“It was really Dasha Zhukova’s idea,” Maria Arena Bell says of the notion that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles should ask Francesco Vezzoli to create an event that brings Lady Gaga and the Bolshoi Ballet together for Saturday’s MOCA’s 30th anniversary gala. “We met with him during the Venice Biennale.”
Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Francesco Vezzoli's Art
This nexus is a snapshot-vivid image in itself. You could hardly be more Angeleno than Maria Arena Bell, chair of the MOCA event. The head writer and co-executive producer of The Young and the Restless, Bell is a force in arts education in her state, and a major collector, with her husband, Bill. Meanwhile, Zhukova, a 28-year-old Russian oligarch’s daughter, lives mostly in London and recently converted a Suprematist building in Moscow into a hot new art space, the Garage. And Francesco Vezzoli? Well, the Milanese artist is, shall we say, peripatetic? So, despite ongoing economic chills and spills, the art world moves on, becoming ever more culturally wide-reaching, ever more relentlessly global.
“Francesco immediately went to work, imagining what he would like to have happen,” Bell says. “And so it really came from the eyes, exactly what he wants, that night.” MOCA traditionally involves a totemic artist with these events. Two years earlier, the museum asked Takashi Murakami. “We worked with Takashi’s studio on elements of décor. This goes way beyond that. Francesco is creating a happening on top of a sort of bourgeois museum gala. And his idea of what that is.
“So absolutely everything that one would experience from the minute that they enter this tent for dinner—everything that anyone sees and feels and experiences—is conceived by Francesco as part of the artwork. And so it’s really a living artwork and a happening the likes of which I don’t think anyone has ever attempted.
“Everyone has collaborated with him,” Bell says. “People like Frank Gehry and Damien Hirst are doing so. Just to be part of this artwork. And making this an interesting one time only experience.” (Gaga’s piano was customized by Hirst and her hat was designed by Gehry. Other contributions include masks created by director Baz Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin, and costumes designed by Vezzoli and Miuccia Prada.)
“Gaga is one of the Nijinskys of our epoch,” Vezzoli says. “So I don’t know if it’s going to be a great artwork. But so far I think I made a good choice.”
So what was it—apart, of course, from the presence of significant collectors and museum trustees—that would attract Francesco Vezzoli to another swell art world chow down?
• Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and Design“They basically offered me a social ritual as a blank canvas upon which I could make a project,” Vezzoli explains. “So, thinking of something that could merge art and entertainment I came up with the reference of Ballets Russes. Diaghilev has always been a big hero of mine. I went onto a conceptual search, and I thought that mixing Lady Gaga and the Bolshoi would be the most daring, absurd thing ever. Gaga is one of the Nijinskys of our epoch. So I don’t know if it’s going to be a great artwork. But so far I think I made a good choice.
“And I’ve designed the inside of the tent where the performance will happen. I like to say MOCA has turned me into a crossover between Martha Stewart and Allan Carr,” he jokes, referring to the late great Los Angeles producer/promoter/manager/over-the-top party giver. “The music is a new song by Gaga called Speechless. Which I should say is rather different from most of the music we have heard from her. I like the idea that it would be unexpected. Because we are all happily accustomed to Gaga’s hyperpop. And this is going to be rather more dramatic.”
The MOCA event is a natural project for the 38-year-old Vezzoli. He has built his reputation upon works that blur art and life. Not humdrum life though. It’s the hot zone where art, fashion, and celebrity culture interpenetrate, that at once enchants and repels Vezzoli. He first attracted attention with videos that used the visual energy of such figures as Marisa Berenson, Helmut Berger and Veruschka, the iconic 1960s model, whom he taped sitting on a sofa and embroidering her own portrait. But it was his Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, which premiered at the 2005 Venice Biennale, that established Vezzoli’s mature style.
Vezzoli coaxed marquee names into appearing in this five-minute piece—which, deliciously, was filmed not in Rome, but in a “Roman” villa in Los Angeles. The trailer included glimpses of polysexual riotousness, glinting gilded dildos, the full monty—and included cameos from Benicio Del Toro, Milla Jovovich, Helen Mirren, Karen Black, Courtney Love, and Vidal himself, who had written the script of the original movie but had his name removed when Bob Guccione turned it hardcore. Caligula, by the way, is played by Vezzoli himself.
It was the hit of the Biennale. A Whitney curator, Chrissie Iles, invited him to bring Caligula to the 2006 Whitney Biennial. It was boffo there too. He was now a world-renowned artist.
This fall, Vezzoli curated Dali Dali, a show at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Vezzoli sees Dali as a forerunner of a time in which artists are drawn to deal with the celebrity culture and how the touch of it corrupts. Vezzoli’s touch, however, is light, his thoughts are complex and he is often very funny. Lady Gaga and the ballerinas? That will be moving, but won’t it be funny too?
