Francesco Vezzoli is Nostalgic for Vintage Italian Television
His new show at the Prada Foundation digs deep into the moving and even sometimes infuriating archives of the Italian public broadcasting company, Rai.
Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani andMarco Cappelletti. Courtesy of the Prada Foundation.
I first met Francesco Vezzoli on a Monday night in late May, after having coffee at Bar Luce. We sat in the shade of a lonely tree on the grounds of the Prada Foundation and he complimented me on my striped dress. "I'm not a journalist," I immediately told him (I, too, am an artist), "but I am a nostalgic like you." Nostalgia is the main theme of "TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai," the sprawling exhibition which recently opened in the Foundation's several venues, on view until September 24th.
The show is a carousel of the artist's television memories of the 1970s, interspersed with pivotal moments in Italian history told through a selection of bittersweet videos from the Rai archives. Rai, the Italian public broadcasting company, has long been the only TV channel in Italy; the vintage footage in the show is both moving and infuriating. It also often makes you want to dance. Vezzoli's selection is a careful mixture of most destabilizing events of the time—from Amanda Lear's electrifying leather pants, all flecked by feminist protests—to quiet moments of Italian artists at work as well as beautiful theatrical adaptations. A condensed and edited version of our conversation appears below, and was translated from the Italian by Vincenzo Latronico.
The show opens with one of my favorite pieces: a series of video-interviews to Italian artists from the twentieth century. As I am one myself, I am extremely curious about the daily lives of artists—there's something reassuring in seeing them in slippers, surrounded by messy apartments, involved in their little human rituals. I found several of those videos on YouTube, which is almost a genre to itself. Today, there are more and more of these niche genres, from make-up tutorials to unboxing videos. Are you interested in any of them, would you include them in a future version of this show?
The most honest answer has to do with sex. If I found a museum brave enough to do it, it would be interesting to try and analyze all of that material, delving into the hyper-amateur or the hyper-produced, investigating how all this has impacted out sexuality. Has it been improved, impoverished, anesthetized? I'd like to observe these videos from an anthropological perspective. There's people showing us their homes, choosing specific music, focusing on a single hair. These elements seem to distract from the sublimation of sex, but in fact they often arouse it.
I was born in 1984, which for television was a very different era—both aesthetically and substantially—than what your exhibition focuses on. If you could summarize in a single concept or sentence the nature of later Italian television, how would you define it?
The early 1980s still offered beautiful shows such as Paolo Giaccio's Mister Fantasy—I found it marvelous. It was brilliant TV, one of the first attempts at dealing with the hedonism of those years, and with pop culture. But just then, when Silvio Berlusconi made his Hearst-like entry in the market, television became by definition more like Berlusconi himself. I don't mean this necessarily in a derogatory way.
Something that RAI had built over the years had been sold off, literally, to Berlusconi, who then proceeded to broadcast it on his channels. In a way it's similar to what happens to artists who start out from niche galleries—to critical acclaim and very little money—and are later drawn into the orbit of some fat, wealthy gallerist offering a pile of cash and the promise of a great show. What fascinated me about television from the 80s and 90s was seeing my heroes from 1970s television thrown into a radically different, privatized context. After I moved to study in London in the early 2000s I stopped watching Italian TV, not out of snobbery but because of a logistical challenge.
One of the most immediately striking elements in the show is the design by Studio M/M. Those almost monumental black-and-white structures reminded me of Carlo Cesarini's stage designs—he used to work for Studio Uno, Canzonissima and Milleluci alongside Raffaella Carrà, Mina and Rita Pavone [iconic Italian singers and TV hosts] . The most frequent criticism leveled at television today has to do with its lack of contents; but what about the container?
Those were masterpieces! Masterpieces! Everyone working in stage design and construction was amazing back then! Just think that in the 1960s Pino Pascali [an Italian artist, at the forefront of the Arte Povera movement] used to work with RAI as a stage and costume designer: it means that good products can still be made if only one is willing to try, if it's what the people want. For instance, I believe "Non Uccidere" [TV series broadcast by Rai from 2015] is a great series.
Another thing I noticed in several videos is that the rhythm seems to be much slower than what we are used to today. The interviews and features are full of idle time, whole minutes in which, say, the host is just lighting a cigarette. Now, however, we seem to be so terrified of idle time, both in communication and in our individual, psychological private sphere. How important is idle time to you?
In this case I tried to be very precise. Usually I'm never categorical about anything, but for this show I insisted there be absolutely no cuts to the footage. Every moment is presented in its entirety, beginning to end. To me, preserving this rhythm was crucial. This show is about contents, and we had to treat them as such. The world keeps debating and discussing contents. I have no solution to offer, I only— SWOOSH!—threw the Mikado sticks on the table, to begin a kind of reflection. I hope someone picks it up.
As human beings, we always think we're living in the most dangerous, barren, and unlucky time in history. But watching the videos in the upper-floor Podium one cannot but realize how many tragic moments of hardship we have had to endure back then.
