Francesco Vezzoli is a handsome Italian artist who creates work varying from needlepoint portraits and video installations to delirious film shorts which remake and reimagine the iconic movies he’s obsessed with. Often he gets famous ‘divas’ like Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, and Lauren Bacall to star. Everyone I know knows about his remade Caligula trailer which had both Vezzoli and Courtney Love as Caligula, Helen Mirren as Tiberius, Karen Black as Agrippina, and Gore Vidal as himself. He is a regular at all the major biennales in the world and will be representing his home country in the upcoming Venice Biennale. When we spoke over the phone Francesco assured me that he ‘would love to talk about sex, no problem.’ We met at his hotel in New York where he quickly offered me some cookies.
Francesco: Did you eat the other cookie?
Adam: No. Do you want it?
Are you sure you don’t want it?
No. I mean, I liked it but it’s your cookie. You can have it.
Well, it’s a perfect metaphor for what I am. I offer you a cookie and if you don’t eat it, I take it back and eat it. This is who I am.
Are you an Indian giver?
No, I’m just greedy. In a friendly way.
How else does that manifest itself?
Mmm. I don’t know. I was just making a joke. I’m always very hungry.
No, not hungry. Goloso. Hungry is affamato. Goloso means that you see something in a window and you want it. How do you say that in English? Like a bear that sees marmalade and starts drooling?
I don’t know. Greedy could be the word.
I’m always rather drooly when it comes to food and boys.
What about boys?
Oh I’m a big… I’m not a big do-er, but I am a big cruiser.
Oh really? Where do you go to do that?
Oh no, not that kind of cruising. I just mean I love to look at the boys. I can’t stop. I just look at every boy on the street. I mean, I don’t look at the predictable things — I don’t look at the package, the ass; I look at their eyes, what they’re wearing. I’m not pretending to be over-romantic, but I’m fascinated by all different vocabularies. I can be fascinated by a man in a suit, or a man wearing cowboy boots, or trainers and a sweatshirt. You know… I’m constantly fascinated by body language, by the way people dress, by the way they convey their desire. The kind of image they project in order to attract other people. I’m constantly curious about that.
(Francesco’s phone rings. I recognize his ringtone as the theme for Sex and the City. Francesco has a conversation where he mentions a piece he made that references the strange Italian film The Driver’s Seat, which features Elizabeth Taylor and, in a bizarre cameo, Andy Warhol.)
You’re doing a film based on The Driver’s Seat?
No. Ingrid Sischy, the editor in chief of Interview, is doing a monographic issue on Elizabeth Taylor, who I am crazy about of course. And since she knew that this exhibition I did in LA was all about Suddenly Last Summer and that I’d made a needlework piece of Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid asked if I would contribute to the issue. I made a portrait of Liz Taylor and I titled it Identikit, which is the Italian title of The Driver’s Seat. So there’s your answer…
Where do you live in Italy?
I don’t really live anywhere. I’m sort of based in Milan, where there’s this guy named Luca who’s like a brother to me. He’s kind of my producer, my assistant, my bouncer of ideas and pusher of ideas. We exchange a lot. I don’t have a place anywhere in the world. I sort of go back very often to my parents in Brescia, in Northern Italy, where I was born. I think it’s important to stay close to my roots. I’m very close to my parents, and my grandmother, and uncles. And the rest of the time I just travel. It’s a sort of financial strategy to save money instead of renting a place where you wouldn’t stay much.
Tell me about your parents.
Oh, they’re very normal people. My mother is a doctor, a pediatrician, and my father is a lawyer. And they educated me in a very free way.
Not free, but — they always allowed me to make whatever choices I wanted to make, personally or professionally. I had a very free childhood and adolescence, and traveling has always been part of what I desire. They always allowed me to — as long as I was able to cover the costs myself.
As long as you’re paying, you can do what you want.
No, it’s not that. They’re always interested in what I’m doing. It’s a very open relationship. And of course I’m very much in love with my mother, which is inevitable.
What do you think of the public’s perception of you as running with a rich and fast crowd?
Well, I don’t hang out with any of the people I put in my films. That’s a general misunderstanding about me.
I say it not from a personal view, but from an assessment of what people tend to say about you.
I think they like to fantasize about it and criticize it. The truth is, I never go out to dinner with any of the people I work with in my films, or see them in any private circumstances. My life is the life of an artist — I travel and I build up my productions. I go to a lot of places in order to have my work produced. I hang out with actors much much less than any other director. It’s not that I don’t think they’re interesting human beings. But I believe that keeping a certain distance is very healthy; otherwise my ability to build up a certain critique of their performance is diminished. It is my professional duty to be at many art events, but I don’t hang out at Hollywood parties. You know, we could discuss the fact that so many of the art-world events are trying really badly to replicate Hollywood glamour. Which I find very ridiculous, because being in my position, I know the Hollywood structure, and I know about the fashion world, and I know how those industries are very well oiled in their ways of building strategies of hype, expectation, and success. So for me, seeing the art world trying to replicate that, I just have to smile.
