April 28, 2009

REVIEW: Adoption and artist's ego filmed
Liz Braun
Sun Media
April 24, 2009

Angelina Jolie and Madonna have adopted African babies. Have they started a trend?

That's just one of the ideas investigated in The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, a terrific new documentary about performance artist Vanessa Beecroft and the African infants she wanted to call her own. As is so often the case with documentary films, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins started off as one thing and evolved into quite another.

New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly has an ongoing interest in international adoption and has already made one film about the subject. When she met performance artist Vanessa Beecroft by chance in South Sudan a few years ago, the women talked about the local twins Beecroft was thinking about adopting. Brettkelly asked if she could film Beecroft's adoption journey, not realizing that she'd wind up with a documentary that's just as much about contemporary art, extreme culture clash, Western perceptions of Third World countries and notions of family. It's simultaneously biography, art history and political commentary, and it's entirely engaging.

Over 16 months, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins follows Vanessa Beecroft in her strange, determined quest to adopt twins she has encountered in the Sudan. The film opens with a look at VB61, Vanessa Beecroft's performance piece at the 52nd Venice Biennale -- art involving 30 Sudanese women pretending to be dead, and some red paint. It's an art/politics combo.

The action then goes back to 15 months earlier, with Beecroft in Africa talking about the children she wants to adopt. Here she is breastfeeding the twins who interest her and being photographed doing so; Beecroft had arrived in Africa while still nursing one of her own children, so she could nourish the starving twins. And get her picture taken while she did. There's a juxtaposition of maternal interest and cold commerce throughout the film that is very unsettling.

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins captures Beecroft as she encounters various obstacles in her adoption attempts -- for example, the children, Madit and Mongor Akot, turn out to still have a father. Beecroft's efforts involve various local dignitaries and religious leaders and international lawyers, but it's interesting that she doesn't tell her own husband about her plans.

In the course of showing her single-minded pursuit of the kids, the movie introduces interviews with Beecroft's mother and father, with art experts and with Beecroft's own husband, social anthropologist Greg Durkin. The picture of Beecroft that slowly comes together is one of ruthless ego and bizarre sentiment. There are a handful of moments in the movie that cut painfully close to the heart of Beecroft's character -- a chat about a childhood friend she tormented for being stupid and ugly, for example, the way she hisses at her assistant, or her seeming indifference to the people around her. In one memorable scene, Beecroft is interrupted during a photo shoot by women in the village who object, strenuously, to the babies being naked in the church. She barricades the door against the women -- in their village, in their church, with their orphans.

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins is a worrisome document about the first world view of Third World countries, but what it says about contemporary art gives the movie a rich vein of humour. (Or as Damien Hirst said about 20 years ago, "I can't wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.") "My husband says, 'You're so superficial,'" Beecroft admits in the movie; tough not to agree with him.

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