I mentioned to Vezzoli that, unlike most Europeans (Maurizo Cattelan!), the American art world—indeed American artists themselves, save for a few contrarians like John Wesley—tend to be highly humor-averse.
“Yeah,” Vezzoli said. “When I did my Caligula piece in Venice most of the people in the room are laughing their head off, which for me was such a fantastic sight. In the room at the Whitney Museum most of the American audience stood silent. I am not saying that they did not like what I did. But for me it was painful to see that nobody was laughing. And that’s when I realized that when an American audience goes to a museum they do not expect to laugh. They think that that is a wrong reaction to have in a cultural realm.”
Saturday’s MOCA production will be a kind of opera that isn’t an opera. And this will be its one and only production. Vezzoli loves to toy with genres and to mix celebrity with everything. In 2007 he put out both Marlene Redux: A True Hollywood Story and Democrazy, a faux political campaign movie in which Sharon Stone and Bernard-Henri Lévy play American presidential candidates.
Similarly, Vezzoli’s “commercial” for a fragrance that didn’t exist called Greed, was filmed by Roman Polanski and co-stars Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams. Part of the work’s intellectual provenance for Greed was Marcel Duchamp’s La Belle Haleine: Eau de Violette, which Duchamp created around a Rigaud perfume bottle. Vezzoli is absolutely delighted that this piece ended up in the collection of two other figures he hugely admires: Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge.
Greed was shown at Gagosian Gallery Rome this February. The campaign included ads, seeming endorsements from women artists, and it is when you study these that you see Vezzoli is not just mining the celebrity culture for its visual immediacy, as many Warholesque artists—not Warhol himself—do, but that he has a more complex agenda. The Greed campaign, for instance, included images of Eva Hesse, whom Vezzoli admires for her “aura of integrity,” Leonor Fini, whom he has described as a “social hanger-on” and Tamara de Lempicka, whom he has called a “completely sold-out commercial figure.” There’s something political here. Moral, too.
Most of the celebrities Vezzoli chooses to incorporate are pretty serious—there is rarely any kitsch. “Yes,” he said, “and I guess I’ve been gifted that the people I work with are very serious. And they let go of their seriousness to play my crazy games. I don’t know what to say about it. But it’s fantastic that they all accept to play with me.
“For me the idea is always flirting with the edge and never really diving into it,” he continues. “I think in the end sincerity has to play a role, you know. I think the problem is not just with myself. Because if I would think that in the name of what I do I could go beyond this, I would.
“But I think my main problem is my roots. I come from Arte Povera. The only artwork that my parents had in the house was a little multiple of Joseph Beuys. So I think I could push myself to make a commercial for a perfume that doesn’t exist. But maybe I’m not courageous enough to make the real perfume. I don’t know. Or maybe I just think that I prefer to mirror the surreality of the world in this way. I think this is my way of mirroring what I feel I’m surrounded by.”
And yet, isn’t he an artist who lives in the gap between art and life?
“Absolutely! I do not want to substantiate my choice intellectually. I just say I like life too much! And I create for myself an artistic persona that is a mirror of who I am. So basically the art that I make enables me to see things and meet people and go to places where I dream to go. And so for me that is the proof that what I am doing is honest. My practice is exquisitely built on making myself happier or more stimulated or a more fulfilled person. So I only hope that I can keep doing this until the end of my life.”
Interestingly, the grim economic times have not diminished the joy of creation for Vezzoli. “I have been asked whether with the recession people would find my work less interesting. My work was around the cult for actors or famous people. Not exclusively that, but it’s a form of deconstruction or analysis of that. And I feel that, despite the recession, the topics that I am discussing in my work are still relevant. Luckily the Celebrity Cult does not seem to have diminished at all. Or probably it’s even stronger, I would say.”
And Vezzoli knows how to make it work for him.
“He has worked quite a bit here,” says Maria Bell. “And he is very, very savvy with the ways to make this happen. And he’s done extraordinary efforts here to get someone like Lady Gaga to perform, you know, gratis at the event.”
Vezzoli’s mini-opera, Lady Gaga, the dancers and all, is a one time only happening for upwards of 950 at the MOCA dinner. Naturally, there is discussion of making a video.
“Well, that’s what we’re working on it,” Maria Bell says. “And we really are hopeful. It is of course going on right up to the last minute. Our goal is that this becomes something that’s very populist. The plan is that it will be filmed. And that the piece will then be available for download on YouTube, on the MOCA website and on various other channels. So everyone can access the piece. So it’s really available for everybody.”
Ephemera that will last forever.
Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.