Francesco Vezzoli at Museion
Museion inaugurates its 2016 programme with a two-part exhibition on and around the work of Francesco Vezzoli entitled ‘Museo / Museion’. On the first three floors of the museum, the artist has re-imagined and re-arranged the collection, while on the fourth, Letizia Ragaglia, the museum’s director, has curated the first retrospective of Vezzoli’s sculptural work. A classical aesthetic as well as contemporary iconicity have been the two predominant, intertwined themes and tropes of the artist’s recent work, but here the emphasis is more on antiquity than on contemporaneity. The show begins in the foyer, with wallpaper based on a Giovanni Paolo Panini painting transforming the space into an 18th-century salon, continues upstairs where the artist has (literally and conceptually) re-framed contemporary works from Museion’s collection, and reaches its climax in the upper gallery with a series of classical statues re-engineered by the artist. (For example, a 170 CE marble sculpture of a woman’s head is updated with a glossy painted finish.)
Exhibitions combining classical and contemporary artworks are having a moment in Italy: from ‘Serial Classic’ at Fondazione Prada, Milan, last summer, which displayed Roman antiquities to explore notions of original and imitation, to ‘Jeff Koons in Florence’ at the city’s Palazzio Vecchio, which juxtaposed two of Koons’ sculptures with works by Donatello and Michelangelo. But how much agency does art from the Classical period really have in contemporary art? How much critical or even political potential can be leveraged? Vezzoli is almost religiously mute when it comes to these questions. During the press preview for ‘Museo / Museion’, he insisted on calling his curatorial approach ‘a non-antagonistic provocation’, ‘the opposite of institutional critique’. Instead he is playing ‘a serious game’. Indeed, Vezzoli’s curated show is often jocular. Take Mario Schifano’s Casa sola (1988/89), which is clumsily nestled in a trompe l’œil rendition of the thick wooden frame of Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciation (1489); or Nan Goldin’s Gina at Bruce’s Dinner Party, NYC (1991), which is framed by an exact replica of the frame that holds Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing (c.1605-06). It is up to the viewer to rationalize these associations, with the assistance of a number of well-designed handouts.
It is in the survey of Vezzoli’s sculptural work on the fourth floor that the political implications become more apparent. Over the past five years, the artist has acquired several antique statues at auctions. Some of these have been restored to their original states, while others been paired with new creations, becoming a part of the artist’s work: a beautiful 19th century red porphyry head sits face to face with a white marble self-portrait by Vezzoli (Satire of a Satyr, 2011); twelve tiny archeological artifacts are topped with handmade cotton hats (Styling the past, 2014); a torso of a 2nd-century CE marble statue stands with a Brancusi bronze head in place of its natural crowning piece (Exotic & Erotic (after Constantin Brancusi), 2015). Museion presents these sculptural and historical pastiches by Vezzoli as derivative of the artist’s established tendency to undermine ingrained value systems: ‘Vezzoli the anarchic’, the press release calls him. But, rather than a call for the disintegration of the status quo, some of his sculptures seem – on the contrary – to almost favour a return to a status quo ante.
The artist’s series ‘True Colors’ (2014), for example, is a tangible demonstration of how Vezzoli’s journey into the foundations of classicism has turned from sacrilegious to rigorous. In consultation with art historians and archaeologists, he restored the painted faces of several marble busts dating to the 1st-century CE, challenging the common perception of Greco-Roman statues as forms void of any original colouring. During a TEDx Talk last year, Vezzoli said: ‘We have inherited a watered-down, cleaned-up version of the past […] When I approach an ancient sculpture and colour its skin or eyes, I restore its capability of being a vehicle of desire’. In these times of feverish debate about what may or may not constitute the foundations of Europe’s common cultural heritage, to speak of historical truth and to question some of the lies we have based our understanding of the past on is a well-timed endeavour, and in that sense has a clear political charge, whether Vezzoli likes to admit it or not.