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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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