Power is the Ultimate Aphrodisiac - Henri Kissinger, The New York Times (28 October 1973)
Bleu Cease: Federico, congratulations and thank you for working with us on this exhibition. Your work freely mixes ‘high’ and ‘low’; painting and virtual environments in a unique and idiosyncratic way. When I first encountered The Ballroom, I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking at, and I still feel that way (laughing), honestly but I knew it was unique. I knew it was very special. Many people ask about the production of your work. Perhaps we can discuss the basics of your process and build the rest of our discussion from there. What goes into making one of your video paintings, from concept to finished work on the wall?
Federico Solmi: Thank you. I am so happy with the exhibition. I hope you don't ask any mean questions (laughing). First of all, I started to experiment with the idea of video paintings about 10 years ago. I remember at the time, I was very excited to introduce this new concept into my practice, but of course it was risky. I was desperately seeking support from my gallerist, emotional support, not financial, some kind of encouragement since it was an unconventional path. My most important American dealer at the time told me: “Federico, it is a terrible idea to put a screen inside a painting, terrible.”
Of course, my first video paintings were not as elaborate as these new works. I never planned to use moving images in my works, it just happened. Since the beginning of my career I knew that I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to use drawing and painting to tell a story and engage the viewer with social commentary and political themes, but drawing for me, was not enough.
In 2001-2002 I became very interested and involved in gaming technology, never as a player but as voyeur. I was fascinated by the increasing realism of the video games of that era, and I was captivated by the advancements of the gaming industry. In 2003 I did my first one minute video entitled Another Day of Fun, where I was able to combine traditional media, like drawing and painting, with digital gaming technology. I felt like I was in Heaven! My first video, of course, was not a masterpiece…but I knew immediately it was a breakthrough for me.
My process of making videos has evolved over the years into a complex method. I use 3D software like Maya and 3ds Max to create each character, building, vehicle, and the overall architecture model. At my Brooklyn studio, I have a team of 3D modelers and assistants, who create the digital skeleton from my drawings. Once we have the 3D computer models, I make hundreds of hand painted textures on paper, which are scanned and placed on top of every 3D model. This process is called texture mapping, and basically it replaces the digital skins of the 3D models with hand-painted skins. All the assets are then imported into a virtual stage where I record each scene in a gaming engine called Unity. The game engine is an open source software that allows us to bring all the elements together and move them from point A to point B with computer scripts, creating the motion.
BC: It is an incredibly involved process. I am wondering how long it takes you and your team to complete a piece like The Ballroom? And, I think this is going to lead to content. How does your idiosyncratic process work for your subject matter?
FS: It's hard for me to say, because usually I work on multiple projects simultaneously, but I think about 6-8 months. The Ballroom is a video installation composed of 5 video paintings, each presenting a surreal vignette of a gala held in a baroque ballroom. A group of political leaders such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus indulge in a chaotic festival of drinking, smoking, dancing, and feasting. The follies of each overly ambitious leader result in a vain display of ridiculous costumes, shining with medals and jewelry. There is a kind of visual disorder that highlights the antics of these powerful figures. Rather than re-enacting history, these works present the leaders in our present-day celebrity culture. Through the excess of these characters, The Ballroom points out our own perpetuation of skewed historical myths, and our complacent consumption of disingenuous narratives.
BC: You’ve been clear about your commitment to political and socially engaged work. Even looking back at some of your earlier artworks, you've long been interested in critiquing popular culture: from a satirical update of King Kong--which also skewered the art world--to your ongoing critical depictions of the Pope, especially focusing on his celebrity status. More recently you've turned your attention to European and North American history. Why is this? Also, is there something in your personal background that makes you the right person to offer this critique?
FS: The uniqueness of my work comes from the uniqueness of my background. I’m a self-educated artist, which is very atypical compared to most New York artists. I never went to art school, I never went to college. From learning history and philosophy, to painting, I’ve always had my own style of learning and investigating. When I moved to New York, it was very difficult, of course; I arrived with no network and was an outcast in this cultural environment. I think that the fact that I didn't have any formal art education was an advantage. It allowed me to be myself.
Anyway, my video King Kong and The End of the World is one of my best pieces. After almost 15 years I feel it’s getting better and better each year. Lately I have been very passionate about researching and digging into American history books - it is a very fascinating subject. I’ve lived in New York for almost 20 years and I think it was finally time to express my thoughts about American history. I was particularly attracted to the Disneyfication -and the inaccuracy- of American history, and also the concept of Heroification (a term coined by James Loewen), a degenerative process that turns people into heroes.
