When it comes to extracting free labor from famous cinematic figures, it would be hard to top Francesco Vezzoli. The Italian video artist's output over the last 12 years reflects his ability to get highly paid cinematic talent to work without pay.
Vezzoli's enlistees so far have included Helen Mirren, Sharon Stone, Courtney Love, Benicio del Toro, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Sonia Braga, Marianne Faithfull, Natalie Portman, Roman Polanski, Michelle Phillips, Michelle Williams and, on one star-studded Manhattan evening two years ago, Cate Blanchett, Portman, Anita Ekberg, Ellen Burstyn, Peter Sarsgaard, Elaine Stritch and Dianne Wiest.
Now Vezzoli is in L.A., pulling further favors from the famous while putting on a new hat as the creative orchestrator of Saturday night's 30th anniversary gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art. The centerpiece will be a live, five-minute production number called "Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again)," in which Lady Gaga will debut her new ballad, "Speechless."
She'll play a Steinway grand piano painted in spin-art style by Damien Hirst. Her hat was designed by architect Frank Gehry, and she and Vezzoli, who also has a part, will don masks created by filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and his production designer wife, Catherine Martin. For company, Gaga will have a dozen dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, who will be wearing costumes created by Vezzoli and Miuccia Prada, head of the famous fashion house.
The venue is a big party tent on Grand Avenue, which Vezzoli intends to outfit with a movie marquee on the outside, and red velvet, gold trim and hand-picked chandeliers within -- the hoped-for effect being Studio 54 transplanted to the Kremlin. Attendees will be in formal attire, not typical for MOCA do's, per request of the artist, who wants his creation to have a suitably glamorous vibe.
The rest of the world may get to look in after the fact, if all the creative collaborators are pleased enough by the results to OK a hoped-for YouTube release. Shooting the video is Jonas Akerlund, who has done clips for Madonna, U2 and Lady Gaga.
For Vezzoli, 38, the gala is another elaborate take on his main preoccupation, the playful, nonjudgmental exploration of the nature of celebrity. Among his works: a trailer for a nonexistent remake of "Caligula" (with Mirren on hand from the original 1979 cast, and Love pinch-hitting for Malcolm McDowell as the crazed and debauched Roman emperor); a TV commercial, directed by Polanski, for a nonexistent perfume called "Greed," in which Portman and Williams grapple furiously on the floor over a bottle of the scent; and Blanchett, et al., giving a live reading of a play by Luigi Pirandello at the Guggenheim Museum.
The point, Vezzoli says, is not to take the audience behind fame's facade, but to reflect back the expectations and desires viewers project upon their objects of gossip and fascination.
"I'm not interested in the celebrities themselves. I'm interested in the fact that celebrities are the gods and goddesses of our universe, and I'm interested in what the audience feels toward them. I'm interested in what they represent, not who they are."
Vezzoli, handsome and built like a beanpole, sporting nondescript exercise togs and unkempt brown hair, was polite, unassuming and, despite his tired eyes, up to conveying enthusiasm in a low-keyed, gentle way.
Maria Bell, who is chairing the gala with Eli Broad, said, "We felt giving the event over to an artist was the best way to send a message that it's what we're about -- empowering artists, and giving them a forum."
Bell, who recently was elected co-chair of MOCA's board, said Vezzoli's involvement, and his knack for promoting his work, has helped amp up the buzz for the celebration, whose seating capacity has been increased from 800 to 950 to accommodate an international crowd.
The event is expected to gross more than $3 million and net more than $2.2 million for the museum, she said -- not counting the take from a gala-night auction of the Hirst piano or online bidding planned for Lady Gaga's hat and other artifacts from the production.
Vezzoli has handled details down to the design of the gift bag to be given to attendees. Since his interests don't tend toward the gastronomic, he's leaving the menu to Wolfgang Puck. Bell says coq au vin is the planned entree, with baked Alaska for dessert.
For Vezzoli, the MOCA assignment marks an important personal anniversary. In 1989, he says, he took his first trip on his own, sojourning in Los Angeles to see the city and improve his English. He visited MOCA and saw "A Forest of Signs," a large exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary featuring 30 young American artists, including Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley and Barbara Kruger, who shared an interest in mass media and its effect on society.
"It was the first museum of contemporary art that I saw, and I'd never seen an exhibition like that. I loved it and found myself lost into it," Vezzoli recalled.