All in a day’s work

Blink and you’ll miss it, so to speak. Even for a culture that is addicted to the fizzy thrills of the pop-up and the flash mob, the latest collaborative venture between Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli and fashion’s conceptualist doyenne Miuccia Prada takes celebration of the ephemeral to a new level.

Vezzoli’s 24h Museum will be a day-long exhibition of the artist’s work at Paris’s Palais d’Iéna, which will be redesigned by Rem Koolhaas’s AMO, an offshoot of his celebrated OMA architectural practice. There will be an opening dinner on January 24, followed by an opening party, a press conference the following morning and an opening for the public.

And then, later that day, it will close.

“Think of it as a parody of a retrospective,” says the dashing and quietly spoken Vezzoli when we meet in Prada’s headquarters in Milan. “It is something joyful, free-spirited,” adds his partner-in-travesty Miuccia Prada, who says that art has become too serious. The pair of them have a palpably enjoyable working relationship and bicker affectionately as they try to recall the occasion of their first meeting. (They can’t.)

We should expect the unexpected with Vezzoli. His artistic concerns revolve around the culture of celebrity and the promise of projects that never occur. At the 2005 Venice Biennale he wowed visitors with a trailer for a film on the life of Caligula, featuring Helen Mirren, Gore Vidal and Courtney Love among others – a film that didn’t exist. In the following Biennale, another jeu d’esprit: a short film, Democrazy, showing presidential candidates in a US election, played by Sharon Stone and the French philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy.

At New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2007 a starry audience turned up to see a non-performance of a Pirandello play that featured Anita Ekberg and Cate Blanchett hovering tantalisingly in the background. “Greed” was an advertisement starring Natalie Portman for a non-existent perfume. At a gala for Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Vezzoli commissioned Lady Gaga, dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, Frank Gehry and Damien Hirst to collaborate on nothing more resonant than a three-minute pop tune.

Preliminary design for the 24h Museum

Paris’s 24h Museum is in the same vein: an exploration, says Vezzoli, of our obsession with self-promotion, fame, public relations. He says he is doing little more than holding up a mirror to our preoccupations. Prada demurs: “His work is much more political than he likes to admit. It is about our obsession with celebrity and the way that art wants to stay in a kind of limbo.”

What appeals to her about the project is its sense of fun. “I am always interested in art that becomes part of real, practical life rather than intellectual life,” she says. She cites another Prada-sponsored project, Carsten Höller’s Double Club in London, which brought together Congolese and western art forms in what became one of the city’s hippest spaces during the winter of 2008-09. “Sometimes our relationships become too business-oriented. And that is worse in the art field than the fashion field.”

The Prada Foundation, which is supporting Vezzoli’s project, has become a conspicuous player in the contemporary art world, with a central base in Milan and a newly opened historic palazzo in Venice that was the talk of last year’s Biennale. The 24h Museum takes place in a venue that has already been used for a fashion show for Prada’s sister brand, Miu Miu.

Vezzoli says there is a missionary core to the otherwise playful project: “The Palais d’Iéna was designed as a museum but it was turned into a political building [the French Economic and Social Council] in the 1950s. We are restoring it to its original use. It is a form of social provocation. And, who knows, maybe the day after it closes, [French President] Sarkozy will be there.”

The exhibition will feature facsimiles of classical statues that will have the faces of film stars superimposed on to them. “It is very grandiose. It is like the idea of the Baroque feast. Something that will bring the public together and encourage debate. I am political in this sense – engaging with the polis [citizens].” He says he has had enough of working with celebrities: “I am personally tired of pursuing and courting them, and I have exhausted my fascination with that universe.”

Both the art and fashion worlds are inflected with seriousness, I say. Is there a common fascination with irony at play here? “I think Prada is one of the most ironic brands in the world, and I hope I am one of the most ironic artists,” says Vezzoli. “Irony means to really observe,” adds Prada. “To understand what is really going on in the world, how people feel. Anything I do is an excuse to understand what is happening. For instance: what are young Chinese women buying? Sexy dresses? Serious dresses? It is something that is very intimate, the way we dress.”

And, unlike most artists, as head of one of the world’s biggest fashion houses her inquiries are forever grounded by the need for commercial success. “There is nothing more grounding than the way people choose to spend their money. But I like the commercial aspect. It is a way of being attached to reality.” Nonetheless, admission to the exhibition will be free.

Vezzoli says he envies Prada’s brutal deadlines. “Of all the creative jobs, fashion is the fastest-moving. Every three months she has to produce a new concept. She is in constant communication with the world on a social, intellectual and creative level.

“I read an article about [US film director] James Cameron, and how he worked for 12 years on Avatar. I have respect for his success and for his Oscar, but I am nothing to do with that [way of working]. I prefer to make a less perfect project, for the ‘machine of thinking’ never to stop.”

Such is the extent of the crossover between visual art and fashion these days that it seems almost pointless to try to draw boundaries between them. Art has discovered the allure of glamour and the importance of clever marketing, a rich source for Vezzoli’s work, while the fashion world – no one more skilfully than Prada – makes audacious conceptual leaps.

Vezzoli is resigned to criticisms that he is part of the very world that he is attempting to satirise. “I was once described as a guilty pleasure, and I think I will always be one,” he says. “People like what I do but they are ashamed of liking it.”

Prada, in the meantime, finds herself irritated by the solemnity of certain parts of cultural life. “I hate the hypocrisy of intellectuals. That is one of my deepest things right now.” She reserves special scorn for those who seek to patronise fashion. “It is strange how fashion, of all the industries, is criticised so much. I have never understood that. Of course it is about vanity, and no one wants to admit that vanity is a fundamental thing for people.”

Perhaps it is because fashion is considered the most ostentatious symbol of a hyper-consumerist age? I offer tentatively. “That is hypocrisy,” she all but spits. Vezzoli springs to her defence. “For me the art world is much more ostentatious. In fashion you can be beautiful for €100, €200, €300. And the shows are such beautiful spectacles – the stylists, the music. This is culture!

“The Italian industrial aristocracy has not yet fully acknowledged the importance of the fashion industry, and that is a big mistake. But of course male power feels threatened by an industry that is so dominated by gay people and women.”

“Nooo!” exclaims Prada, and they bicker for a while.

The 24h Museum is the result of these complicated, shared sensibilities. It will be one hell of a party, to be sure, but one knowingly laced with the pathos of over-anticipation. The empty promises of Vezzoli’s work, he has said, reflect the “sado-masochistic dynamic” that exists between the over-powerful media and the over-excited public. His is the mirror holding us to account, while Prada remains the detached observer.

At one point the artist wanted to place cameras inside his statues to record the reactions of visitors in front of them. He suspects many artists deceive themselves about the scant attention paid to their works in such contexts. “It is an interesting topic for an artist to face,” he says.

He finishes our interview with a final ironic observation on the relationship between art and money. Whereas many museums happily rent themselves out to corporate concerns for dinners and days out, he says, one of the few places where that cannot be done is the Prada Foundation. “It stands on its own two feet.”

“That is a huge privilege,” adds Prada. “And that is why I have to sell a lot of handbags.”

‘24h Museum’, Palais d’Iéna, Paris, January 24-25

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