BC: You’re an outsider in some ways, I think you revel in this status (laughing). You've had great success recently, both in exhibitions and publications, and you've also had considerable success selling your work. A number of significant collectors have recently acquired your work. You're showing with Ronald Feldman Gallery, a major, venerable gallery, which has a long history of exhibiting politically and socially engaged artwork. Are you worried about getting too close, too cozy, with the sanctified ‘Art World?’
FS: Not at all! I feel like when you come from the bottom, it's very hard to let yourself feel that successful. Work is everything, and hard work is challenging. I am a really down to earth person and I work very hard each day. I have an obsessive personality and I feel very consumed by work, but I think that’s how should be…I can’t imagine otherwise…I feel very fortunate to have a tremendous curiosity. As you know, I don’t have a privileged background. Despite my success, I don’t feel successful at all.
The only thing that I'm constantly thinking about is having enough financial support, so that I can support all the people that are working with me. That's it. Other than that, I don't worry about much.
BC: Some of your artworks, like the coloring book Counterfeit Heroes, give viewers agency and power over these historical figures you call “evil,” these dictators and despots. Through the act of coloring, viewers and readers gain an opportunity to knock them down. This seems to translate to other devices/conventions in your video paintings like the looping of your subjects and their awkward, lumbering movements. You bring these figures down to a more humble level. You caricaturize them, but you also torment these dictators by trapping them in a sort of video loop purgatory. Is this all part of your critique of power?
FS: Absolutely. Kelly Gordon, former curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C., had the idea. One day she came to the studio and she saw some drawings on the table and said "Wow, these would make a great coloring books." Ironically, the way most people view coloring is completely the opposite of how coloring is employed in my work. People use it to heal and relax, but in my coloring books that idea is turned on its head because the characters are really ugly and disturbed, which in any other context would not be relaxing at all. I think the goal of my coloring book is to make you think about history, about the injustices and the inaccuracy.
Returning to your question, I feel like we live in a society where we are bombarded with information, completely bombarded by email and Facebook and [it is] madness. In a way, my work is my way of responding to the world. I feel attacked, and I attack back. It is kind of like I'm in a war and I feel bombarded by spam, lies, inaccuracy, propaganda, and fake news, and I shoot back.
BC: Do you want the viewer to feel like they've been empowered by your work? Do you want us to feel like we’re gaining access and agency with you… through your “shooting back”?
FS: Absolutely. I want people to reflect on the content of my work. I hope that after seeing one of my exhibitions some viewers are intrigued enough to think a bit differently about what they see in the news, or what they read, or what they know about history. We often learn many things in a very superficial way. My goal is to invite people to dig deeper and to not trust the official narrative, and look elsewhere.
BC: Is part of your impulse to say, “If figures like Christopher Columbus are not presented accurately in history, if we aren’t going to include all their evil aspects and terrible deeds, then fuck it, I'm just going to make him dance with Julius Caesar and pass out on the table. I'll raise your lie with an over-the-top, completely absurd, even bigger lie.” (?)
FS: Yes, correct. I think it’s very clear that the leaders I portray in my work are not these mythological figures from the history books. Instead, they are, to me, counterfeit heroes, rascals, and demagogues. These characters did some heroic and phenomenal things for us. However, the official narrative, the propaganda from every country, only shows us those wonderful things, and never show the dirt. I like to show the dirt because, like in everyone’s lives, there are amazing things and there are bad things. I mean, it's vanity and narcissism [to hide the dirt]. It is especially disturbing to see what these characters transmit. They dress in gold medals and chains, which allows them to impose a specific spirit. But it also shows their fakeness. I was touched when I read what [Italian journalist] Oriana Fallaci said about this.
“There's something missing in all writings about power. Very few are able to capture how funny it is. When they examine the horrors that power commits, the sufferings it imposes, the blood with which it stains itself, historians and political scientists always forget to highlight the ridiculous aspects of the inevitable monster and how funny they are, with their ironed uniformed, unearned medals and invented awards.”
This had a huge impact on me. Sometimes we read about the horrors and disasters caused by dictators. What was interesting about [Fallaci] was that she examined how funny, how grotesque power can be. She interviewed many of these leaders and came to the conclusion that they were all complete buffoons, especially the dictators.It was all acting. They had to work to impose fear. Here [gesturing to Donald Trump] definitely, you see this element taken to a higher level of madness.
BC: OK. So…. our current moment... our president! Is this the perfect time for your work? Just to start with he wanted to have a military parade and he seems to look up to some of the military ‘strong men’ who could appear in your work. Could I say he is your muse? (laughing)
FS: Regardless of whether you identify as right or left, for me, Trump was extremely difficult to create because he's already so grotesque. However, I had great fun, I have to admit. I have created two characters, one as President Trump and a second version as a sort of Military Commander.
