The Allure of Failure
By Thom Andersen
Francesco Vezzoli’s cinematic masquerades
At last, postmodernism. I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it. This is the thing, I thought, after visiting “Cinema Vezzoli” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the third part of Francesco Vezzoli’s “trinity” of exhibitions (following on from those last year in Rome and New York) that constitute an early career retrospective.
I had been put off by a statement from Philippe Vergne, the museum’s director, quoted in a Los Angeles Times art blog: “His work is about capturing ambiguity, it’s about design, sex, oppression, and the narcissism of Western culture. It’s also about emancipation. We are allowed to love Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent, and Gore Vidal, and still be a radical.” So what’s not to love? But was Gore Vidal just a TV star and the writer of the notorious film Caligula? At least Vergne’s last sentence is one of the few assessments of Vezzoli’s work out there that isn’t tautological. But I needn’t have worried. Vezzoli’s work is more concrete than his champions allow.
I have claimed elsewhere that all art today aspires to the condition of cinema. Vezzoli’s work is an exception: it is about cinema, but it refuses cinema. All of the short videos projected in “Cinema Vezzoli” are alibis for not making real movies.
For example, there’s a pitch-perfect pastiche of an E! True Hollywood Story episode about a precocious Italian artist from the provinces named Francesco Vezzoli. He wanted to attend a Donna Summer concert when he was 4 years old, but at age 35, after a career setback drives him mad, he ends up face down in a swimming pool, like William Holden in Sunset Blvd., but a suicide instead of a murder victim. A fantasy of utter, complete failure, but Vezzoli himself must fail again, fail better.
Also in the exhibition is a 60-second commercial from 2009 for an imaginary perfume, GREED by Francesco Vezzoli, directed by Roman Polanski, starring Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams. There’s an even shorter commercial for “an exhibition that will never open,” a new La Dolce Vita.
Of course, there’s also his most notorious work, Trailer for an Imaginary Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula (05), a good parody of the form that made me want to see the original if not the remake. Courtney Love gets a minute to herself at the end and steals the show with a monologue that is unhinged and beautiful (“I am . . . Caligula”). Why hasn’t she gotten the parts she deserves?
Then there’s A Love Trilogy: Self-Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf, a bland 1999 music video for a great song, “Les Trois Cloches.” The strength of Piaf’s voice turns kitsch into high art. Having Marisa Berenson lip-synch Piaf is a crime, but perhaps only a misdemeanor. It could have been worse.
The Kiss (Let’s Play Dynasty), from 2006, has Vezzoli and Helmut Berger exchanging sexual roles in a scene from Dynasty. (For a movie that actually tells us something about Dynasty, see Michael Robinson’s The Dark, Krystle.) And finally Amália Traïda (04) features an extremely mannerist performance from Lauren Bacall reading the outline of an imaginary biopic about Amália Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado.
The videos are all well executed, and Vezzoli’s ability to enlist actual movie stars (especially retired or burnt-out stars) in the casts is remarkable. The angels look down upon him adoringly. With art museums so starstruck today, that has counted for enough to make his reputation. However, the fog of critical jargon that now surrounds his work shouldn’t fool us. He knows better. Perhaps the show’s use of lo-fi projection from a DVD is his way of suggesting his own indifference to his video work.
Vezzoli loves movies, particularly highbrow art films, but this love is expressed only in the pictures hanging on the wall, notably in two museum-scale frame enlargements. In the first room as you enter, there is La fine di Edipo Re, a silk-screen print of the word fine (“end”) from Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, with the director’s signature embroidered in small script on the lower right. And in the exhibition’s last room, there is a woven 2007 tapestry of a title card from As You Desire Me, in black, white, and gray. The fabric’s lustrous grays owe nothing to cinema. It looks good from any distance. The name of the star, Greta Garbo, and the producer, George Fitzmaurice, appear. The name of Luigi Pirandello, whose play the film adapts, is absent (appropriately perhaps, given the liberties taken with the text), but it will be present in the minds of some viewers.
Was it Pirandello that attracted Vezzoli to this film? Vezzoli had produced a staged reading of Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think You Are) with an all-star cast at the New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2007—an alibi for not making theater. Or was it because the heroine is an amnesiac? Or was it because Garbo practiced needlepoint, which was Vezzoli’s first artistic and most lasting medium?
Vezzoli understands what Andy Warhol once said, according to Victor Bockris’s Warhol biography: “All the best art is made by women.” So the star of this show is Anni Albers. Denied the opportunity to study architecture at the Bauhaus because of her sex, Albers turned women’s work—weaving—into a great modern art. She is evoked in a set of three posters (06-07) for imagined movies: All About Anni: Anni vs. Marlene (The Saga Begins), with Albers and Marlene Dietrich; Der Bauhaus Engel: Anni vs. Marlene (The Prequel) starring Albers and her husband Josef and co-starring Dietrich; and Emmanuelle, starring just Anni Albers.
But like Warhol, Vezzoli is not a woman. He’s not even Andy Warhol. What to do then? For an artist whose ambition is overweening but whose temperament is reclusive? When the possibility of art as a form of political or cultural opposition is not on his horizon? No more fake movies, please.
Can he create a meta-commentary on popular culture and celebrity? But the movie stars who interest Vezzoli are all too smart to be celebrities. None of them would rate a mention in People. You might recognize some of them if they were standing next to you in line at Starbucks, but they don’t have to fight off autograph hounds or paparazzi. He pursues them because of their persistence in our imagination, but celebrity is notoriously fleeting. V. Stiviano came and went in a week, yet her mirrored visor cap is a more inspired piece of sculpture than anything ever created by Jeff Koons.
In any case, popular culture is always one step ahead of any commentary about it. So a critique must come from its margins, and that requires a kind of work Vezzoli is neither interested in nor capable of. The five guys in Negativland are less glamorous than Vezzoli’s stars and too brainy to be art stars, but they do play rock venues, and they have elaborated upon a critique of popular culture that remains up-to-date and relevant, perhaps because it is rooted in a broader cultural and political critique.
Can Vezzoli turn his art into a self-portrait? Yes, if he can make himself more than an “art star,” if he can make himself the hero of a postmodern epic (I take my cue from Franco Moretti’s Modern Epic), that is, a figure of passivity in a civilization where it is possible to do everything, but not possible to do something. Even Vezzoli’s attempt to resacralize the gallery space failed. For the MoMA PS1 part of his retrospective, he had an old deconsecrated church in Calabria dismantled and packed up so that it could be shipped to New York and reassembled in the courtyard of the gallery as “The Church of Vezzoli.” The Calabrian authorities however blocked the transfer until the cultural and historical value of the church could be determined.
The decision by the Italian authorities raises some pertinent questions about Vezzoli’s project. Why not create “The Church of Vezzoli” in situ? Or why not build a replica of the church in New York? Shouldn’t he have anticipated the objections? Did he intend to fail?
Henceforth, Vezzoli’s failures will be more important than his successes. He is betting that the quantity of his work may produce a qualitative change, the emergence of something new. Even when a project is not realized or a work fails to resonate, another work will compensate for the failure. But in the end, he can always turn back to needlepoint.