While you get attacked for your perceived complicity in that in some way.
Do you feel I’ve been attacked? Well I do. Yeah, I’ve been attacked.
They like to attack me. I think it’s a good sign. If you can get such a strong reaction it’s a good thing.
Well, then, if you don’t have a circle of friends that includes the people in your films, how do you get such amazing people to be in your films?
I think I convey very genuinely that their presence, and the presence of their persona, is very important to me.
I look at your cast lists and it’s utterly amazing. You have dream casts. Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Helmut Berger, Helen Mirren…
Well, I go and meet them. I write them a letter. I send them the books that have been written about my work. I get people that have written about me to write a letter. These people I take very seriously, and I take their public personas very seriously as things I want to put into my discourse. And then most of them are probably very bored, in general, by what they do or what they usually get offered. In general, if you’re very famous, you very rarely get offered something different. But really, I don’t hang out with them. And I don’t think they would want to go out for dinner with me to chitchat or to gossip. I think that people who believe in what they do want serious people to involve them in serious projects. That’s the best way to make love to them and to get love back.
Who has turned you down?
In the beginning Michelangelo Antonioni, but that was a very hard task. Also because of his bad health. I had a meeting with his wife, and she was very nice, but she made it very clear that… It would have been amazing, but it would also have been very complicated. I mean, at the time I was of course very upset.
I never want to meet my idols, because you run the great risk that they will disappoint. That’s scarier than what it would be like if you met them.
I agree. Meeting is dangerous. I never want to meet artists, because, in theory, they are my idols. That’s what I do for a living, so…
Tell me about the first time you had sex with a guy.
Oh. (laughs) No.
No. Uh, I don’t remember the first time.
No. I mean, I’m not trying to escape your question, but I don’t exactly remember the first time. It’s all a work in progress…
Can you tell me about an early memory that was important to you?
I have an early memory of having wet dreams about classical Greek statues.
I went to an academic high school and I hadn’t seen much porn at that age, so Greek statues provided, you know, a fleshy substitute. I remember being in a hotel by the seaside and waking up having a wet dream, and I remember these Greek statues. Maybe I’m just building a mythology for myself. Maybe I had many types of wet dreams and I just like to quote that one.
Because the legend sounds much more interesting?
Exactly. I don’t go out for dinner with my divas, but they’ve been good teachers regarding legend-building.
How early did you start having sex?
Well, I went to this very rigorous provincial Italian high school for the smart kids from the rich and poor families where it was really about studying for 13, 14 hours a day — Latin, Greek, History, Philosophy. I mean, I had nervous breakdowns, an eating disorder… You know, nothing could prepare you for how evil and tough those professors were. And that’s when I escaped to London, to look for, you know, my sexual freedom. Quite normal.
How old were you?
I was 19. It was the beginning of the ’90s.
Did you have a pretty open plate to pick from, sexually?
Ah, well, I was a club kid. I was obsessed by DJs. Back in Italy I had these older guys, all straight, who were into club culture. They were my nearest link to gay culture. I remember all these names of DJs like Danny Rampling and the Ministry of Sound. I would go to gay and straight clubs regardless. So that was some sort of sexual education where I was a club kid who didn’t really fit into that category because I was trying in my own clumsy way to belong to something. You know, the kind of thing you do when you’re young, you’re looking for yourself. It was a good education. I remember going to New York at the time when I was obsessed with Bright Lights, Big City and being rejected in a club, Nell’s.
Were you devastated?
That was all that meant anything to you in the world?
Yes! I’m not ashamed of it. But if you’re strong, you survive rejection.
Who was your first boyfriend?
My first boyfriend was Matthias — Matthias Vriens. He’s the only boyfriend I’ve ever had. w
Really? You’ve never had another boyfriend?
No. Right now we’re separated. We are still best friends, and we spend time together. He’s coming here in an hour. We’re ex-husbands, as we call each other.
How long were you with him?
Oh my god! I don’t know, because for me it never ended.
How much sex did you have before you were with him?
I don’t know.
Because I’m assuming you’re, let’s say, 19 and you’re free to explore yourself sexually…
I haven’t had much sex in my life.
No, not really. I’m more of a… You know, for me, to have real sex, it takes real intimacy. But then if you asked me, ‘Have you jerked off with people?’ — yes. But to have real sex, to be in a bed and hug and kiss, it takes real intimacy, and that’s something I don’t do very easily. But then maybe you’re in a club and you see a guy pissing and you look him in the eyes and you jerk off — that’s very exciting. But intimacy is another sport, and to give that away is very complicated.
Do you ever have a feeling after sex of being sad?
No. I’m already thinking about work. (Laughs) You know, some people want to have a smoke after sex, and I’m like, ‘What’s next?’
But it’s not purely functional for you, right? It’s not just a means to ejaculate and then… It sounds very ‘proactive’ what you’re describing.
