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francesco vezzoli in conversation with miuccia prada

Artist Francesco Vezzoli created the needlework portrait of his patron and muse Miuccia Prada especially for the front cover of i-D. Here Vezzoli discusses with Miuccia the dynamics of vanity and curiosity in portraiture and paparazzi, how the media reinforces fashion’s recent S&M infatuation and why wearing black leather, studs and spikes may be necessary tools for survival today.

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Earlier this year, on Valentine’s Day, Rome’s new Gagosian gallery opened with Francesco Vezzoli’s latest project, a star-studded launch for a perfume called Greed. Or rather, an advert for an imaginary perfume called Greed that stars the American actresses Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams. Calling on his extraordinary celebrity contacts once again, the faux film was directed by Roman Polanski with costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. In homage to Marcel Duchamp’s subversive 1929 project, Belle Haleine: Eau de Toilette in which the face of the visionary conceptual artist on an appropriated Rigaud perfume bottle – Vezzoli appears in drag as Duchamp on the label of Greed. Where Duchamp was photographed by Man Ray, Vezzoli’s portrait was taken by Scavullo, the legendary photographer behind many an iconic image including Diana Ross’s Diana album cover, Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born movie poster and portraits of Elizabeth Taylor, Joe Dallesandro, Andy Warhol and Madonna among others. Inside the bottle of Greed contained 5 litres of scotch.

With its glossy cinematography and over-the-top acting, you could consider the advert for Greed a post-ironic pastiche of 1980s excess. Or an expression of our uneasy relationship with desire, a relationship that acknowledges its dangers while simultaneously glamourising its accruements. Like Vezzoli’s other starry embellishments of recent years, the Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, Non-Love Meetings, the Pasolini inspired pilot for a reality game show starring Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Marianne Faithfull, or Democrazy, the tele-campaign for two fictional Presidential candidates (played by Sharon Stone and the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy), social sculptures made from A-list materials that simultaneously play upon the absurdity of celebrity culture while existing within it, with Greed, Italian art’s golden boy once again has his panettone and eats it too.

"Money, death, power... art also tends to express these things today." Francesco Vezzoli

Yet Vezzoli’s interpretation of the world offers more than ironic masquerade. Behind the red velvet covered walls of the oval shaped gallery, a look described by Art Forum as “a cross between a boudoir and a funeral parlour,” hung the keys to a deeper understanding of Vezzoli’s oeuvre. Needlework portraits of the famous female artists Tamara de Lempicka, Eva Hesse, Georgia O’Keefe and Kiki de Saint Phalle as immortalized endorsements of Vezzoli’s fragrance.

Having knitted tapestries of prostitute’s calling cards – with messages like “give me some hanky panky” and “I’m hot and horny, give me a call” – while a student at London’s Central Saint Martin’s in the mid 1990s, sex and the needle and thread have always gone hand in hand with the work of Francesco Vezzoli. However, it was only when the Italian artist married knitting with his other obsession, celebrity – specifically iconic female actors and singers – in An Embroidered Trilogy that the modus operandi for Vezzoli’s work would be set.

Made between 1997 and 1999, An Embroidered Trilogy consists of three short films, each starring one of Italy’s most famous actresses and singers. The first film of the trilogy, OK The Praz is Right! featured the singer Iva Zanicchi melodramatically roaming the house of the controversial professor Mario Praz while Vezzoli sits embroidering a needlework portrait of the professor, on a sofa that was embroidered by Praz. The second, stars the comedienne Franca Valeri sleeping on another embroidered sofa, this time one embroidered by the celebrated Italian actress Silvana Mangano while Vezzoli embroiders Mangano’s portrait and Kraftwerk’s The Model plays in the foreground. The third features actress Valentina Cortese to the tune of The Beatles’ Help while Vezzoli embroiders another portrait, this time of Douglas Sirk, a director of ‘50s Hollywood melodramas.

The form of Vezzoli’s work finds its inspiration in the radical Arte Povera movement of the 1960s in which Italian artists created ephemeral installations and performances with unconventional materials to challenge the corporate status quo. Childhood fascinations with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Silvana Mangano continue to inspire the content and casting of his videos. The discovery that all three also pursued needlepoint, with its meditative qualities of repetition and control (not to mention sexual and voodoo-esque undertones of penetration) in the face of a manipulative star system in their time off-screen informs his tapestries. Or as Vezzoli puts it, “doing needlework was the most provocative gesture I could think of.” Here in an exclusive interview, Francesco discusses art and the power of the media with Miuccia Prada.

Francesco Vezzoli: Painting your portrait was a big challenge for me.
Miuccia Prada: Why?

Because it’s very difficult and I’ve never painted a portrait of a friend who is also famous: I know your private side while others see your public side.
Do you think it’s like gossiping?

In a certain sense... Painting a portrait used to be a very common thing for an artist, but it isn’t that simple today. Actually, almost no one paints portraits anymore, and those who are commissioned to do so are accused of selling-out.
But this isn’t a commissioned portrait. Art must depict the life of a person in some way. It must know how to analyse it, perceive certain aspects, and then foresee it... Art must have a vision of the future...

Yes, that’s the way it has always been... At the National Gallery, for example, there is an endless series of portraits. Up to a certain point of history, there were portraits of aristocrats, popes, politicians, saints and heroes. Afterwards, there were portraits of ordinary folk...
Why do people like them? Portraits, people’s lives... In the end, people are more interested in the little things of life rather than great issues. Apart from several heroic moments in politics and history, in the end people only perk up when they’re talking about other people’s private lives...

It’s vanity: the big issue is vanity.
Vanity is the case for people who like being in the spotlight and having their portrait done... But what about the people who like to hear those stories and look at those paintings? Why are they so interested?

