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Utter chic: with an unusual global retrospective already under way, Francesco Vezzoli talks to Apollo about glamour and the contemporary art world, and why he has returned to Italy.

Francesco Vezzoli (b. 1971) is a quintessential Italian: preoccupied by high art, high Christianity and high fashion. His flamboyant video artworks, installations and live performances join the dots between those three repositories of money and power to poke fun at 21st-century mores. Celebratory in its aesthetic and satirical in its content, his work is honest in acknowledging the annexation of the art market by luxury consumerism.

Works such as Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's 'Caligula' (2005; Figs. 3 & 4), ostensibly a promotional video for a remake of the infamous 1979 film, are enjoyable primarily for their glamour and bombast. Yet that kitschy vision, acted out by Helen Mirren, Courtney Love and Gore Vidal, functions as a witty critique of the vacuity of contemporary culture. The artist cameos, pointedly, as the cracked emperor at the centre of the venality.

Invited to orchestrate the 30th anniversary gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, Vezzoli presented a performance number in which Prada-clad members of the Bolshoi Ballet danced while Lady Gaga, wearing a hat designed by Frank Gehry, played on a Damien Hirst piano (Fig. 1). Evidently averse to half measures, this year the 42-year-old takes over three of the world's most prestigious exhibition spaces for an international survey of his work. Los Angeles hosts 'Cinema Vezzoli'; Rome's MAXXI museum is converted into the 'Galleria Vezzoli'; and MoMA PS 1 welcomes 'The Church of Vezzoli' into its courtyard (various dates, 2013-14). Appropriately for an artist preoccupied with religious iconography, the overarching title for this survey of his work is 'The Trinity'.

Your exhibition, 'Galleria Vezzoli', opened recently at MAXXI, and you have upcoming shows at MoMA PSI and MOCA under the collective title 'Trinity'. How do the exhibitions differ from venue to venue, and should they be understood together or separately?

Each show has its own specific role, and is surreal in its own way. At MAXXI, we redecorated Zaha Hadid's glorious architecture with the intention of transforming the space into a parody of a Roman baroque gallery, though the result reminds me more of the Getty Villa in Malibu than a real palazzo (Fig. 2). For MoMA PS1, we're planning to deconstruct a real 19th-century church we acquired in the south of Italy and then rebuild it in the museum's courtyard. We'll use it as a cinema or, eventually, for performances. Last but not least, we're hoping to redecorate the rooms at MOCA with the entire set of furnishings from an old Italian movie theatre. Alternatively, we might install the artworks in a historic cinema in downtown LA.

My work seems to shift endlessly between the history of art, religion and glamour, so I think of these three buildings as metaphors for those themes.

You studied at Central St Martins in the mid 1990s--were you influenced by the success, at that time, of the so-called Young British Artists? Were there strategies or practices of theirs that you particularly admired?

I could say that I ended up being counter influenced. Back then, I was blown away by the attitude of the YBAs. They were so powerful, so successful, so brilliantly media orchestrated. I'd grown up surrounded by posters of Mario Merz and Wolf Vostell, so the glitter that surrounded the YBAs, that hype, always seemed to me something absolutely amazing.

But all those British artists, at least the very good ones, were expressing their own sincere political, social and creative convictions. They had their own voice, and it was loud and clear. I soon figured out that my own voice had to come from somewhere else, from my own roots. So I had to go back to Italy to figure out what my own urgencies were.

Greed (2009), featuring the A-list actors Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams in a spoof perfume advertisement directed by Roman Polanski, is among those of your works to satirise the art world by drawing explicit parallels between the artwork and a commercial vehicle for the manufacture of desire. But that satire is playful: ironic but not cynical--or so it strikes me. How, if at all, is contemporary art distinguishable from other luxury products in its conception, marketing and distribution?

'Ironic but not cynical' should be etched on a plate below my doorbell. I wish everyone defined my work in the same way.

To be honest, I don't see much difference between the two industries. I wish there was some left, but the media and the PR agencies have blended everything into one gigantic, decadent banquet. The contemporary art circus is a privately-run casino. No-one forces you to join the club or to buy its shares, so nobody is to be blamed seriously for anything.

You've always enjoyed a close relationship with the fashion industry, particularly the house of Prada. Can you expand upon your relationship with fashion?

I love fashion as a creative discipline, as much as I like cinema or used to like theatre. From a socio-economic perspective, I like to think that fashion is the only creative industry left in my country that still manufactures dignified products--objects of desire which command worldwide respect.

Other creative industries, like cinema, literature and particularly theatre, have failed completely to deliver in recent years. On top of everything else, at a time of financial crisis like the one my country is experiencing right now, the fashion industry employs a huge amount of people.

Italy's fashion moguls are pillars of the country's economy, and great philanthropists. I would challenge anyone to prove the opposite.

How do you feel about contemporary art in Italy, and why do you choose to work there?

Young Italian artists are great, but our museums are very poor and there are no real commercial or promotional structures for their work to be noticed or embraced abroad. I guess that exactly the same could be said of our young directors, writers and photographers. I've chosen to continue working in Italy because I believe my country will sooner or later rise from its own ashes.

Your work seems determined to break down boundaries: between high and low culture; American and European traditions; the popular and the radical; and art historical chronologies [by appropriating themes and symbols from the canon]. Do you consider yourself to be a bridge between cultures and traditions?

I wish I were. All my heroes were bridges between cultures, Gore Vidal to mention just one. I don't see the point of being in the 'business' of producing culture or art unless you imagine that you are telling your own story and bringing it to people who have no idea what that means or where it comes from. By stimulating that curiosity, you're creating in your audience a craving for culture, or culture itself.

What is it about Dada that attracts you?

It was the only avant-garde movement with a real sense of burnout.

Your work has always seemed to me to be concerned with the fleeting, the ephemeral, so does it feel odd to be opening a retrospective, albeit a 'mid-career' retrospective? It feels so weird and almost nonsensical. That's why I tried to turn this opportunity of a mid-career survey into something like a parody of a Cher farewell tour.

Is glamour a legitimate artistic concern? We tend, at least in British or Anglo-Saxon culture, to consider glamour as somehow incompatible with 'serious' artistic achievements, as inevitably kitsch. There's a suspicion of it. Why?

I guess anything that provides real pleasure makes the critics very suspicious, How many 'museum-worthy' artworks do you know that really make you laugh? How many that can give you a true hard-on? Pleasure is not perceived as a cultural value appropriate to the standards of contemporary art. I completely disagree with this.

Which artist, writer, film-maker, philosopher, or musician--living or dead--would you most like to include in your work?

I would have loved to meet Petronius, to hang out with him while he was taking notes for the Satyricon.

Benjamin Eastham is a freelance arts writer and co-editor of the White Review.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE: FRANCESCO VEZZOLI
Author:Eastham, Benjamin
Publication:Apollo
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2013
Words:1337
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