Usually when I create a new character, I take a figure from history or the present, and I exaggerate and distort some of their features. However, in the case of our president, he's already a character, and he fits perfectly as is. He is very much like the madness of what I have worked with in the past few years. I can’t say if it's a good or a bad time. For many, many years I have been in New York and there was no interest in political art. That was wrong. I think it’s a shame that the art world establishment is so disconnected with reality. It will change, it’s already changing.
Look at some of the greatest artists we admire today: Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Kerry James Marshall, Banksy, Ai Weiwei. All of these artists are speaking to us. The lack of political exhibitions in major U.S. museums points out that the greater cultural intelligencia didn't care much about political and social issues. They were just in their bubble. The election of Donald J Trump changed the game, and in a way it was very helpful for an artist like myself, because now curators are thinking differently.
BC: We've talked a lot about the conflation of power and celebrity. How do you deal with celebrity in your work and specifically in your artwork The Cheerful Hosts.
FS: I am very interested in examining the effects and absurdity of celebrity culture in our society. Celebrity culture and social media has the power to elevate an individual to a living myth to be consumed by the masses. I find this process very interesting, and very much connected to the concept of Loewen’s Heroification concept. I don’t see much difference between Celebrity Culture and the Heroification of an individual. In both cases, the life of the individual has been fabricated to such an extent, that reality disappears. Again, I feel I am attacked by all of this stupidity and I'm shooting back with a video painting (laughing).
It the case of The Cheerful Hosts, the idea was to stage some fantastical re-enactment of historical events. In this video, groups of Native Americans are cheering the arrival of the Pilgrims and European exploiters, as if they were modern celebrities.
BC: OK. Is this also how you came to place the calvary and the Native Americans in this absurd war reenactment in a contemporary sporting arena?
FS: I really believe that we are living in a society where all that matters is the spectacle. It is sad to say so, but a lot of what is happening today is a big farce. For The Grand Masquerade, I created a re-enactment of a fictional battle between the Native Americans and the European exploiters, and all of these celebrity admirers. It really somehow explains the age in which we are living.
BC: In this work you aren’t valuing one character or one people over another. It seems you’re using history and wonderfully mashing up different eras to critique all of us, all ‘viewers’. In this video the audience is out for blood, they or we are cheering and yelling, but when the cavalry and Native Americans finally collide, the figures just sort of ride through each other. I would say these perceived enemies meet in a glitchy embrace.
FS: I'm also a dreamer. I imagine, and that piece shows this storyline, that between the Native American and the European people, there was a cultural clash, but then they got along phenomenally. I invent this narrative that manipulates the real historical events because I also like believing that the world will be better. That is why I am an artist.
BC: Thank you Federico
FS: Thank you
Federico Solmi (Italy, 1973) Federico Solmi (Italy, 1973) currently lives and works in New York. His exhibitions, which often combine articulate installations composed of different media such as video, drawings, and paintings, use bright colors and a satirical aesthetic to portray a dystopian vision of our present-day society. Solmi exploits emerging technologies to reveal the hypocrisies in contemporary society, making art with political and social commentary as a means to disrupt the power structure of our technological age. Scanning his paintings into a game engine, Solmi confronts the audience with his own absurd rewriting of past and present-day events. Solmi stages a virtual world where our leaders become puppets, animated by computer scripts rather than strings. In the year 2009, Federico Solmi was awarded by the Guggenheim Foundation of New York with the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in the category of Video & Audio. Federico Solmi is currently visiting Professor at Yale University School of Drama, New Haven, CT. His work has been included in several international Biennials, including Open Spaces 2018: A Kansas City Arts Experience(2018), the Beijing Media Art Biennale (2016), Frankfurt B3 Biennial of the Moving Image (2017-2015), the First Shenzhen Animation Biennial in China (2013), the 54th Venice Biennial (2011), and the SITE Santa Fe Biennial in New Mexico (2010). Solmi has been featured in solo museum exhibitions including Rochester Contemporary Art Center, Rochester, NY (2018), Museo de Arte Contemporaneo del Zulia, Maracaibo, Venezuela (2017), the Haifa Museum of Art, Israel (2016), the Centro Cultural Matucana 100, Santiago, Chile (2015), and the Italian Cultural Institute of Madrid, Spain (2013).
Bleu Cease is Executive Director/Curator of Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo) in Rochester, NY and has worked as a museum professional, educator and curator since 2003. Cease studied at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina and Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. This interview was originally conducted with an audience on the occasion of the exhibition Federico Solmi: The Good Samaritans at Rochester Contemporary Art Center (April 2018).