By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008
PARK CITY, Utah -- The international art star Vanessa Beecroft knows her story of vanity and obsession is controversial, because controversy is the point. She understands you might dislike her. "I totally agree," she says. "I don't like myself either."
A global art phenomenon, Beecroft is best known as the bard of bulimia (she has serious food issues) and for her infamous performance pieces in which she assembles dozens of naked women, accessorized in wigs or chains or Gucci, and displays them before an audience of elites, who sip champagne and stare.
Beecroft went to Sudan two years ago with a camera crew and photographer because, she says, she was interested in the plight of Darfur, though she concedes that she didn't know exactly where Darfur was, and never did get there.
Instead, she found herself in southern Sudan, where she visited an orphanage, found a pair of malnourished twins and offered each a breast, swollen with milk because she had left her own young child back in New York. Beecroft says she "fell in love" with the twins, that she wanted to "save" them, and began a quixotic quest to adopt the two infant boys.
Beecroft also photographed herself with the twins suckling her breasts. In an interview, she calls the work "a souvenir." The iconographic portrait, of a white-robed Madonna and two black babies, is arresting and disturbing, raising questions about celebrity, race, colonialism, international adoption. Exploitation or liberation? "There's never been anything like the double breast-feeding photo," says Jeffrey Deitch, her former dealer in New York. The photographs are for sale through her gallery in Milan. Beecroft says they sell for $50,000 each. Most of the collectors have been Americans.
This is the story told by New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly in the world premiere of her documentary "The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins" at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie follows Beecroft from the orphanage and Dinka cattle camps in Sudan to her home on Long Island to art exhibits in Milan and Venice. At times Beecroft's behavior is appalling, her motives and methods highly questionable, but it is difficult to turn away, and the more you watch, the more you wonder: What is best for these African children -- to be adopted by a wealthy vain celebrity, an Angelina, a Madonna, a Vanessa (who admits she is a little crazy), or for the babies to live with their relatives in a hut, and take their chances with poverty and disease?
In its review, the Hollywood Reporter concludes, "It probably would have taken a few more years of filming to have answered the most pertinent question: Can this kind of celebrity adoption work out satisfyingly for either parents or children?" The critic from Variety admires the film, writing that "Brettkelly offers an unvarnished picture of her subject, peeling away Beecroft's delusions about her seemingly noble adoption quest." Brettkelly's documentary is presented without narration, leaving the judgment to us. She is seeking a buyer and distributor for the film.
The day after the premiere, Brettkelly and Beecroft visit a photographer's studio at Sundance to have their portraits taken. Beecroft is tall, slender and dressed in black. Brettkelly is tall, slender and dressed in ski clothes. Beecroft is an Italian raised in Italy by an Italian mother (her father is an eccentric Englishman who appears in the film) and she speaks English with a melodic accent. Does she come across well in the film? "I thought, what a freak I am," Beecroft says softly, almost a whisper. "But it was really me."
Though Beecroft is an astute manipulator of media, she comes across in the film as annoying and clueless, like a dangerous child. In person? She seems harmless.
Brettkelly met the art star in Sudan, while the filmmaker was there working on a project on land mines. Beecroft had come because she read a brief article on Darfur in the New York Times.
"When I went I thought I was going to the Darfur area, but I wasn't really familiar with the south or west of Sudan," Beecroft recalls. "As soon as I landed -- because I was nursing my baby at home -- after all those hours of flying, I was in pain. I asked the bishop if he needed mother's milk, because I didn't want to waste the milk, and he handed me to the Sisters of Charity congregation and they brought me to three newborns. The twins and a baby girl. So then I spent two weeks nursing them and taking care of them. Sister Jacqueline kept telling me thank you for being here, and they called me 'the mother milk that comes from the sky,' literally the airplane."
Beecroft learns that the twins are not orphans, but have a father, who appears. The children's mother had died soon after their birth and he has quickly remarried. "I feel bad for the father," she says in the film. "I feel as if I'm stealing his children." But Beecroft persists. On camera she says, "I want them, but do I deserve them? I'm afraid of the judgment of the people, the bishop, the Dinkas, the world. Ah, here she is -- not that I'm important -- another white woman wanting something exotic."
Some thing. In one scene, Beecroft is shown rushing to photograph herself and the twins at the mission in Sudan, as Dinka women bang on the door of the church, upset because the twins are naked. In another, she is urging her photographer to hurry, hurry and get the shot. "Can we hide the window so they don't know we're taking pictures?" she hisses at her assistant. "We look like white monsters."
The film reveals that Beecroft's husband, Greg Durkin, thinks the adoption is a bad idea. The couple's relationship is fraying. He offers her a divorce. (The couple remain together, now in Los Angeles, where Durkin is vice president of research at Warner Bros. "I am living in a moment that is pretty hard," Beecroft says at Sundance. "But I want this family that I originally had and that was going to dissolve.")
She says she understood what her husband was saying -- that the twins were better off in Sudan with their own family, that Beecroft was often gone on long trips, her two young boys cared for by nannies. "I think that Greg, by interfering so passively aggressively, he made a better documentary, don't you think? He posed other questions," says Beecroft. "If it was an Angelina and Brad Pitt adoption story, where everybody is happy, that wouldn't have been very good. Society needed to hear no, no, maybe you shouldn't do that."
Eventually Beecroft abandons her attempt to adopt the twins. Asked if any good came of all this, Beecroft mentions that she gave the family of the twins two cows and a bicycle. She quickly says, "This is nothing." Why did she take the pictures? "I felt the urge to do them when I realized I couldn't adopt them. I needed to have this image, as a surrogate, but for me it's only the beginning," Beecroft says. "I'm working on a book on it, on a documentary, that is not a documentary like this documentary, but like an artist's notebook but I feel like I'm just at the beginning of it."
Beecroft says, "Sudan is a microcosm of Africa and of the blacks in the world, and I know it is presumptuous of me to take this subject under my wing, but I actually want to. It is my interest now."
What does the filmmaker think? "Often these children aren't really orphans," says Brettkelly. "What else can we do in these communities so these people can support and help their own children?" Instead of just whisking them off to the West. "It's a tricky subject. But as citizens of the privileged world, we need to think about it."
Beecroft smiles, her face a pale moon. She says, "I really enjoyed this criticism. It is what I work for. I want people to exercise their thoughts, and I provoke with this image. Because the image was intentional also, not only a souvenir. But it had an intent to provoke. So I was happy with this reaction. That is part of my work. To create a little bit of irritation for the audience."