The Dealer as Muse: Riccardo Paratore
Peter Fischli and Riccardo Paratore in conversation
I was driving in my Volkswagen along the Italian autostrada from Milan back to the Swiss border. During a stop at an Autogrill, over a sparkling water, I read Riccardo Paratore’s press release for his exhibition at Federico Vavassori. A few excerpts:
“The exhibition showcases the gallery space as the personal home of Federico Vavassori, who does in fact live in the gallery. Relics of Italian heritage, as well as those personal to his dealer, make up Paratore’s new temporary furnishings for the gallerist’s home… Fragments of hentai manga culture are translated onto canvases by the hands of Florentine artisans… ostensibly an overkill as the artist intends for them to be as if painted by the gallerist himself. … The floor, lined with rubber sheets, is riddled with raised dots to be littered and trod upon, once manufactured by the Milan-based multinational Pirelli. A folding bed, which looks ridiculous, juts out from a spillage of debris and mementos of hopes and disappointments that rarely see the light of day. On a spring day, in the bustle of Duomo di Milano, he stands with a freshly emptied McDonald’s cup in hand and beholds you. His name is Federico Vavassori. ‘For every sale from this show,’ he says, ‘I will play for you with my own fingers Schumann’s Kinderszenen.’”
As I watched the bubbles in my glass, I thought of forgotten (and maybe dusty) ideas of an artist having a muse, like the Nine Muses in Greek mythology, or (maybe more realistically) a wonderful person in your life. But they don’t have to be real, either; your muse could also be a dog. When Édouard Manet replaced the Venus of Urbino with a young person from the so-called demi-monde, a shift occurred—a shift from the holy to the profane. So if your muse can be profane, could the bubbles in my glass be a muse as well? In this case, the artist decided for his dealer to be his muse.
Peter Fischli: Could we talk about your exhibition in relation to ones by other artists who have focused on the theme of “salespeople” or “dealers”? What do they have in common? What’s different? I’m thinking, for example, of the 3D-printed figurine of Lars Friedrich that Mathieu Malouf recently made as an edition. Or a bit further back in time, there was Christian Philipp Müller’s exhibition about Colin de Land. Or Raymond Hains’s paintings of Castelli—a gardener in France with the same name, though, not the real “Castelli.”
Riccardo Paratore: I also have to think of my father, who was a car dealer.
PF: When you started thinking about making an exhibition dealing with Federico and his gallery, did that lead to a kind of cross-fade between you as an artist and him as a dealer?
RP: I’ve gained some small amount of insight into the world of young gallerists as well as into their craft, which involves improvising and being creative as you move from one state of emergency to the next. And this made me think of my father, who worked as a car salesman when I was younger and who was rather creative in transforming defective cars into something people wanted. Keyed cars were primarily sold after dark, and others would be affixed with various buttons that suggested some function they didn’t actually have. It was an almost metaphysical process. Of course, everything had to be processed as quickly as possible so that people couldn’t verify whether things worked. For some people, that was petty crime, but for me, it’s unconscious creativity. It’s the skills of a small-time dealer. I was interested in the creativity of someone like that. In the case of young gallerists, you’ve also got a kind of pubescent mismanagement, the ambition of upward mobility, growing insolvency, and a delight in taking risks. Of course, you also have a fascination with a bohemian lifestyle.
PF: And the ads showing Federico?
RP: We’re confronted so often with the figure of the eccentric entrepreneur: an uptight, hybrid creature combining heroic self-presentation and a decisive search for trust. Through the admittedly exaggerated depiction of Federico, in which he stands opposite the Milan Cathedral wearing a borrowed tuxedo and a Barbour jacket, it becomes clear which worlds he moves between.
PF: But artists can be narcissistic people, too, don’t you think?
RP: That’s a dusty old cliché, as well. I find it more interesting when someone maintains an ambivalent relationship to their own narcissism. You often hear gallerists say they studied art or pursued some similar activity. It’s often the case that their passive participation in art-making only developed later. Sometimes it creeps in, and they want to get involved in making decisions. That’s something I tried to make visible in this exhibition. By opening up a participatory dialogue that was initially limited to specific areas, I increasingly lost control. Authorship over the exhibition changed drastically as a result.
PF: Are you saying (if I understand you correctly) that the exhibition somehow mirrors your own situation?
RP: I think so, because we’ve thrown ourselves into this thing that doesn’t really function economically but which continuously forces us into different kinds of milieu (in terms of class) than what we’re used to.
PF: All of these young gallerists are under enormous financial pressure unless they have some kind of comfortable financial support system. And with your exhibition—which was in fact quite elaborate in terms of production,—you actually increased the financial pressure. In a way, it almost seems like you’re sabotaging things or exacerbating the situation. The question of whether and how Federico can continue operating his gallery becomes even more urgent through your exhibition and through the high production costs that you gave rise to.