Thank you so much for this remark. I often end up fighting with people who complain they're living in the worst decade in history, and I'm like, "NO!". We've had fascism; we've had post-fascism: a nation divided between twenty million people who had voted for Mussolini and had not died—they were alive and well with their party membership card still in the back of some drawer—and the other half of the country who, with varying degrees of timeliness, had decided to cross the barricade, while one person in three was mourning their dead. These were the 50s. The "boom" years that followed allowed us to catch our breath. Then there were the 70s, which barely allowed a moment of respite: we had one murder a day, basically a civil war. Then the 1980s, then Tangentopoli, the end of the first republic, the crisis of the party system, a whole nation believing that the hegemonies and authorities that had administered the country for 50 years are basically a gang of crooks. Who says we are in the worst decade? These are—and I'm quoting Renato Zero [a famous Italian singer] "the best years in our lives".
I was fascinated by the sound part of the exhibition. In a way it is as important as video, the show was a collage of overlapping sounds. It's something I often think when seeing a show: how could this sound? Do you ever think about it? Do you ever consider bizarre combinations such as Medardo Rosso with Joy Division?
Before World War Two—for instance, for Surrealists—making exhibitions across various media, with music and color, was totally ok. Then, as contemporary art increasingly became a place for financial speculation, we have tended to isolate artworks as something sacred, which is precisely what I tried to avoid when conceiving this show, since I didn't owe it to anybody. Many artists would use much more music in their work, if they could, but unfortunately the system forbids it, since whatever distracts from the artwork's sacred aura is seen as diminishing its financial potential.
If I were to choose a soundtrack for a show, I think I would start with a philological reconstruction, to make people understand that an inanimate object changing hands from a Los Angeles billionaire to another billionaire in Basel, who probably doesn't even know what it is about, is a vessel of memories, thoughts, history. It would need to be a chronological process. Eventually, we'd get to Medardo Rosso with Joy Division.
As I entered the room with Carla Accardi's works I immediately felt its welcoming, soft atmosphere; however, I left it with my jaw clenched, seething with anger at realizing how many of the battles won by the women's movements in the 1970s are still constantly rediscussed today.
Yours is a legitimate reaction. The exhibition includes so many "unfulfilled promises," as Capote would have said. For 50 years, women have been fighting for something they have yet to get. Here, too, I have no answer to offer, or maybe my answer lies in the reflection I try to encourage.
I had the opposite feeling while visiting the south wing of the exhibition, focused on entertainment. The antiquated, yet strong and charismatic image of those soubrettes felt somewhat liberating. Of course it's a conundrum: women were allowed to dance and entertain, but not to present serious news items. In theory, it could be the antithesis of feminism; and yet, somehow paradoxically, it's as if—in that space reserved to entertainment, yet affording huge visibility—Mina and the Kessler Twins and the like had found a direct channel with the public.
A 1987 poll found that the most popular people in the country were the Pope, the President and Raffaella Carrà. I have nothing to add. The exhibition has nothing to add. Guess what? Politicians at the time had got it all wrong. They thought women could only work in entertainment, they allowed them through the back door because entertainment, songs, women on TV were at best something for faggots: yet there she is, with the Pope and the President, with 80 million viewers glued to their screens night after night. And that's the way I like it.
For an Italian viewer, this show is a journey through familiar memories. For the international public, on the other hand, the experience will have a whole different flavor. What perspective do you think a foreign visitor could have on your exhibition?
The Prada Foundation's public comes from all over the world: from the very first, my intention has been to address an international audience. Besides quality, the fundamental trait shared by the videos in my show is the quantity, as in the amount of spectators they have reached. Back then, Rai movies were awarded the Palme d'Or; Milleluci [a TV show hosted by Mina and Raffaella Carrà and aired in 1974] had 80 million viewers, almost the whole nation. Those were incredible figures! If I'd have found beautiful niche shows in the Rai archives I would never have had the arrogance to force everyone to watch them. What I'm trying to do here is to tell a story, to describe this phenomenon.
Personal curio: since you had access to the Rai archives, I presume you must have spent hundreds of hours just watching this material. Did they ever make you cry? And if so, what moved you the most?
I cried for Aldo Moro's murder [an Italian politician and five-time prime minister murdered by Brigate Rosse in 1978] because it had a deep psychological impact on me. I remember all about when it happened. Every generation has its own brush with history. For millennials it was 9/11. For Italians born in my years it's the Moro murder.
In a 1978 song, Johnny Thunders sang: "You can't put your arms around a memory". This show is very rich in contents, but in a way all it leaves you with is a fleeting sensation, since it revolves so much around emotions and memories. If you could concentrate all those memories to produce a souvenir of this show, something evocative that viewers could bring back home as they once did with bottled beach sand, what would it be?
Maybe an LP record. It would summarize several things. The memory of a song, the passé graphic design, an antiquated object reminding us how supports keep changing while emotions stay the same. An LP record on which people could discover that music. If the remix is good, it might offer those same emotions today.
"TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai," is on view at the Prada Foundation until September 24. Olimpia Zagnoli was born on a leap day. Her work characterised by neat shapes and vibrant colors has appeared in the pages of The New Yorker ,The New York Times , and Apartamento Magazine. She has collaborated with Taschen, Fendi and The Guggenheim Museum. She lives in Milan in a house with kaleidoscopic floors.