When Francesco Vezzoli answers my call, he’s in the midst of preparing a day trip to the mountains with his family. It’s a typically scorching day in Milan, and he wants to make the most of it. Until then, though, he’s soaking up all the shade he can find, lounging on his bed, facing the open window, taking in any little bit of air that drifts through.
Family is clearly important to the eclectic artist. About a quarter-way through our call, he puts a quick and polite stop to our conversation in order to answer a call from his father, returning apologetically a few minutes later. “Sorry, sorry, family first.” Before the end of our chat he will have asked about my mother, father, grandparents, and the big Cypriot-family that I, myself, am planning to visit in a few days.
Though the Brescian artist and filmmaker began his career at the crossroads between the art and pop-culture industries—among the excess, artificiality, and mystery of worlds dominated by status and celebrity—and has since collaborated with some of pop’s most glamorous names (Lady Gaga and Helen Mirren to name a few), his output has remained quintessentially sentimental. His popular series of embroidery fixed colourful fabrics of tears onto historical figures and culture-icons; his short films pride themselves in their emotional friction; more recent shifts into art history and mythology have found him adding his own intimate touches to age-old sculptures. A creative chameleon, Vezzoli sheds faces as often as a Greek chorus, but at the centre of his bombastic artistic worlds, always, are echoes of feeling.
In an exclusive conversation with ARF, Vezzoli discusses the disappearance of glamour, evil prophecies, the new queer cinema movement, and the intersection of film and art…
Your work finds a wonderful balance between a love for pop culture, the thrill of glamour, the show, excess, but also a little bit of cynicism for celebrity culture as well. What aspects of the pop culture/celebrity world do you think should be criticised and what aspects should be admired?
What’s to be criticised about in the celebrity industry are, today, the same things to be criticised in the art market. When I began my practice the art world and the celebrity industry were not intersected at all. I was expressing my obsessions, discussing the differences between the two universes, and narrating the conflict between the so-called ‘artistic intellectual’ upbringing I received against the fascination for a world that was much more about flamboyance and glamour and success. Probably, without taking too much credit for it, I was foreseeing the fact that the art world was on its way to become its own Hollywood land, even if Hollywood now isn’t what Hollywood was before. I would say the art world was chasing the glamour and the wealth of the film industry, and the film industry was, in one way or another, chasing the intellectual credibility to somehow ‘spray some perfume’ over the commercial agenda of that moment of history in cinema. Now, the art world is a fast grinder of talent and many great, sensitive brains end up on the floor.
You’ve said in the past that “glamour is art”. Do you think there’s still glamour to be found in the world of celebrity?
Glamour is connected to mystery, and most celebrities in one way or another, either because they want it, or were forced by their agents, all now have an instagram feed through which they share so much information about their lives that, certainly, what Greta Garber would have called “the glamour of mystery” is gone. Glamour is something that has its roots in the deep past, in the history of cinema that was related to drama and real mystery and real secrets, to the existence of the Hays code. For me the most glamorous person in the world of cinema to this day was Jean Luc Godard because he’s surrounded by so much mystery.
I’ve heard you say before that there’s “little sentimentality in art” and that’s something you greatly disagree with. In this medium where sentimentality and emotional intimacy might not be appreciated, how do you ensure that your work is both sentimental and intimate?
The tear is the metaphor for all of this. There are very few tears in the history of art. If you think of all the masterpieces in the history of art, there are no tears. Instead, if you think about all the masterpieces of the history of cinema, most of them involve a lot of tears for the spectator. Sentiment is something that was wiped away at the beginning of the 20th century as something that should have never belonged to the avant-garde. My impression is that now that art clearly and declaratively wants to be much closer to a wider audience, they cannot deny the existence of sentiment. My work is full of tears, of acting, of playing out dramas. Even my most conceptual art implies some sort of emotional friction. I believe in that and I will stand for it.
I didn’t appreciate embroidery until I heard you speak on its history and its personal value to you. Do you still practise embroidery as a hobby?
No. It was a phase of my artistic path—maybe a very queer one, certainly for the time that I was doing it. Now I am more concentrated on other types of work, but I’m happy I spoke about emotions and sexuality through that visual vocabulary. I’ve done lots of needleworks as art works, and I feel like at some point it was time to move on. You can’t keep making the same statement over and over. That was for me an outpouring of a lot of gender studies that I did at university, and it felt like the right thing to do for my idea of expressions. Now I’ve moved to videos, then sculptures, then ballet, and theatre, and, who knows? Next, hopefully someone will invite me to direct an opera and I’ll do that.
