Chiara Barbara Martusciello Our society is based, much more today than yesterday, on the maximum development of its technological and globalized system. The word “communication” has acquired a dramatical importance, losing with time the basic meaning of “transmission of ideas, news and information” to assume that of “persuasion”. It is not for chance that we find the words “communication” and “advertising” very often in close relation, as in “advertising communications” – an association which is part of our everyday language. Advertising communication is based on representation: it performs in a virtual environment, but this environment has become a style of life, something we aspire to, a model for our real life. This model evolved with time, together with its linguistic mechanisms, which became more and more refined. At the same time a symbolic stratification toke part, so that some models prevailed, and endured more than others, actually becoming myths. A myth idealizes extraordinary facts or characters, giving them a touch of reality and transforming them into references of indisputable value: main characters become an example we wish to imitate. In our case, myth and culture concern a contemporary scene, transforming historical prototypes in immediate models, through rituals imposed by the media. So the concept of myth has been extended to commonplace things as Harley Davidson motorbykes, Levi’s jeans, Coca Cola, Jaguar cars, which became powerful icons for generations on. Products and brands gradually became new contemporary myths, they changed from status symbols to a real way of life. Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Apple, Prada synthetize a real life-style, widely renowned, through advertising. This proposal of a consumerist and trendy life stirs up different attitudes: some people refuse it, and criticize it (as in Naomy Klein’s No Logo) and some people desire it and want to feel part of it as a group. So it is not possible to understand social and cultural change – and we have to add, change in contemporary arts – without a deep knowledge of how the media work, given what McLuhan analyzed in many cases since the first years of the Sixties. Because the media influence the entire life of a community, structuring the way it thinks but also its way of behaving and looking. This happens with the imposition of a wide range of stereotypes: Humphrey Bogart’s way of holding a cigarette in his fingers and puffing from it, Marlene Dieterich’s way of glancing from beneath, or Marilyn’s way to wiggle on the platform at the train station in Some like it Hot, the habit of kissing with a leg gently flexed, the ways of dressing we find in fashion magazines, and so on. Coming to the field of visual arts, the theme of myth has been confronted many times by the artists. I think of baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, who restored archadic environments and situations in his photos since the end of XIXth Century; or of Anton Giulio Bragaglia who, in the Twenties, overlaps his own semblance, in a divertissement, to that of La Gioconda, one of the greatest myths in the history of art indeed. More recently, many artists worked on similar subjects, as Orlan with Botticelli’s Venus, or Luigi Ontani, Morimura... Marcel Duchamp was the first artist who worked, almost scientifically, on the language of reclames. As we can see, for example, in the work Belle Helaine (1921), where he modifies a commercial object, a perfume bottle, introducing Rrose Sélavy, a fantasy character of some of his works where he confronts the stereotypical languages of the media. But the artist who, more methodically and analytically than anybody else, was interested in myths was Andy Warhol: he worked on myth through the filter of advertising, developing a new approach of art to mass media, and even managing media communication on his own. The visual material he uses comes from ordinary pictures of everyday life, annihilating the hierarchy of high and low levels of language. And, what is more, he is able to depict these stereotypical images as vehicles of higher sense. This is proved by works, based on photographs, like the most celebrated Marilyn Monroes. Warhol choses an official image of the actress, the one already chosen as a commercial by the Studios: a still picture published for the promotion of Niagara (1953). He cuts, re-frames and enlarges it to exalt the stereotype to the highest level. The same he does with many other characters of the star system when he portrays them. So Marlon Brando, Liz Tailor, but also Mao and Watson Powell, are images taken out directly from the one public, already devoured by the media system, acritically used with no further intervention, as if they were a sort of contemporary reportage, not restricted to the simple reproduction and listing of reality data, but analyzing them as specimens of typical languages. Chiara copes with these themes but, on the opposite of Warhol, she does not assume those languages as they are. She creates them anew, building her own character through media stereotypes, therefore using myth as material. Myth is a language – as Roland Barthes made perfectly clear more than thirty years ago – and this is exactly the core of Chiara’s work. In fact, she produces photographic works in which – using each time a different set – she builds up a character (namely, Chiara) confronted with themes inspired by advertising. The glance she casts