RP: Is that accelerationism, in terms of arriving at an outcome more quickly then we otherwise would? Wouldn’t that be better than making three more exhibitions and then having things slowly but surely come to an end?
PF: It’s perhaps better than a slow death… And what about the title?
RP: The title, Do I still have to sleep in the closet?, deals with more than just living space and sexuality. It can also be seen in relation to the idea of a “social closet,” meaning one’s relationship to class identity.
PF: How did you decide that you wouldn’t also somehow be featured in the setup? That was going to be my question regarding the four paintings in the exhibition. You commissioned other people to paint them. You constructed a stage set surrounding this situation; you staged Federico’s reality as a gallerist. In order to complete the scene, you obviously needed artworks. You decided on hentai motifs that Federico had sold to his classmates when he was a teenager. So in a sense, you’re taking Federico’s motifs and turning them into “your own” paintings. According to the logic of a gallery, don’t there have to be pictures by an artist—in this case, pictures by you—on view?
RP: I don’t really care that much about the paintings. It’s a bit like in a theater play with bad props. The exhibition needed something eye-catching. And a few months earlier, I’d seen Federico in a Missoni advertising campaign in a magazine for teenagers. It also included a trivial interview with him, and the very first question was about how he came to be a gallerist, which I’d asked him myself numerous times. In the interview, he divulged this anecdote.
PF: His job and his goal is, of course, to sell the works of the artists that he shows. In the best case, he does more than that. He not only creates economic capital, but symbolic capital as well. The main thing the gallerist has to do is discuss the work, as they say. That’s where the economic and the symbolic capital intermix, because this work of communicating the work’s content is at the same time a sales pitch. To come back to the four paintings in the exhibition: Is Federico forced to tell this anecdote about his own biography and thus, whether he likes to or not, to turn them into “his” paintings?
RP: Given that I’d heard him tell the story numerous times, it became my intention to borrow this anecdote, which he’d decided to emphasize like a bad PR agent. In actuality, the paintings are now located in his parents’ house, in the room he grew up in.
PF: It’s not as simple as if this had been a sociological study and the paintings were instead presented in a vitrine. They are oil on canvas.
RP: They’d be rather passive objects in a vitrine, though. Here, they’re agile, active-seeming objects that look like goods for sale, and less precious.
PF: You didn’t want to paint these paintings yourself. That could have given them a kind of added sentimental value, don’t you think?
RP: I was after a different sense of alienation. By sending these little old JPEGs to Florence, to a painting workshop, without dictating many conditions other than the dimensions and the technique, they developed differently. The process also plays with sets of rules and allows a certain degree of leeway. When the paintings arrived, you could see how much they differ from the JPEGs. Given the format of the original image, the painters had to decide for themselves how to turn them into paintings. For example, they added colors that weren’t in the JPEGs and a strange kind of hatching that’s supposed to imitate pixelation.
PF: So in a way, they belong, like every other component in the exhibition, to the decor or to the stage that you set up? Although it’s not really a stage set because Federico actually sleeps in that bed.
RP: Who says that you can’t sleep in a stage set?
PF: But there is a certain ambivalence. It would be possible for someone to come into the gallery and think to themselves: “No, no. That’s not where Federico lives.” One might even assume that it’s just staged by you, that you set it up to look like an apartment. And what about the decision not to hang the paintings up but to lean them against the wall?
RP: I was thinking about a moment of transition, like before or after an exhibition.
PF: Maybe you could say something about the idea behind the piano. We talked about the fact that Federico is a person who really likes to play the piano and who also likes to perform for an audience. But you connect this, once again, to an economic system, in that a buyer would get to experience this as a kind of reward.
RP: Since he often speaks about how much he misses playing piano, the piano seemed to offer a kind of performative instrument. In other words, I instrumentalized his instrument. But it seems like playing piano also generates a sense of well-being.
PF: That may be the case for him when it comes to playing piano privately. But he also plays for other people, as dictated by the “stage” you set up.
RP: There are definitely people who play piano for their own enjoyment. I also often think about people’s motivations for learning a musical instrument. It’s often the case that kids are made to learn by their parents based on ulterior motives, like discipline, for example. Some people then go on to develop a passion for it, which can come back around and cause the parents anxiety if their children end up pursuing a career in music. It’s a funny thought.
PF: What do you think about the fact that some people like how, by playing piano, they represent an idea of cultivated middle-class intellectuals, and they show that off? Most people who play piano would certainly argue that they find enjoyment in music, in learning and in practicing an instrument, that that’s something they do “for themselves.” What does Federico play? Schumann?
RP: Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), which is also representative of the world that you just described. It was composed at a time when the bourgeoisie changed a lot and more pianos appeared in people’s living rooms. The title of the piece also suggests an idyllic family setting.
PF: What is it exactly that interests you about the subject?
