The Sundance Saga Continues: Adoption as Performance Art
A photography by Venessa Beecraft of herself and the Sudanese twins she tries to adopt
Continuing with my apparent obsession Sundance films, I recently saw Pietra Brettkelly’s The Art Star and The Sudanese Twins, which screened at Sundance in 2008. The path that lead me to the documentary had little to do with Sundance and more to do with Kanye West’s 35-minute music video, Runaway. Vanessa Beecroft, the “art star” referred to in the title, served as art director for the video—which explains the hordes of ballerinas but not the incoherent storyline. I am wondering now whether she also had anything to do with Kanye’s performance on SNL. That performance also involved a horde of women, Beecroft’s signature material (the SNL clip is definitely worth a look if you have yet to see it). Following up on Runaway via the Internet I found a blog (which of course is now lost in the wilderness of the Internet never to be found again) mulling over why the heck Kanye would collaborate with this self-serving materialist. Seems right up his alley to me but that is neither here nor there.
Anyway, it was along that pop culture path that I found the documentary, which follows Beecroft as she attempts to adopt two Sudanese babies and create her new art series. Problems arise because Sudan doesn’t have any adoption laws, Beecroft’s husband doesn’t have any idea she’s trying to do this, and, well, the fact that she really hasn’t thought it through.
Clashing cultures are always a gold mine for cinematic material and the film provides no dearth of that. But what is really fascinating about the portrayal is how intertwined her attempt at adoption becomes with her artistic process. Her motivations become muddled between the two. In fact, the film spends much of its one and a half hours struggling to discern Beecroft’s motivations. Her husband has a few discussions with the camera and with Beecroft herself concerning her obsession with celebrity and celebrity adoption. Brettkelly also points to Beecroft’s upbringing as a source of her adoption drive. Her journey in Sudan is interlaced with an interview with Beecroft and her mother discussing her father and brother’s lack of presence in her childhood and her desire to have a large family.
The most revealing aspect of the film is how Beecroft herself appears to see the children as an extension of her art. In fact, at many points the children become the art—literally, she photographs herself breastfeeding them, as the Madonna and child[ren]. To see inside the head of an artist—whether or not you are fond of her work—is an interesting exploration. The adoption becomes a work of performance art and Beecroft begins to struggle when she butts up against the fact that these are people with real lives. However, Beecroft has been working with human bodies her whole career, maybe this is just the next step.
The film ends where it began—with Beecroft’s production of VB61, Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?—a performance piece where Beecroft has 30 Sudanese women lay sprawled and covered in a blood-like liquid. Beecroft explains that, with the possibility of adopting her desired twins gone, she had to find something else to throw herself into. The film itself feels like we are briefly and inexplicably thrown into Beecroft’s life and we never quite get the foothold we are looking for. It’s a fascinating ride, nevertheless.