film. In both self-portraits the artists depict themselves with a baby suckling at their breast(s). However, their individual takes on the spectacle of breastfeeding reflect their own idiosyncratic and transgressive bents.

In The Art Star we witness the creation of a photograph that we later see on the wall of an art gallery. Beecroft wears a long dress with slits at the breasts to which she holds Sudanese twins. On one level this picture resembles a brand image for the Italian apparel company Benetton whose recent ad campaign consisted of photographs of people from mixed cultures, including a black woman holdin g a white baby to her naked breasts. However, Beecroft’s image is carefully considered visually and conceptually. It is a statement which references classical art and reflects her own life experience. Having left her infant whom she had been breastfeeding in New York, Beecroft was painfully lactating on a trip to Sudan. She was given the newborn twins (and another girl), to feed as a way of alleviating her physical problem. She then decided to try to adopt the twins, whose mother had died in childbirth, a process which opened up an entire ethical dilemma regarding foreign adoption.

It is this journey in which Beecroft tries to grapple with the politics of such an act that the film explores. For example she listens intently to the Western Bishop who, referring to the “lost boys” - Sudanese refugees who ended up living in America and working in menial jobs - as a sophisticated form of slavery, and states that adoption only takes the future soldiers and intelligentsia away from their country. After explaining to the twins’ father that they will continue to have contact with him if she adopts them, she turns to the camera and says, "I feel bad for the father. I feel I'm stealing his children". At the beginning of the film, when prodded by the filmmaker, she says that at least if she can't adopt the twins she will have the artwork. In The Art Star Beecroft is faced with the dilemma of wanting to help the twins and the realisation that foreign adoption is a form of exploitation.

Broadhead's nod to the image of the nurturing mother can be read in the broad context of his life story. Masquerading as “Warwick's friend” he sits on a chaise lounge wearing a white dress covered in decorations, a handbag taking the place of a hat on his head. He pulls a baby doll from under his dress and holds it to his breast. After burping it the 'baby' is played with, then returned to beneath the folds of his dress. This flamboyant self-portrait has multiple readings within the context of the film. It may be seen as representing Broadhead's relationship with his mother. It also refers to the tragic story he tells in the film of his sister who also took her own life, when she was eight months pregnant.

Another common theme in both the work of Beecroft and Broadhead in The Art Star and Rubbings is nudity. Beecroft's work investigates the naked body and the connection between the objectified performer and the audience. In the film we are shown footage of her work including VB55 which was exhibited in Berlin in 2005, in which a large group of women dressed only in pantyhose stand in a room while the audience around them drink champagne and watch as the performers gradually wilt and drop to the ground. Brettkelly's camera shows Beecroft attempting to take photographs of two naked Sudanese babies in a local church, her photography session meeting fierce resistance by locals who see her actions as going against custom.

While nudity is linked in Beecroft's work to vulnerability, in Broadhead's it is celebrated. In a tableau in the film re-enacting the period that Broadhead lived in San Francisco in the 1960s with the performance group The Angels of Light, bodies writhe in orgiastic excess. In a birthing tableau Broadhead emerges naked from the earth in the middle of the bush.

Brettkelly and Habicht's cameras both focus on naked flesh that is integral to the work of both subjects. Similarities aside, however, the styles of the two documentaries set them firmly apart. Brettkelly, who comes from a background of television documentaries, takes a more traditional approach to the form. Her portrait of Beecroft combines an observational 'fly on the wall' camera technique with head and shoulders interviews of family and colleagues, as well as a set-up conversation between Beecroft and her mother. The filmmaker makes her presence known at times with the occasional question, and Beecroft often talks direct to camera. In an interview Brettkelly states that when challenged by Beecroft that she wasn't taking her suggestions for the edit into account, Brettkelly replied, "I'm doing what you would do in your own art - those women don't have a say in what you do."(3)

Conversely, Habicht has chosen to collaborate with his colourful subject, and Rubbings is experimental in style. Habicht, who trained as an artist rather than a filmmaker, cast Broadhead in an earlier experimental film Woodenhead (2003). Scenes of Broadhead speaking to camera are contrasted with a cast of his many alter ego characters talking about their 'relationship' with him. Re-enactments in the form of tableaux give an expressionistic interpretation of his life experiences in a style resembling Derek Jarman's The Garden (1990). For example, in a fantastic scene at the beginning of the film, Broadhead, in an elaborate dress made from recycled materials, is lifted up high in the tray attached to a tractor from which he anoints rugby players with flour. (A reference to flour bombs on the field during the 1981 Springbok tour?)

This fact that the film is a collaboration is proclaimed in the closing credits: “Conceived and realised by Florian Habicht and Warwick Broadhead”. At the beginning we read, “A documentary performed by Warwick Broadhead”. The boundaries in the film between documentary and fiction continually shift. At one point Broadhead faces the camera and addresses it (Habicht): "How raw do you want to see a person? What sort of vulture are you?" Within the film the artifice of the green screen setup is revealed. In the final scene Broadhead appears from off screen saying to cut, but when he realises his orders haven't been adhered to he mutters that "they can't push that stop button, they don't know how to". Habicht states in the production notes, "Warwick often confronted me, on and off camera, and it felt dishonest and contradictory not to include this in the film. It was hard." The difficulty a director faces in balancing their own desire to have control over the work, and at the same time have a trusting partnership with their subject without feeling that they are exploiting them, becomes a part of the subject matter in Rubbings. Art, life and film intersect.

Notes

1. Clayton Campbell, “Vanessa Beecroft, Pietra Brettkelly's The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins”, http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=intervista_det&id_art=68&detok, retrieved 06/07/2008.

2. “About the Production”, from Rubbings from a Live Man Press Kit, 2008.

3. http://www.nowtoronto.com/movies/story.cfm? content=162775, retrieved 06/07/2008.