RP: Having it performed and having people watch it. This display of virtuosity—in contrast to one that I see as a kind of instinctive, insurmountable aversion, as a dogma of the petit bourgeoisie. For me, a piano at home is an object representing the bourgeois cultivation of virtuosity. Like at a family gathering, when somebody sits down at the piano and begins to play and the others melt away. Using this moment of melting away as an economic tool is also a comment on this system of entertainment.
PF: That’s certainly the case when we talk about how and when Federico plays piano. So, you’ve also established a set of rules, as a kind of reward for anyone who buys something. It’s not just that Federico sits there and plays piano for anyone who wants him to; he only plays for buyers. When that happens—which amounts to the creation of economic capital for the gallery—then he plays as a reward. Or you could say he plays out of joy because he was able to sell something. That said, you also make sure that it’s not just a reward for people who are highly privileged—who pay a lot of money to buy an artwork—because there were also things for sale for ten euros.
RP: We mimicked the sliding scale pricing that you sometimes find at the theater, in that some tickets are more expensive than others. You end up watching the same performance, though. On various occasions, I sat in the office and listened in on Federico’s conversations, and I noticed how he sometimes acted differently at different times. He was patient with some people and hasty with others.
PF: “We’ll make quick work of it…” Were the decisions all made independent of him, or how strong were your intentions or your ideas as an artist? You already described that to some extent as it comes to the paintings. What about the bed? Or the whole setup with his sleeping arrangements? Or, for example, the decision to install this black Pirelli floor throughout the space, or when it came to the photo of Federico in front of the cathedral? There were actually a number of formal decisions that you had to make.
RP: All the formal decisions were tied to economic themes. For example, when it came the photo of him in a tuxedo, which is a symbol of elegance and of the bourgeoisie, though it didn’t actually belong to him. It’s kind of like the “impostor in the rented tux,” who’s on the way to an event but who doesn’t have a coat that would go with his outfit. So he wears a Barbour jacket, which is a status symbol for a number of younger gallerists, but which was once a hunting jacket.
PF: Do you mean the gallerist as someone who hunts collectors and artists? These jackets were originally worn by people who owned estates and who went hunting as a form of recreation.
RP: The jacket was originally worn on hunts and not necessarily used in other contexts. Maybe the people who wear these jackets in public these days connect to that state of mind in some way.
PF: And what about the floor?
RP: The Pirelli floor is part of the exhibition because it is ubiquitous in Milan and because it, in a way, suggests the public sphere.
PF: Do you mean public space?
RP: The association is actually with something dirty, places that are exposed to a lot on a daily basis. Installing the same floor in the gallery made this connection, and the grand piano set up a sense of contradiction.
PF: But doesn’t something similar happen in the case of the hunting jacket, in terms of what you described? Because the Pirelli floor, if I remember correctly, was developed in the early 1970s for industrial spaces, though it was quickly used by designers and architects to suggest an industrial floor in a middle-class home. There was no need to have a robust floor in that kind of space; it was just fashionable to use it in place of a Persian rug. And what about the cabinet with the folding bed?
RP: For a long time, I didn’t know that Federico slept in the gallery. Sometimes when we’d meet in the gallery I’d see a bed sheet sticking out of his folding sofa. As time passed, I found out that he lives in the gallery, which suggested that there was a certain economic situation that he was hiding from me. In part, the show is about creating a kind of humorous pity.
PF: It creates an identity.
RP: In this case, it’s not self-branding.
PF: Because he hid the fact that he lives in his gallery?
RP: Because I’m the one who makes it known.
PF: And that would also be the difference between you and other artists who are so explicit in turning branding or self-branding into a theme.
RP: I’m not narcissistic enough for that. Better to create a portrait. When you have a person who is so glad to have a portrait made of them, then there’s the chance to reflect something real.
PF: What occurred during the show’s run that your concept didn’t anticipate? You’ve already described how a certain dynamic developed regarding Federico, that he was glad the whole thing happened. What other kinds of dynamics developed in terms of the people who saw the show? How was it understood? What kinds of effects did it have in reality, either in Federico’s life or in the lives of gallery visitors?
RP: Apparently, someone left a concert before it was finished.
PF: We’ve talked a lot about the idea of the show overall. You also created an “image,” though, in the sense of something visible. And in terms of what you made visible with this exhibition, I also saw that you enjoyed doing it, that you did it with a certain level of dedication. Are things like this, for you, something more than the execution of a concept? Did you take a certain amount of pleasure in searching for a particular form?
RP: The form itself shaped the thing, I guess you could say.
PF: Why did you decide not to include any information in the ads showing Federico?
RP: You have to commit to doing the ads way in advance, a couple months ahead of time. At that point, I had no idea what was going to happen, or even whether the gallery would still exist. Had the gallery closed, the ad would have turned into something else, like a fashion campaign or an obituary.