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Art and Artifice

Hillary Clinton's 'tears', fake gondolas and Lyon in the desert - is fiction the new reality?

Francesco Vezzoli, Hillary and Socks Clinton (2007)

Francesco Vezzoli, Hillary and Socks Clinton (2007)

By the time this column appears in print the media’s focus on Hillary Clinton’s alleged emotional breakdown on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic primary will be eclipsed by other, perhaps more newsworthy, coverage of the US presidential election. But the week it occurred, you would have thought that nothing else of import had transpired in national politics. Scrutinized and dissected on every conceivable media outlet, the candidate’s emotional response to a simple question about the stresses of the campaign trail was the subject of much debate.

Were her tears real or contrived? Did the crack in her composure reveal a more authentic self than the steely persona she projects? Whether rehearsed or not, this display won Clinton enough swing votes to secure the primary – a fact that she has since exploited by claiming to have finally found her ‘voice’ in that widely televised moment of despair. Putting aside the inherent sexism of the whole discussion – would these questions ever be asked of a man running for office? – what is most astonishing is that nothing really happened. Watch the YouTube clip for yourself: no tears, no trembling lower lip, no blatant emotional signs other than a momentary catch in Clinton’s voice. The press went wild at the mere suggestion of vulnerability, spinning a sensation where there was none. But people love political theatre: fiction is so much more absorbing than the numbing reality of a candidate’s gruelling stumping tour through the American hinterland. In our ‘reality’-crazed, confessional culture the seduction of fiction is ever more apparent. The truth doesn’t matter if the hype is good enough – a dismal fact ritually exploited by the Bush administration. The spin factor in American politics was the subject of Francesco Vezzoli’s video installation Democrazy (2007), starring Sharon Stone and Bernard-Henri Lévy as strangely interchangeable presidential candidates. In producing his contribution to the last Venice Biennale, Vezzoli worked with top US political consultants to craft two fictitious television spots, which in the end say essentially the same thing. The message is clear: when it comes to the American electorate, style over substance is the operative strategy. This uneasy truth is writ large in an exploding culture industry in which art, celebrity, fashion and money commingle in promiscuous orgies otherwise known as art fairs. Such was the subtext of Vezzoli’s ironic send-up of the art world in the performance that he presented at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, as part of PERFORMA07, of Luigi Pirandello’s play Così è (se vi pare), or Right You Are (If You Think You Are) (1917). Conceived as a one-night-only event, starring a host of film and stage celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Ellen Burstyn, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, David Strathairn, Elaine Stritch and Dianne Wiest, the performance achieved a level of attendance frenzy that I have never before witnessed at the institution. It reached fever pitch when hundreds of the invitation-only art-world élite had to queue outdoors for nearly an hour before entering the museum’s rotunda. Once inside, the audience was treated to an authentic theatrical production – trained actors giving a dramatic reading of the script, which in this over-hyped context seemed somehow anti-climactic. The play itself – a meditation on the impossibility of objective truth – was transformed by Vezzoli into a searing portrait of our culture’s obsession with fame, with the audience playing its prescribed role as anxious voyeur. In retrospect, the anticipation seemed more powerful than the actual performance, which was perhaps Vezzoli’s point all along – hence his refusal to repeat the project. A few weeks after this curious event I visited Las Vegas and took in all the sights – from the Sphinx at the Luxor Hotel to the Coney Island hot dog stand at New York-New York. I ended up at the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, nestled within the lobby of the Venetian Hotel, its Rem Koolhaas architecture standing in stark contrast to the faux-Renaissance ambience of the vast hotel lobby. The exhibition – 37 modern masterpieces from the Guggenheim’s collection – was stunning. Many works had not been exhibited recently, and others were new to the collection, so they seemed fresh in their remove from their home in New York. What really struck me, however, was how strangely real the paintings seemed in this entirely ersatz context, and I wondered whether this made it difficult for visitors to comprehend the difference between art and artifice. Did Wassily Kandinsky’s lyrical Pastorale from 1911 seem as enticing and seductive as the fake gondolas in the fake canal running through the hotel’s interior? This reminded me of the way that Vezzoli’s play, as a ‘real’ dramatic presentation, ultimately failed to resonate as effectively as all the build-up to it (which in the end was an inseparable part of the piece). Once deemed an escape from reality, a temporary respite from the normalcy and predictability of everyday life, fiction is becoming our reality. What else to make of Dubai’s recently announced plans to build a version of Lyon in the desert? Their goal is not simply to replicate the topography and architecture, to rebuild its museums or emulate its culinary arts, but rather, they claim, to capture the soul of the city. Whether simulation or abduction, the prospective mega-venture is already on an entirely different plane from Disneyworld or Las Vegas. Lyon is leveraging its own image, banking on the fiction of its double to help support its future. And Dubai is building its own future on a fiction.

Nancy Spector is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Commissioner of the US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2007.

Issue 114

First published in Issue 114

April 2008
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