Francesco Vezzoli’s works examine the structures underlying the media and the production of the collective imagination. With chameleon-like ability, in his work the artist appropriates defined communication codes and deconstructs them until he reveals their hidden systems of reference. Whether in the form of video projections, needlepoint embroideries, photographs, or performances, his works are built from the accumulation of numerous citations and references. With an indiscriminate mix of fragments of “high” and “low” culture, the artist draws on auteur cinema, Hollywood movies, television productions, art history, fashion, and contemporary politics. Each project is built around the figure of a celebrity or well-known figure, specifically sought out by the artist. For each of them, Vezzoli investigates what he sees as the weaknesses and aspects that are most exposed to the coarseness of the mechanisms governing the construction their public image. Indeed, fame is one of Vezzoli’s obsessions, and he literally enters into his own dream, appearing in most of his works, especially in the videos and photographic series. In a play of seduction that expands the traditional boundaries of the work of art, the artist’s recent projects also involve the viewers, offering them the unexpected possibility of finding themselves face to face with their own idols, past and present.
Vezzoli’s early work is tied to embroidery. In this exquisitely private and solitary occupation, which may be linked to the expiation of sorrows that cannot be communicated, he identifies the most human aspect of many celebrities. An Embroidered Trilogy, 1997–99, is a series of three videos dedicated to major cultural figures, chosen because they are obsessive embroiderers. Injecting the language of auteur cinema with an idea of domestic accomplishment, each video is structured as a musical clip. The first in the series, Ok, the Praz Is Right!, revolves around the figure of Mario Praz, an Italian-born eccentric intellectual whose passions included embroidery and who served as the inspiration for the main character in Luchino Visconti’s 1974 film Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece). The video is set in Praz’s house in Rome, now a museum, and focuses on a single scene. While the singer Iva Zanicchi, one of whose songs also appeared in the soundtrack of the Visconti film, performs her 1970s Italian hit La riva bianca la riva nera, Vezzoli, seated on a sofa embroidered by Praz himself, intently embroiders his portrait. The title is a pun on the title of the television program OK, the Price Is Right, in Italy presented for years by Zanicchi. In Il sogno di Venere (The Dream of Venus), 1998, the reference point is Silvana Mangano, the unforgettable Italian movie star who derived a form of private consolation from embroidery, which she had learned from Suso Cecchi D’Amico, the scriptwriter for some of Visconti’s most important films. The protagonist in Vezzoli’s video is Franca Valeri, an actress who worked with Mangano on numerous occasions. In the video’s initial scene, Valeri, lying on a sofa that was actually embroidered by Mangano, falls asleep and dreams of dancing in a nightclub, dressed in a sumptuous gown by Roberto Capucci, the designer who styled Mangano’s outfits for Teorema (Theorem), 1968, by Pier Paolo Pasolini. In the same club, Vezzoli embroiders details of Silvana Mangano’s face. The title alludes to Il segno di Venere (The Sign of Venus), a film in which Franca Valeri acted and also co-wrote. The final episode in the trilogy is The End (teleteatro—teletheater), 1999. The video was shot at the home of Valentina Cortese, a well-known actress who, in this case, plays herself. Moving around her apartment, decorated with furnishings that she embroidered, Cortese recites the Beatles’ 1965 song Help! The actress directs her attention toward Vezzoli, who silently embroiders a portrait of Douglas Sirk, considered the inventor of the Hollywood melodrama. Resorting to the idea of an outside eye, and further complicating the interweaving of references and quotations, Vezzoli entrusts the direction of each of the three videos to professionals in the field, obtaining the respective collaboration of John Maybury, Lina Wertmüller, and Carlo Di Palma.
The End of the Human Voice, 2001, in contrast, is the first video directed personally by Vezzoli. Structured as a two-channel video, the work is inspired by the theatrical text La voix humaine (The Human Voice), 1930, by Jean Cocteau, which was brought to the silver screen by Roberto Rossellini in 1948. As in the original version, the story in Vezzoli’s video stages the slow agony of unrequited love, through the monologue of a woman who talks on the telephone for the last time with the man who has left her. Typical of his work, Vezzoli creates new keys of interpretation, with an encounter of intellectual icons and pop figures; in this case his chosen interpreter is Bianca Jagger, the famous ex-wife of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones. Queen of the tabloids in the 1970s and now a civil rights activist, Jagger plays the role of the protagonist, originally played by Anna Magnani in the Rossellini film. Performed in English, the drama staged by the artist is set in a luxurious atmosphere, reversing the neorealist version with ironic glamour. While in one of the two screens that make up the installation, the woman’s grief is heightened by black-and-white photography, saturated colors prevail on the other screen and define the face of the treacherous lover. Played by Vezzoli, the man, who in the original screenplay was intended to be only imagined through the woman’s words, now stretches out on a bed. In another homage to Cocteau, his eyes are covered by a photographic detail of the French intellectual’s eyes.
Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, 2005, constitutes another exploration of cinematographic language, in this case exposing the questionable results of Hollywood’s interest in the history of ancient Rome. As the title intentionally indicates, the work is structured as a film trailer, promoting a nonexistent film. The project in question is a controversial film about the Emperor Caligula, a drama from the early 1970s written by the American intellectual Gore Vidal, but never made according with his original script. In the 1980s it was finally distributed in a version produced by Bob Guccione, the entrepreneur who made his fortune publishing pornography. In an intentional mix that includes actresses from 1980s movies, figures from independent films, television stars and popular culture icons, Vezzoli lines up an international cast that includes Adriana Asti, Karen Black, Barbara Bouchet, Gerard Butler, Benicio Del Toro, Milla Jovovich, Helen Mirren, Glenn Shadix, and Tasha Tilberg. Each plays the role of a historical figure, revealing the numerous forms that can result from an interweaving of power and perversion. The rock star Courtney Love appears ambiguously as Caligula. Gore Vidal plays himself. Featuring a decadent villa setting in Beverly Hills, the work offers a parody of Hollywood aesthetics and, appropriating methods currently used to produce trailers, it is narrated in English by an off-screen voice and edited as a rapid sequence of brief scenes. The project, which also includes a poster designed as a playbill, opens the Gore Vidal Trilogy, a series devoted to the American intellectual.