on the character is disillusioned indeed, already knowing that advertising uses stereotypes (mostly, female stereotypes), both creating and encouraging them. So Chiara interprets her own version, as a female leading character, of conventional attitudes, behaviors and looks, already prepared for her by the language of mass communications. And she does it through the Chiara-character, who is at one time the lover dressed in baby-doll, consciuos of the bon ton lessons learned from The Women’s Encyclopedia, at another time a jolly young woman, happy with her perfect glitter make-up, and then the sexy doctor who is advising us with miracle treatments, and then again the perfect housewife with green fingers (even when she waters plastic flowers), or the enticing prima donna who is offering us a dreamy cocktail drink, or the fisher astonished (disgusted, also) by the same fish she caught... The research that moves her works is based on the relationship between analysis and its respective use of communicative processes of advertising and it is marked by a various cultural deconstruction and the subsequent reassembling of such references. In Dolce lavare (Sweet Washing), for example, her character emerges from a monochrome blue background which, on one side, refers to the bright chromatism of videos and monitor screens, on the other side recalls lapis-lazuli pigment which (together with gold) was used in ancient art to create the background of miracle-plays and Madonnas (meaning the divine blue of the sky). To remark this concept, Chiara wears a souvenir-foulard of St. Peter’s Church, wrapped as a bandana round her head, prosaically substituting the halo, and the expression of her face, with eyes raised to heaven, ascetic, is similar to those of Virgins and Martyrs in icons, paintings and holy pictures. What else is Chiara here, if not a housewife in exstasis for the result she just achieved, that is to say, a perfect cleaning through famous cleansing detergents? The objects of this victory are well visible in the basket: colored gel bottles and soaps which stand out as the elements that identify the protagonist of a sacred picture. We must notice that, aside from the visual quote from the advertising language (soap bubbles), all the products are Chiara-products, re-created by the artist from original prototypes. The reference to a consumer product is a very important aspect of Chiara’s works, and is always, more or less stressed, present in them. This is explicit in the real connection between strictly photographic works and a line of products – the Accessori Chiara (Chiara’s Accessories) – produced in the form of objects-packets. These are a sort of packaging including mini-toys, completely reconstructed from an original basis, proposing different kits for Chiara-the-singer, Chiara-the-fisher, Chiara-the-doctor, Chiara-the-skier, Chiara-the-thieve. You always find a picture of Chiara in them, interpreting the theme of the specific work, in an appropriate graphic context. The reconstruction doesn’t stop here, because the objects are enriched with plastic flowers, stickers, spangles, a sprinkle of glitter powder... a mirror-play of cross references goes on and on: the kits make us thinking of an industrial and serial production, but every one is an unicum, quoting the language of packaging through graphic design, digital elaboration and meticulous handicraft. This perfect theoric-aesthetic machinery devised by Chiara, even if at first sight has some ties to Pop Art, actually is not derived from it. The many Brillo-Boxes and Kellog’s Boxes made by Warhol are objects which reproduce packagings that the artist picked up from a vast range of consumer products, set up in a way which refers to the set of a supermarket tel quel. The remake is standardized, perfect, almost specular. On the opposite, Chiara’s kits are completely manipulated (with craftsmanship intervention, not only with digital morphing), in order to invent a new product, perfectly referring to the language and the packaging of objects-merchandises. This is re-proposed with its original blister pack, on which Chiara intervenes, making exemplary and unique those ordinary and serial things. So, Chiara-the-singer’s xylophone becomes her personal one, thanks to an (unlikely) overlay of glittering powder. The same we can say for the maracas, on which she sticks two big plastic moving eyes. The same kind of personalization takes part for doll dresses enclosed in the packets, the same ones that Chiara is wearing in the pictures of her Accessori, with a masterly work of graphic overlap. To make this packet re-creation more coherent, the little image portraying Chiara printed on the background is perfectly adapted for that pictorial context: enclosed in little clouds, windows, circles, sometimes it is almost transparent and is hardly noticed, while other times it comes as a more narrative presence in the graphic environment of the background plate, and it is directly referred to the image portrayed in the main work. This relation is made stronger by the fact that the small picture of Chiara-character, sharing the same theme with the bigger one (housewife life, Casino world etc.), is shot in the same set. In these packets, so enriched with all those interventions, the artist affixes her own corporate brand: a drawing with her stylized image. In this way Chiara uses the language of up-to-date marketing, which absorbed advertising into branding. That is to say, the product is promoted within a wider strategy of brand diffusion. Chiara remarks this attitude by entitling this series, with an enticing graphic work, Accessori-Chiara. Her name, a distinctive and repeated sign, highly recognizable, plays a very important role in the organization of her work, This is emphasized by the decision of being known as Chiara, and only Chiara, as a nom d’artiste, so certifying her works, and through the brand Accessori-Chiara, with the small logo on the kits. This is also, in part, referring and readapting the procedure of tagging in aerosol art. The tag is the signature-logo of the artist, here defined writer. With the tag, the writer has his name and his message circulated in order to be acknowledged as a dominating figure in his scene (belonging to a group or a wider environment, expanding territorial power, claiming that a territory is not neutral). Chiara knows this procedures very well because she used to be part of the scene. She lived a juvenile and secretive experience as an aerosol artist, and she has it very clear that the two codes, the one of art and the one of writing, are so close for her to enable her to easily commute one linguistic structure into another. In all of her works she takes advantage of this agility in code crossing using different visual and ideological references. She builds up her style, literally, on visual and conceptual accumulation, fed by contamination among high and (mostly) low languages of creativity and communications, a practice she shares with many good artists of her generation. Chiara’s character has mediatic roots, and it is generated with a strong technological matrix, linked to digital culture, both for using the desktop as a means of production for pictures and kits’ backgrounds, and for the visual features (synthetic atmospheres, saturated chromatism, contrasts and over-brilliance). Together with these references her images include and combine visual quotes from aerosol art (as we already said), up-to-date design, sci-fi movies, B-movies, psychedelia, music and videoclip. And all recall the junk, glittering and trash at the same time, of “everything goes for 99¢.”. Chiara is interested in rendering the imperfect aspects of the societé du spectacle, of the consumerism which generated her polyhedric character. So she reinterprets the model (the models) of reference, but with a light and deliberate alteration, recombining iconic material which has already undergone a first contamination process. She is not interested in proposing the very expensive and trendy, the haut couture, the luxury, the perfect atmospheres, instead she produces some attempts of all this, credible but not flawless: the imitations, the bogus sexy clothes, a lightly faked appearance, some flaws which make the image more real, more human, revived. An image which does not clone, but re-elaborates an infinity of visual and cultural materials. This important aspect of her work is particularly stressed by the massive presence of some objects she feels intrigued with, devoting to them a minute and philological attention: in the set of Flowers, of Autoritratto Caldo (Warm Self-Portrait), of Chiara cantante (Chiara-the-singer), just to mention a few, the redundance achieved through accumulation reveals an extreme coherence in the choice of the elements. Nothing is out of place, every thing is treated as construction material indispensable for the scene, and with loving devotion, as the children do with their toys, or the collectors do with their objects of desire. Chiara works with pleasure on the seductive power of the objects, and on their ability to stir unconscious memories, ideally reviving the basic attitudes of Dadaism – “I like that object: I take it, I use it”, and those ones of Pop Art – “I love that object” (Andy Warhol declared in his diaries: “... Pop Art is loving things...”) – but immediately imposing her own desecrating reconstructive strategy. She uses what she needs, prepares the sets, re-creates interiors, manages and directs the whole situation. Chiara is actress and director of her work, and she goes by a precise plot. The camera is the best and most appropriate means to make the sense, the result of the work, evident. As her work is related with the mechanism of advertising, which needs to sell and, to do so, must present an intriguing and gorgeous world, obliged to be flawless, so her pictures are perfect: this choice is made to render the underlying concept. Perfect is also the photographic reconstruction, for which she choses the best lighting, the best fitting chromatic dominance, she accurately prepares the backgrounds, lysergic for optical atmospheres, silver for lounge-party situations, flowery in kitsch ones. She matches make-up, wig and jewels with the dress of choice, and then accords them to the interpretation. She poses and captures the most representative moment, according with what she wants to communicate. So chosing among the variuos shots is a critical stage of her work, and is made through very stiff selection criteria (this is also, by the way, what makes a difference between an artist and a would-be one). The relation Chiara establishes with her audience, through the pictures, is confidential and full of complicity, intensified to provoke an identification with her characters: you can’t help laughing, when you look at her forced expressions, because of her devastating humour. Everybody, inevitably, identifies