The Evil Empire is the title of my latest video animation. The video animation takes place in the heart of Vatic-anal City, in the year 2046. Surrounded by the glorious frescoes and wealth of his St. Peter’s Basilica apartment, a fictional Pope will be portrayed as a young man struggling with his porn addiction, similarly to all ordinary men who cannot avoid the temptation of the contemporary society. The Evil Empire is made in collaboration with 3D New Zealand based artist Russell Lowe.
Impakt Interviews Federico Solmi: 21.9.2011
Could you tell us something about yourself and your artistic background?
I was born in Italy in 1973. Around the year 2000, I decided to move to New York, because I wanted to go in to the center of the art world and the art community where there was an international exchange with culture. I basically took all of my luggage and moved to New York, initially with not much experience. I would say it took me about four or five years to understand the cultural environment there, what was happening at the time in contemporary art, and then I was able to start to develop artwork that was on the line with the New York dialog.
Still today I think it was a very smart decision. I would say that my turning point happened actually with making this film, “The Evil Empire.”
It was, it was. I think it’s one of my strongest pieces politically and also technically. It took me two years to do this four-minute clip. In 2009 this was one of the films that was submitted to the Guggenheim Foundation which allowed me to get this fellowship, the most important in the U.S. But at the same time, in Europe I was getting a totally different response, which was censorship, court trials, and issues with police going to gallery and taking artwork. On one side of the ocean I was celebrated as an artist that did something amazing technically, but at the same time in my own country I was going to trial. I like to express with no fear, in all of my work, what I think about society.
Which artists in particular do you look to for inspiration?
One of the artists that I enjoyed the most when I was back in Italy, with absolutely no experience, was Anselm Kiefer. Anselm Kiefer was an artist that, when I saw a show, I was totally shocked, because he was taking very important issues of history and, with no shame, was trying to express what he was thinking about the history of his country.
I can see the way that Kiefer challenged the “holy” history of Germany is similar to the way that you are confronting the symbol of the Pope from an Italian standpoint.
In this case for me it was very important to be out of Italy to be able to do a work like this. For example, last year, the most important work that I did was a satire against Wall Street. The piece was entitled “Douche Bag City” and it was a monumental installation of 15 videos. It’s not that I’m angry against Italy or Wall Street. I’m just a person who happened to live in the 21st century; I just speak the way that I feel. I like to put in their face what is not good about society, about history, about the future. I’ve never been into politics, I’ve never been out on the square protesting, but I really feel that the artists that I admire the most are the ones that have an influence on society. I didn’t want to be a great painter; I wanted to be a person who tries to send a message, through art, about life in the 21st century.
One of the artists that recently influenced me very much is the American painter Leon Golub. He was an artist that in the 1960’s was going against American involvement in Vietnam, and against the South American wars. He was punished, it was impossible for him to show in any museum;it was impossible for him to have the fame that he deserves. Of course now he is an artist that is very well known, but for 50 years they told him to shut up. They didn’t give him the opportunities he deserved. These are the troublemakers that I like.
In “The Evil Empire” you represent all of society’s vices through the symbol of the Pope. That definitely caused controversy, including the recent attempt in Ancona, Italy to shut down your exhibition. Do you see the piece as being specifically about religion, or does the Pope represent a broader range of societal authority?
No absolutely not. I use the symbol of the Pope as a symbol of power. I express one very simple issue: that when Catholic religion in Europe was in power, they were as bad as any other dictator. That was my message, and it’s something that was very well documented in history. I’m not saying anything new. I’m just saying it with the media of animation and drawings and paintings that when you give to a man power, he totally loses control of himself. In the last scene [of “The Evil Empire”],which is a sort of funny carousel, there is a gunman who is trying to shoot these symbols of powerful people. There is Stalin, Napoleon, the Pope and Hitler. That’s a very simple way to say; listen guys, when the Catholic Church was in power, it was as bad as any other dictator.
Certain parts of “The Evil Empire” are reminiscent of video games or comic strips. Where does that visual style come from and what’s the intention behind it?
“The Evil Empire” was really important for me, because for the first time I was able to really experiment with some new techniques. In the last scene, in Hell, I experimented with manipulating a video game and putting drawings on top of a digital environment. this was possible thanks to my long time collaborator Russell Lowe, an Australian based 3D artist and a senior lecturer at New South Wales University in Sydney. I was able for the first time to make a live recording of a character I drew inside a video game environment entirely covered by my drawing animated texture… It was an experiment that really opened me up to modern technology, and for this I really need to give credit to Russell, because initially I was very scared. I was really interested, since day one, in combining traditional work with contemporary media. I can’t picture myself just working with traditional drawing and painting. I see myself as a person that studies history, a person that enjoys tradition, but at the same time a person that lives in the 21st century. I am a person that likes to use the tools given to me by society. Video games are an incredible tool.
Your animations ride the line between a hand-made drawing aesthetic and a digital presentation. How did you develop that style?
It’s very important, especially for the younger generation, that they see that I’m totally engaged with the influences that we have as younger people, the experiences that are different from 15 years ago. I know that video games are something that every single young person has to face. I’m really interested to use what we are exposed to, in history and contemporary society. To me it was the perfect tool to build my narrative works. I use video games, but by the end people see drawings. We create, at the studio, a video game environment and then we cover up every single perimeter of the scene we are shooting with drawings.
How did you make choices concerning music in the film?
My wife Jennifer helped me a lot, she’s not a professional musician but she has a passion for music. I have a couple of people that I consult with. As you may see, I am a person of extremes. In certain parts of the film The Evil Empire, you have Ave Maria, church music, and in other parts of the film, when I need total Hell and craziness, I use heavy metal. I like to give to the viewer the frenzy of the environment in which I live, which is New York. It’s extreme. The life that I live is a life of a person who chooses to be bombarded by things. Bombarded by news, by terrorist threats, and by being overexposed by everything I am a very curious person, I want to know and see as much as I can.. Being in New York you are exposed to incredible amount of information….it is a dream and a nightmare at the same time! With my film I wanted to give this fearful reality of a world that’s going crazy, that doesn’t have any respect for human beings. I see the world as going toward extremes, where there is no more respect for the human being. Technology is one of those things that is extremely helpful, but on the other side it doesn’t leave you a single minute without a smart phone. I love both! I love both, I compromise my health, my peace, but I cannot live without it. I’m a person who needs to be in the trench.
Lastly, are you working on any interesting new projects at the moment?
Yes! It’s been almost a year that I’ve been working on a new film entitled “Chinese Democracy and the Last Day on Earth”. This is a very special piece to me, which is dealing with an apocalyptical setting about the Holy Chinese Army taking over the world. It’s kind of a political satire again. In this case, the Chinese are seen as the bad people, but again this is a metaphor about my fear that another superpower will take over and lead the world through a war. It’s a piece to express my fear about the future.
For me it would be a work that will also force me to try to understand the history of human kind, since pre-history, and to try to understand why we arrive at this point when two superpowers like China and America will have an inevitable clash. To me it is a way to say: how stupid has human kind been to arrive at this clash?
It’s not a very funny piece, it’s very dark. I’ll try to make it funny, I’ll try very hard, but it’s talking about my fear about the future. This is a piece that I proposed to the Guggenheim Foundation. This great institution that has allowed me to do something so controversial and I’m very grateful, so I’m taking it very seriously. I’m hoping to have this film done by March or June 2012. It’s very rich; I think it will be my best film.