Is it important to change styles and reinvent yourself every handful of years? Do you consciously make that decision or does it come quite naturally?
The first answer is yes. I don’t know if I do it consciously—it’s a mixture of strategy and boredom. When I grow tired of something I know the art that comes out of it will not be as sincere or honest as it should be, so I move on to new pastures.
A few years ago you took what many considered a hard left into Art history and mythology. What can art history tell us about our world in 2022?
I would be more straightforward: Not just art history can tell us a lot. History can tell us everything about who we are. The more we study what has happened in the past, whether it was world peace, decapitated kings or queens, lovers, prostitutes, cardinals or popes, If we study the history of power, we see how the world has a very perverse inclination to repeat itself. Studying it is a very effective way of not repeating the same mistakes.
Speaking of history repeating itself, it brings me to a quote of yours from 2014: “Washington DC is like the Hollywood of world wide politics”. I recently re-watched your short film Democrazy, and I couldn’t help but notice how relevant that statement and project is in retrospect of the, frankly, shitshow of Amercian politics that has happened since.
Brother, this is the nicest thing you could have told me. If I say that, it comes out as an arrogant statement, but yes, Sharon Tate’s slogan [in Democrazy] is exactly the same slogan Donald Trump used six years after. It is exactly the same. We used the best people in Washington, the best political strategists and that proved to be the exact right way to go. Of all the works that I’ve done, when I watch that work myself, I’m no longer Francesco, I’m just a spectator, and I think: “Fuck. this was really an evil prophecy.”
Do you consider your art political?
Inevitably so, yes. Even when I do ancient sculptures, it’s always somehow political. Funnily enough, many people for many years have considered me very aesthetical and superficial but I was always said, and it sounds predictable and banal, that to stay steady is the best artwork you can make. Be steady, do what you want to do, let people come closer to you, let people move away from you if they disagree with something you are doing. If you stay who you are, you’re like an old great hotel. You’ll have people who keep coming, people who get bored but then come back. The history of art is full of this back and forth between artists and collectors, artists and dealers etc.
You’ve worked with a wide array of pop-artists and pop-figures in your career and have enjoyed so many amazing collaborations. Are there any that come to mind when you think of your favourites?
I have the fondest memory of the two greatest French actresses: Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau. For me they really merged in one figure: glamour and intelligence. REAL glamour. Jeanne Moreau has been in at least three or four of the movies that make the list of the best hundred movies ever made, and you can say exactly the same for Catherine Deneuve. In both cases, being the two most different women on the planet, I felt intensity, intelligence, curiosity, that went beside their beauty and amazing capability of acting and impersonating other human beings. Those are the two collaborations I’ll treasure the most.
You’re of course a massive film lover. What have you found in film and cinema that the art world hasn’t been able to give you? What can it offer that’s unique?
Art is very elitist. I may have found in the art world when i was very young an escape from my sexual and intellectual identity, but art itself didn’t give me the emotions I was looking for. When I arrived in London I chased all the members of the New Queer Cinema. I was in love with what they were doing and they were my heroes. I was so sad that Derek Jarmen had died because I badly wanted to meet him. I would have equally wanted to meet Fassbinder, though I met everyone who I wanted to meet in America and Italy. Screenwriters, directors, through their movies, have given me the dreams and the fantasies that the art world could not deliver to me.
What’s your favourite movie from The New Queer Cinema movement?
The only one that I’m in! It’s called Love is the Devil and it’s a film by John Maybury about Francis Bacon.
You’ve made trailers for movies that will never be made, like your trailer for a Caligula remake, you’ve made fictional film posters in the past. What would a Francesco Vezzoli feature-length movie look like?
I don’t think I would be a very good movie director. BUT, I am a fearless man. If someone came to me with a crazy proposal, I would certainly accept and do it and waste all their money. I would want to do something that is not original. I would like to do something from a classical text. I would like to do Shakespeare. I would like to do Cinderella. I would like to do Disney. I would like to do a remake of Gone With The Wind. I would want to do something that would somehow become conceptual. That’s the only way my brain can work. It would be both a movie and a critical reflection on the nature of cinema.