Perhaps the answer is curiosity. Actually, we’re all curious...
I’m most interested in understanding what really interests people or what influences human behaviour... I want to know if it is noble ideals or ordinary everyday things.

That’s exactly the main theme of your work and mine, too.
Once, when we were discussing why people were so interested in fashion and clothes, Louise Bourgeois told me, ‘Because people want to seduce.’

That’s a very interesting answer. In past generations, people primarily needed to challenge current values and to demolish the status quo, and that was the motivation behind their actions. Today, perhaps, people only want to be attractive to themselves and to others.
That would be a completely acceptable human value. After the dream, great ideals, religion, and communism, people lower their sights... Pondering the meaning of life, what do they discover? Very simple, human things...

Maybe today it is humanly impossible to have lofty ideals. You go out on the street, switch on a computer, open a magazine, and you are bombarded, consciously and unconsciously, by countless images that only invite you to seduce and be seduced.
Yes, so what’s left? Physical pleasure, sexual attraction? It almost seems that the older you get, the more you’re interested in little things. It should be the other way around...

Now I’m most interested in the dynamism of the media, because it is a truly new aspect of our time. If we think back to the days of the ancient Romans, there was love, pain, power, and corruption... There were bankers with prostitute lovers... There were the rich, the poor, slaves and immigrants. Everything already existed. What’s truly different now is the existence of the media and its incredibly strong power. And that’s what I’m trying to analyse in my work.
Having seen many ideologies in my lifetime, it’s difficult to comprehend our world from a simple perspective. I still think the culture and history of the past are important tools for analysing the present and making comparisons. For example, in my work I enjoy analysing how women’s relationship with their bodies has changed. I like to think about Cleopatra’s life, why prostitutes wear red and high heels, or why nuns wear black. I want to understand what has remained, and how people see and perceive things... In fact, my job is to create a story about others.

I really envy your job.
I can understand that. In our work, we talk about interpersonal relations, love, and sex. It’s very interesting to study. But, in the end, we never talk about lofty or profound sentiments. We only talk about an exterior form of conquest: be it glamorous, sexy, an obsession to seduce...

The media transmits that obsession. The media is not profound.
What strikes me is that lately, fashion based on more human and personal aspects has almost completely disappeared. Only a very strong, aggressive way of dressing has remained. Everything seems to derive from a rather violent image of oneself.

Does that violence aim at sexual conquest?
Not only. As I said before, perhaps it is a need dictated by the media, a need to make an impact, make an impression. When you think of it, in the past, an aggressive image was only one of the many options, and it was an aesthetic or philosophical element. Today, however, the violent, straightforward, simplifying image is the only one that works. It almost seems necessary for survival.

Therefore, do you – whose fashion is all about nuances and subtle perversion – feel attacked in this moment?
Pretty much so. Even when you want to tell a story based on subtlety, allusions, and sentiments, you always have to create a universal and aggressive way to convey it and you have to use a simplified tool. For example, in the men’s show, I used ancient Egyptian prints on fabrics. For me, these prints are a symbol of the dandyism and decadence of that particular moment in history. At the same time, they represent the power of great ideas of the past.

Therefore, you choose a reference for the masses that everyone can understand, and then you maintain your narrative autonomy and play with nuances. Artists have more or less the same problem.
They probably do.

Perhaps it’s because we come from an artistic tradition that is deeply rooted on a historical and intellectual level, and perhaps because we also need an incisive, aggressive language. Even an artist who navigates in today’s art world with its myriad languages has quite a few problems in expressing all the nuances of references.
I like to understand the meaning of these ‘references for the masses’ and why people are so immediately attracted to them. For example, in my field, lace, leather, sequins, or animal prints and, in a romantic sense, perhaps bows, velvet, gold and chiffon are all elements and symbols that have historically made an impact on people, and when you use them, they make an impact and people like them.

In effect, you’re mentioning very specific aesthetic elements. You’re talking about things that sparkle or about precious animal skins. Therefore, in the end, they are all symbols of power... and luxury. Money, death, power... art also tends to express these things today.
What I actually try to do is to interpret other people’s thoughts. I try to universalise and transmit what is in the minds of dutiful people, thinkers, prostitutes, women from different periods, women when they’re powerful or weak or victims. I try to understand and portray a period, the lives of women, with their problems and various opportunities. And I try to understand why at a certain point all women suddenly identify with a particular lifestyle and physical appearance.

In a certain sense, my obsession is trying to understand what people and society are thinking. Through my studies, I’ve found an answer by observing and analysing the media. That’s the only place where you can see what people are thinking, what they want, and what they want to be.
Perhaps we’re talking about the same thing.

We’re both seeking a form of the truth, even if through two diametrically opposite paths and two completely different stories. You search for it through aesthetic languages, while I am looking for it by watching reality shows or spending hours at the newsstand.
Yes, I think that, in the end, we want to know how to interpret things so we can have a vision, an understanding...

What person in the world fascinates or interests you today?
The only person who comes to mind is Yang Lan, one of Chinese television’s most famous anchorwoman who is using her shows to create a sort of women’s movement that promotes their work and gives a voice to women’s protests.

China’s Oprah Winfrey...
In a certain sense.

A member of the media who uses her programs and websites for women to take a political stance... Therefore, is politics the only way to change the world?
Yes, but not in the sense of the revolutionary politician. I’m referring to having a powerful grasp of reality and a vision of one’s life and wanting to change the world. Seeking something. Even being desperate, living on the margins of society, not being subject to authority, Bukowski-style... At any rate, escaping the banality of life.

Are there other figures of culture, literature, and philosophy from the past that you admire in this sense?
I like life spent, in good or bad, doing something significant. Perhaps the only thing I fear is boredom