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Playing with the stars

Francesco Vezzoli has enlisted celebrities to assist in his deconstruction of fame, Sarah Milroy writes. Is he heir to the Warhol throne?

Globe and Mail Update

'He wanted to be a celebrity himself," reads a giant fake movie poster in Francesco Vezzoli's exhibition at The Power Plant in Toronto, "but how far is too far?"

The 36-year-old Italian artist has conducted his career riding the glossy, curling wave of that question, enlisting the support of film, fashion and television celebrities - Helen Mirren, Veruschka, Sonia Braga, Gore Vidal, Bianca Jagger, Courtney Love, the list goes on - in the making of his performance, print and film-based works. These are witheringly precise deconstructions of the mechanisms of mass entertainment and fame, entailing exquisite mimicry of the tropes of the movie and television.

Detractors have seen Vezzoli as just another wannabe out to grow his own brand by rubbing shoulders (and maybe more) with celebs. But the art world is coming to see him increasingly as a shrewd diagnostician of Western society's consuming media obsessions.

In this regard, he is the inheritor of the Warhol mantle, although he quails at the idea. Meeting to talk about his work last week at the gallery, he said: "I get nervous when people say this because, to me, he is up so high," his English usage stumbling a bit in the fluster of the moment. With aquiline features worthy of one of Bronzino's velvet-clad courtiers, he is clad in blue jeans and his hair could use a wash.

Warhol is a star, in his mind, precisely for his ability to play with power without succumbing to its virus. "I am increasingly amazed by the way in which the art world is coming to resemble the movie business," he says, "and by the growth of our field. Warhol had the great premonition." Playing devil's advocate, perhaps, Vezzoli declares Warhol's most important works to be his pay-to-play society portraits of the eighties, precisely the works that the critics love to hate for their sycophantic vacuity.

"He paid the price of respectability by identifying and upgrading a whole class of people who were not taken seriously as collectors at that time but have since become a force in the art world," he says, referring to Warhol's silkscreen portraits of the brash new fast-money crowd that now swarms the art fairs of London, New York and Miami. "It used to be you had to have something to be considered an important collector," he says - things like taste, education, depth of soul, vision. "Now," he says, "it's just about money."

Decadence and vulgarity define the work that gained Vezzoli his own first shot at stardom: Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula, a five-minute fake movie trailer that stole the show at the Venice Biennale in 2005, with Vezzoli in the role of the depraved emperor. The projection work posits a remake of the erotically charged 1979 original, written by Gore Vidal. Vezzoli talked Vidal into performing a cameo, also conscripting Helen Mirren, Karen Black and Benicio del Toro into his cast.

The result is a hilariously over-the-top pastiche of big-budget excess, complete with thunderous sound effects and a cast of (seemingly) thousands. In fact, the whole thing was shot in just two days at an art collector's house on Sunset Boulevard. "It looked like the White House," Vezzoli says of the pillared and porticoed villa in which man-slaves are walked on leashes, ejaculate is harvested for eye serum (to reduce puffiness, one presumes) and there's more slipping and sliding than in the otter tank at the San Diego zoo. "It was perfect."

The work recalls Greco-Roman antiquity, a fitting subject, perhaps, for a man who received a classical schoolboy's education in his native Brescia. "My upbringing was completely bourgeois, very middle-class," he says. His mother was a pediatrician and his father a lawyer. Left-leaning in their politics, they didn't have the money to have art in the house, with the exception of a small multiple artwork by Joseph Beuys given to them by a friend: a small blackboard work inscribed with the words "Kunst = Kapital" (Art = Capital).

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."

Watching him, one could see the idea taking root. "She would probably never do it," he said, his eyes downcast for just a moment, "but it would be very good, you know. The Material Girl in the newly materialized land? How appropriate."

Francesco Vezzoli: A True Hollywood Story! continues at The Power Plant in Toronto until Nov. 4. Various screen works by Vezzoli will be shown Sept. 13, Sept. 20, Oct. 4 and Oct. 28 (416-973-4949).


The art of TIFF

Francesco Vezzoli; A True Hollywood Story! is one of a number of film-based art works and installations being staged around Toronto during TIFF. Other notable projects on view include:

Ryan Sluggett's Tyranny at YYZ, 401 Richmond St. W.: A three-monitor work with sound featuring Sluggett's stop-action animations made from digital stills of refashioned studio bric-a-brac. Narratives unfold, morph and collapse, giving way to more narratives. (To Oct. 20)

Darfur/Darfur; a series of photojournalistic images documenting the current humanitarian crisis in Darfur is being projected at night onto the exterior façade of the newly unveiled Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum. On Friday night, the presentation will be accompanied by a free open-air concert of hip hop, reggae, afro-beat and gospel in Swahili, Arabic and English by Ruth Mathiang & Friends on Bloor Street West, from 7 to 8 p.m. (To Sept. 17)

Vancouver's Jeremy Shaw is presenting Best Minds; Part One, a cinematic immersion in raving, skateboard culture and drug use. At Thrush Holmes Empire, 1093 Queen St. W. (To Sept. 16)

Wildflowers of Manitoba, at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (962 Queen St. W.) is the joint love child of Toronto artist Luis Jacob and Winnipeg filmmaker Noam Gonick. This installation, in which images are projected onto a geodesic dome, imagines an erotic utopia of man-on-man sexual bliss. (To Sept. 16)


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