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Playing with the stars

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Vezzoli recalls, too, an early school project on Arte Povera - then the cutting-edge movement in Italian contemporary art - which was returned to him unmarked; his teacher accused him of willful fabrication. He had to make his way to London before he could find his natural habitat.

Vezzoli hated his art school there - Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design - but the city became his teacher, in particular the world of Vivienne Westwood fashion, music promoter Malcolm McLaren and the punk revolution in music. "I remember going to a Lucian Freud opening at the Dulwich Picture Gallery," he says, "and there was [performance artist] Leigh Bowery just before he died, sitting there in a wheelchair wearing a pink pinstripe suit, with a thing in the back of his hand [an IV port]. Fantastic."

It was in those days that Vezzoli took up the rather unlikely craft of needlepoint, which enabled him to do all his art work at home. He created likenesses of Hollywood screen divas (an obsession since his childhood) with jewelled tears streaming from their eyes and glittery remakes of Josef Albers's famous Homage to the Square colour exercises, talismans of Bauhaus modernism at its most rigorous. Some of these are included in the Power Plant show.

Anni Albers, the revered textile artist and Josef's wife, shows up as well in Marlene Redux: A True Hollywood Story!, the 15-minute film projection piece that anchors the show. The work is a fake celebrity TV show of the obnoxious, low-budget, high-sleaze variety, featuring cheesy graphics, cheap "dramatizations" and hackneyed graphics. The storyline traces the rise of the artist Francesco Vezzoli, from early success, to fame, and onward (and here the fabrication begins) to tabloid notoriety as he descends into depravity and despair, L.A.-style. Mock interviews with estranged friends, male prostitutes, critics and commentators (all played by actors) create a fictional portrait of the clichéd trajectory from fame to flame-out.

The final debacle comes when the artist in the piece develops an obsession with two iconic women: Marlene Dietrich and Albers, who appeared briefly in Maximilian Schell's 1984 documentary on Dietrich (also being screened at The Power Plant as part of this exhibition).

"This coincidence fascinated me," Vezzoli says. "I really admire what Josef and Anni Albers represented, a kind of steadiness and integrity and rigour." But Dietrich, who rose to fame at roughly the same historical moment, exudes an entirely different kind of mystique. In Marlene Redux, he brings these two divas together on screen. (They talk about The Blue Angel.) "You have a screen goddess and an art-and-design goddess talking to each other," he says. The pairing raises the question: What is success in the art world? Is it intellectual cred or the glam factor (Lawrence Weiner versus Sam Taylor-Wood, say)?

"People think my work is about celebrity," he says, "but it's really about power." Hence, his other recent project, still on display at the Venice Biennale until the end of November. DemoCrazy is a two-part film installation that flawlessly mimics big-budget political advertising. Approaching former PR people for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (Mark McKinnon and Squier Knapp Dunn Communications respectively), Vezzoli persuaded them to collaborate with him on creating fictional one-minute TV election ads, showcasing, in effect, their strategies for generating trustworthiness and likeability in the candidate. Unaccountably, perhaps, they agreed to do so, at least in part because the initial overtures were made by well-positioned art patrons. The starring candidates are played by Sharon Stone, as a Hillary Clinton-like Democratic candidate, and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, as the Republican.

How is this possible? And even if you could get the handlers onside, what does it take to get the screen stars and leading intellectuals to participate? "Flowers," Vezzoli says. "Sometimes it's lots and lots of flowers. And letters." These are the practicalities of persuasion, and he has become a master.

At the conceptual stage, though, the sky's the limit. "I have been asked to do something for the Moscow Biennale," he says, "and I think I would like to do something with the Bolshoi Ballet. Maybe I should get Madonna to dance with them."

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