him/herself in some of her poses and sets, and in some clichés. Everybody, at least once, has represented, celebrated or seen these clichés: in the plays of girls who steal mom’s lipstick and high-heel shoes, to embody their ideal of woman, in the female myth incarnated in the transvestites, modeled on the exaltation of male conventional fancies, in the malice of seduction of our friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, of ourselves. This mechanism is based on psychology, as in the advertising language, which uses mostly the techniques of self-identification. So Chiara uses, for the staging of her work, filtered materials. She works on self-identification just because advertising does so (the smiling lady happy with her bouillon cubes is an adorable housewife, as all good mothers of the world are). The process, more or less conscious, of self-identification is part of the organization of present-day consumerist, hypermedial and supertechnological society. This society has embraced the way of (induced) protagonism, of the show-case, of the audience, to feel alive. This is confirmed by Tv reality shows, which search into the most remote details of the lives and feelings of people involved (Big Brother is a real porn icon among these, because it exibhits everything, in real time and with no mediation). And also, the proliferation of websites with access to the life of cyberexhibitionists, through webcams. And we find also the opposite, but similar, habit of using Internet to communicate, with a hidden identity, an exemplary life where we can be anybody, interpreting any role of choice. Chiara takes all this into account, and reconstructs characters who communicate ironically, and almost cynically, her refusal of accepting a codified role, taking the liberty of playing with all the possible roles. Chiara brings along with this vast context of contemporary and future scenarios some references to atmospheres and cultures of a recent past, something we find in all of her works. So she uses advertising languages of thirty, forty, fifty years ago, less aggressive and more ingenuous indeed in comparison with the present ones. But just for that, because a contemporary eye intervenes on them, and because of their retro taste, they can express great beauty, within a general trend where vintage has acquired strong value. So we can resume what we said concerning the substance of myth. With vintage we desire something more than simple fetish relics of the past: we actually want to touch myths, to enter and become part of their magical world (that one of Chanel in fashion, Elvis Presley in music and life-style, Gi˜ Ponti in design and the likes). This happens because vintage recalls only the best aspects of an age past, reviving an entire atmosphere, so rich with allure and essential elements that it becomes the source of a great part of creative and commercial productions nowadays. We see it in music, with the revival of historical giants like Papetti, Morricone and so on, with the contaminations of Pizzicato Five, Montefiori Cocktail and a lot of refined lounge music, and even in the mainstream hitlist music, which copies or uses refrains of those years gone. The same recombining practice we find in graphic design, in advertising and in fashion, from Gucci, Fendi, Cavalli to younger stylists. Even movies quote or remake old cults, from Tarantino to a vast majority of low budget productions. In design we find this trend in the revival of products as the sack pouf-chair (also called “Fantozzi’s chair” for its popularity spread with an italian sequel movie character), or the inflatable armchair Blow, both designed by Zanotta, or the mania for recent past commodities, raging up today... This attitude revives in Chiara with methodic and crafty determination, and we find it in her compositions and in her mises en scéne. If many artists have used contamination of linguistic references in their work, just a few have based their entire research on this practice to recreate a real and specific language, in order to analyze its regulatory mechanisms. Among these, the most genial was Cindy Sherman with her Film Stills in the Seventies. In this photographic works the american artist perfectly recreates the language of movie promos, even in the standard format 8”x10”, focusing the scene on herself, as protagonist character of various plots. Sherman aims at a visual and conceptual analysis of that code and of its promotional forms, and reflects upon the stereotypical behavior it depicts, then imposing it as a model of real life. On the opposite, Chiara works basically on advertising communication, related with consumer products. More specifically, her pictures are built to recall great advertising posters, which then recall the advertising of the product itself. As we have seen, the Accessori-Chiara recall another marketing standard language, that one of packaging, and this relation among the particular typologies of works gives her research the light of a substantial innovation. One product is related to the other, and both are structured on the same visual and constructive mechanism of pop and commercial productions. Similar to them in packaging, in format, in composition, in style but with a different end, with a language shift that translate the first language (advertising, mediatic, popular) in the new language, the language of art.
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