Action #4: VD as VB
The Madonna of Laibachdorf
The Mother of Invention
This is not the first time Vaginal Davis has been cast as a perverse mother. Steven Meyers painted Vaginal Davis as Lupa, the Roman mythological wolf-goddess who nursed the outcast twinned sons of Mars, Romulus and Remus. She collaborated Fertile Latoya Jackson on the short video The Fertile Feeling in the 1980s. In that video, the two scamper about a low rent apartment block while Fertile goes into labor. The two are literally hysterical as they run around trying to figure out how to get to the hospital. They climb into a car and Davis drives around in circles. They go to a neighborhood clinic to find that it’s closed. They return to the apartment and Davis takes on the role of midwife, delivering a laundry basket full of eleven kittens from the spread of Jackson’s legs. Her business finished, Jackson hops up, skips out of the apartment and jumps on her skateboard, leaving Davis to look after the litter. As Jackson careens about the parking lot on her skateboard, Davis cries after her, “You just gave birth to eleventuples! Get back in here!"
There are so many things “wrong” with this portrait of Davis and her babies. First, it holds onto the awkwardness of its source-image: “White Madonna With Twins” (2006) is a photograph of art-star Vanessa Beecroft holding a jet-black Sudanese baby in each arm. Beecroft’s long red hair drapes over her shoulders, and she is dressed in a shimmering white silk dress that drops to the floor and is singed around the edges. Slits over each breast expose her nipples, and one baby appears to be trying to suckle. That image is in and of itself parodic. Beecroft belongs to that class of art world celebrities who become caricatures of themselves, leaving us to wonder how much of the eccentricity of their public personas is accident or intentional. Usually the creepiest of those artists are men: Julian Schnabel or Carl Andre, for example, swaggering around with beards and pot bellies, swaddled in workman’s overalls, as if anyone actually believed in this image of the artist as a “real” worker. Beecroft has cast herself in this image as “white monster” (the term is hers, though I am not sure she has a sense of what this means). She deliberately adopts the pose of the “benevolent” colonial mother – that benevolence barely masks the colonial’s enormous appetite for others: these Sudanese twins are worn here like two squirming Fendi bags. Like much of Beecroft’s work, the photograph aestheticizes difference (it is paired with “Black Madonna with Twins”, a portrait of a Sudanese woman draped in red, sitting in a throne like seat with the twins at her covered breasts). It is a souvenir of her loony attempt to adopt the twins, which you can buy from her gallery – the price: $50,000. The image is creepy in the extreme.
I can’t look at that photo of Beecroft now without thinking of Vaginal Davis’s self-production as its photographic negative, in perhaps the same way that Davis’s performances as Beecroft have changed forever how I think of the latter’s work. To be honest, if it weren’t for Davis’s series of Beecroft-like installations, I would never have written a word about the celebrity artist. I would not have had anything to say about her.
Draped in serene Grecian white, holding two large snowy naked babies and head cocked to one side for the camera, Vaginal Davis perfectly reproduces the regal bearing of a woman with an enormous sense of entitlement. In different hands, the black and white reversal produced by this image might look like a comment on the “mammy” image – in which a black woman looks after someone else’s white babies. Normally, in such portraits, that woman disappears into the background – not really the case here. I suppose one might also want to see the image as a comment on the fashions of gay adoption, in the same way that Beecroft’s photographs have sparked discussion of the celebrity acquisition the children from the global south. But these takes are too flat-footed – not quite right as descriptions of the image. Any such readings of the politics implicit in this set-up would tell only part of the story.
This image repeats the basic geometry of the painting of Davis as the divine harlot, the holy whore, mothering the world’s outcasts. The photograph signals Davis’s actual role in the world. Davis is a performance artist, a drag artist, a host, a musician, a collage artist and painter. But, really, her creative practice can’t be summarized by a list of the mediums within which she works. One can’t write about her work and begin with the lifting of a curtain, and conclude with the moment the house lights are turned up. Her events begins with and as a rumor – with stories about who was at least week’s event, who saw whom doing what, who got lucky. She is a mother of invention – working often with very little resources to create for her audiences a sense of enormous possibility. This is the reproduction in which Davis takes part – the generation of room to live.
Beecroft’s “White Madonna” gives us a corrupt and greedy mother who takes much more than she gives. It isn’t actually a portrait of a mother at all, in fact, but of the most sinister form of white femininity. The portrait of Davis, who is not a “real” woman and can offer only her imaginary breasts, however, is a portrait of a mother – of the mother of invention, of a woman who gives birth to herself – of a woman whose very existence makes anything feel possible. This portrait isn’t without its own melancholy: It can’t quite shed all that is implied by the geometries of exploitation that the image cites – we are left to wonder, when they “grow up”, will Davis’s children know how to give back what they taken?
Action: The Madonna of Laibachdorf
Location: Alkatraz gallery, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Date: June 19th 2007
Author and performer: Vaginal Davis
Photo: Nada Žgank/Memento
Co-ordination: Janez Janša
Producer: Marcela Okretic
in collaboration with Alkatraz gallery
Supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia
the Municipality of Ljubljana
the European Cultural Foundation
Thanks: Metka Megušar Bizjan.
Sexual Generosity in Two Reenactments
June 22nd 2007 at 7 pm
Kapelica Gallery, Ljubljana
Jennifer Doyle introduces her new work Between Friends that builds on her latest publication Sex Objects (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) focusing particularly on her work on Andy Warhol's film "Blue Movie" (1970).
Official clips of this rarely seen film, kindly provided by the Andy Warhol Museum, will be screened during the lecture.
Still from the film Blue Movie
Courtesy: Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh