“I had my cake; I ate it,” says artist and filmmaker Francesco Vezzoli, his voice sweet with a musical Italian accent, seated in the courtyard at the Museum of Contemporary Art, referring to the films he’s made over the years with top Hollywood actors. “I was lucky to have the best part, which is the talent. I was able to work with them, as if I was a part of Hollywood—from Cate Blanchett to Gore Vidal to Natalie Portman to Eva Mendes.”
Vezzoli’s long working fixation with cinema is now getting a major spotlight in Los Angeles with “Cinema Vezzoli,” an exhibit that transforms the Museum of Contemporary Art Grand Avenue into a movie theater that will play his peculiar short films made from 1999 to 2009, complete with theater seats sourced from a defunct Miami cinema. Other elements include a box office with movie posters of unmade films, a roomful of the faces of Luchino Visconti stars embroidered with tears, and other pieces Vezzoli has made about film history over the years.
The screening room is central to the show. To Vezzoli, 43, the theater is is a re-creation of his youth spent ogling Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo on screens in the small Northern Italian town of Brescia, which explains the absolute sincerity Vezzoli displays about Hollywood.
“The whole show has to do with my provincial identity, and my whole desire of working with Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Lauren Bacall,” says Vezzoli. “It all comes from a chronological obsession to dive into those movies I would watch as a kid or as an adolescent, [and] those pages of those magazines with those actresses that I grew up looking at.”
Realizing those dreams as an artist, he’s created films that often toy with ideas of celebrity, gossip, reality, and surreality through his fictionalized, but not totally unfathomable works. He cast Milla Jovovich and Courtney Love in a latter-day trailer for 1979’s critically panned Caligula, which the late Gore Vidal famously took his name off. Vezzoli’s take is the sexually deviant film Vidal had hoped for, and Vidal himself shows up to introduce the trailer. In another video, Vezzoli dreamt up a TV commercial for a fictive perfume titled Greed, A New Fragrance by Francesco Vezzoli and got Roman Polanski to direct it. In the work — which resembles a twisted version of Elizabeth Taylor’s glamour-slathered White Diamonds perfume commercials from the ‘80s — his stars, Michelle Williams and Portman, grapple for an oversized bottle of olfaction.
“I feel that I have exhausted that obsession,” says Vezzoli. “Happily, not negatively. It’s like when a relationship is over I can’t get it hard anymore. You have to be honest with yourself and just be friends.”
The truth is, Vezzoli has begun to feel that the more celebrities he works with, the less exciting the process has become. At first, he recalls, it was a real difficulty casting the big names he wanted — not only was Vezzoli an unknown artist from Italy, but contemporary art wasn’t yet the exhilarating option it’s become for actors like Tilda Swinton (who has performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), James Franco or Shia Labeouf.
“I remember an argument with a lawyer of a famous actor, who said, ‘Okay, my talent did your video, but you promised this video was going to the Venice Film Festival,’” recalls Vezzoli of his early days trying to convince actors to be in his films. “I said, ‘No! I always emailed this was for the national pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale,’ which for me was much more elitist and important. I mean, that video stays on for five months, everybody gets to see it, and a short gets lost in the film festival. And this lawyer on the phone, screaming at me, ‘I’ll sue you! I’ll get your money! What is the art biennale?!’ So, yes, it was a bumpy road, and it was so much fun, but now it’s not bumpy.”
He cites the 2009 performance “Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again)” he created with Lady Gaga and the Bolshoi Ballet for MOCA’s 30th anniversary gala as a tipping point. Gaga sang “Speechless” at the fundraiser, playing a pink piano designed by Damien Hirst.
“I was getting bored because what was I supposed to do?” he says. “I mean, I’ve done it with Lady Gaga at the gala here five years ago. What am I supposed to do now? Chase Miley Cyrus? What for?”
And so, Vezzoli has begun a total shift, mainly focusing on a more historical approach to painting and sculpture. But before he can hunker down in the studio, his film work is front and center in three cities no less. The MOCA is one part of “The Trinity,” which also includes last year’s “Galleria Vezzoli” at Fondazione Maxxi in Rome and “The Church of Vezzoli,” upcoming at MoMA PS1 in New York. In the former, Vezzoli’s films were shown on screens held in the hands of classically inspired sculptures, while the latter was supposed to consist of a real deconsecrated 19th century church, deconstructed and reassembled in the yard at PS1. Vezzoli’s films were to be shown inside the church.
However, there is an ongoing well-publicized legal battle with the Ministry of Culture in the Calabria region of Italy, where the church is to be coming from, regarding whether Vezzoli had the proper authorization to transport a cultural treasure. The church never left Italy, and Vezzoli is scrambling to figure out an alternative route for the PS1 show. Meanwhile, he faces criminal charges in Italy.
“It’s interesting for me to be in a fight with the Italian authorities because they don’t want me to move the church,” says Vezzoli. “So many people came to me and interviewed me and said, ‘Oh you must be so anxious; you must be so worried [about] moving the church.’ I said, ‘Moving a Hollywood actress is way more difficult.’”
“Cinema Vezzoli,” curated by Alma Ruiz, runs through August 11, 2014 at MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles and is presented by yoox.com.