Well, love is not functional, sex is functional. You know, some people are very good at sex. They study sex, they know if you touch there it works… I’m not that kind of person. I think there are some people who dedicate their lives to being great fuckers. And I’m not one of them. I mean, some people really know how to do it. They take care of their bodies, they shave, tan, bim bum bam — and you hope for them that after all that work they know how to translate it into an explosion of hormones. I have never dedicated myself to sex. You know, I’m just normal.
Well it’s interesting, it’s a surprise for me because, looking at your work, such as the Caligula piece, I see this focus on beauty and decadent glamour. You’re this jet-setting artist who travels all over the world — I guess one would think that you’re a bit more in tune with that sexual world… Maybe you’re looking in your work for things you don’t have. So what does turn you on?
Ah, why am I supposed to say this?
I don’t know. Because I’m asking?
I know. I’m just giving you a hard time. Well I hope I’m giving you a fun time!
I don’t want you to think I’m invading your privacy.
What turns me on? Anonymity turns me on. I’m very fascinated by anonymity. But at the same time, the truth is that, if you’re very fast at detecting other people’s likes and behaviors, anonymity lasts a very short time. I mean, if from the kind of shoes, or the clothes, or the kind of tie someone’s wearing you can detect what type of person he is, what environment he comes from, that kind of anonymity falls apart very quickly.
As soon as the lights go on in the dark room…
Not only in a dark room. I’m not thinking only of the dark room… But I guess you were making a metaphor?
I mean, people can say three words and the universe you had projected onto them can fall apart and the anonymity is gone. So if you ask me, ‘What are you into?’ I don’t know. Something deeper…
So anonymity turns you on, but intimacy is what you’re truly fascinated by?
That’s why I’m trying to give you an answer, a deeper answer. I’m not going to give you the answer that, you know, I’m turned on by Texan cowboy boots. I’m trying to give you an answer. So in order to give you a true answer, maybe I’m thinking what kind of answer to give you in order to be honest. I’m grown-up enough to know that the illusion of anonymity lasts a very short while, so maybe deep down I’m more into intimacy. But intimacy is very hard to find. Is that a decent answer?
Yes, of course. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable with my questions.
No, no, I’m enjoying it.
I have some more very…
No, not so graphic, but now I’m worried about how you’re going to take them.
No, no, it’s okay.
How many times do you come during sex?
Eh, if there is anonymity: once. If there is intimacy: many times.
Can you remember something that you would describe as the most exciting sexual experience you’ve ever had?
Ha. Yeah, not the most exciting, but…
Whatever just popped into your head I wanna hear.
Yes, well I was in São Paolo, in Brazil, and I went to the toilet in a park and this guy next to me started looking at me, but we were surrounded by other people. It wasn’t a cruising place. Basically we had sex just by looking in each other’s eyes. We both came pretending we were just pissing.
And I found that to be very exciting. I don’t remember his face, but I remember that he was trying to convey his desire of me only by looking. There was something so intense in the way he was doing it that was remarkable and very exciting.
These experiences are always a huge release.
Yeah, and there was no exchange of fluids. Which I thought was a perfect metaphor. It was the perfect sublimation of desire. You know, when there’s not meant to be any intimacy, there should be none.
You don’t exchange fluids?
(laughs, uncomfortably) No. Only with people I have intimacy with. I am very chaste in a way.
Do you have anal sex?
Ehm, no. Not so much.
I think to do anal sex it takes a lot of intimacy. I mean, if this is a serious interview…
It’s a serious interview.
Okay, but if I’ll answer then that’s the way they have to print it because it’s very private stuff. So, Adam, if they change it around I’m going to get really mad…
So for me the sexual world divides into two. If you meet a guy in a public space and you look him in the eyes and you jerk off — okay, that’s one thing. Anonymity, no intimacy, very safe, very… It’s like some kind of hyper-choreographed masturbation, and that is perfect, ideal. And then the realm of kissing, hugging, touching the other’s body, anal sex — that’s something that is very hard to achieve because I think you have to do it with someone you feel very comfortable with. I know that many people achieve it with people they don’t feel comfortable with and I envy that — I’m being very honest. I’m not capable of achieving that. I don’t think there’s anything that peculiar about that. So it’s very important for me to keep them separate — the one thing is when you’re making love, and the other is like ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’, which is fast and should be very detached, sublimated, rarified, and if possible without body fluids.
But would you say you have a very strong libido?
Yes, I love to look at men. I can go down to the lobby in this hotel and I look at every guy that’s sitting there. I love looking at guys and their behavior. I find gay clubs a bit boring because there’s nothing to discover. Maybe I’m from the old guard. It’s more exciting to take a stroll down Broadway than down Christopher Street. If you’re more into anthropology than ejaculation, you know… Does that make sense?
Yes, yes, absolutely. You’ve really just put me in a position where my expectations of you are completely confounded.
Good. So I won!
Yeah. You won.
I have the power, ha ha. That’s all I want — control. Sex? Who cares? It’s all about control. (laughs)
Are you excited to do interviews?
Yeah. I love them. Well, I make films, I’m an artist, I’m vain, so…I like attention and I really like to be challenged. I mean, I think I honestly said things to you today that I have never even said to myself before.