New York

Francesco Vezzoli

What’s not to like about a short film featuring Helmut Berger playing Joan Collins playing Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington? The melodramatic scenarios of Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli’s productions take place in environments of luxury and lassitude, settings somehow appropriate to aging divas who, one imagines, whatever the actual conduct of their lives, have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, or even the late afternoon. Not so Vezzoli. Evidently he not only gets out of bed but has no qualms about making doubtless numerous telephone calls in order to get the Valentino couture gowns worn by the titular star of A Love Trilogy—Self-Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf, 1999. There are the locations to secure, such as the Museo Mario Praz and Cerveteri Castle. And what about the apartment containing furnishings that had belonged to Ludwig II of Bavaria or the divan whose upholstery had been embroidered by Silvana Mangano, familiar from films by Visconti and Pasolini? Then there are the stars like Berenson and Bianca Jagger, who appears in Vezzoli’s most recent film (which was not included in this show), a version of Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine. Even the lesser-known faces (on these shores, certainly) in some of the artist’s films—Iva Zanicchi, Valentina Cortese, Franca Valeri are celebrities in their own demimondes and are presumably, even if only from the fictional perspective of the films, a handful. At the same time, an actress needs her audience (think Norma Desmond), so maybe the ladies were flattered and compliant. Nevertheless, an image of the artist—one rather at odds with the passive, dandified, usually silent roles he plays in his films—inexorably asserts itself: Francesco Vezzoli works hard. All of thirty-one, the artist enjoyed a succès de something at the last Venice Biennale and has recently received two (admittedly small-scale) retrospectives.

Vezzoli’s efforts may seem extravagantly out of proportion to his subjects. Each film teases out a tangled web of allusions (not least to Arachne, the most skilled and unfortunate fabric artist of Greek mythology, transformed into a spider for having dared to outweave Athena), as in The Kiss (let’s play Dynasty!), 2000. Let’s see. . . Helmut Berger, Luchino Visconti’s protégé and the star of the Italian director’s 1972 film Ludwig, camps it up in the aforementioned creepy-deluxe apartment. In The Kiss, Berger (who somewhat later in his career had a brief stint on Dynasty, as a dissipated European aristocrat, natch) does some embroidery, then enters another velvet catacomb salon, where he is apparently keeping Vezzoli prisoner. The two of them enact a scene from Dynasty, a quarrel between Alexis—the bitch, as Berger says—and her son Steven, the gay character of ’80s American television. The quarrel ends in a chaste kiss between Berger and Vezzoli. The film also features a dip from the TV show, the only episode in which Alexis is ever seen embroidering. The thematic and visual link sare tenuous but real. The dynasty in question might as well be the royal house of Bavaria and the gay type its last monarch, Ludwig II.

The Warholian component of Vezzoli’s work is so obvious it doesn’t bear much discussion, except that, unlike Andy, Vezzoli does use genuine—albeit faded, often marginal—celebrities. It’s not a matter of “You are a superstar because I say so.” It’s more like, “You were somebody; maybe some people still remember you.” Berenson looks great, but for the most part the artist chooses women of a certain age as the focal point of his films. The women featured in An Embroidered Trilogy disport themselves in opulent or outré interiors, wearing flamboyant gowns and a ton of makeup. Divas, they might as well be drag queens—aren’t those terms virtually synonymous? In the third film of the trilogy, The End (teleteatro), 1999, Valentina Cortese declaims the Beatles song “Help!” in a manner so over the top in its hysterical gesticulations and intonations that it actually succeeds in being truly weird. Vezzoli, whose cheek looks like it has been bruised, works on an embroidered portrait of Douglas Sirk, mostly oblivious to Cortese’s apparent desperation. The decor of the interior—Cortese’s apartment in fact, filled with examples of her own needlework is either insanely great or just insane, depending on your taste, and the actress, finding no interlocutor in Vezzoli, seems as if she’s addressing her pleas for help as much to the gilded furniture.

So what’s the point? Hysteria is perhaps the overriding theme of Vezzoli’s work. Anyone familiar with Freud’s preface to the Studies on Hysteria will recognize embroidery as a feminine activity that supposedly gives form to this very condition. In a quotation from Silvana Mangano that Vezzoli chose for an exhibition catalogue from the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, he indicates his own awareness of this background: “I like the peace and solitude of needlework, but most of all I like the meticulous precision it demands. I live a very ordered life, in the hope that values such as order, neatness, spotlessness can offer some protection against the disorder of the world and the passions.” At the same time, depicting himself in several of his films in the act of embroidery as well as “embroidering” the complicated system of quotations and allusions that creates the works’ ambience, maybe in some nebulous fashion he positions himself as a hysteric, too—or at least a diligent multitasker.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.