Interview with Robert Ayers
for Artists Speak Out
Federico Solmi was one of the standout artists at this year’s Armory Week in New York. In my review for Ocula.com, I called his Volta show on the Luis de Jesus Los Angeles booth “particularly striking”. In fact his was the only work at Volta that I discussed at any length.
Federico’s videos are made with a mind-boggling array of media from drawing and painting through 3D animation, video-game technologies, and kinetic technology. More to the point they engage with the worst aspects of contemporary societies, their histories, and the politics they have put in place or found themselves saddled with. Corruption, vanity, greed, dishonesty, and downright evil are his recurrent subjects. Though this may all sound rather depressing, Federico manages to concoct out of this material work that is at once alarming and bizarrely entertaining.
Most recently Federico has been making work about The Brotherhood, an imaginary time-traveling society of world leaders, visionaries, saviors, megalomaniacs, empire builders, despots, and dictators, “whose conspiratorial goal is to keep chaos alive in the world and promote the degeneration of human race”, and who get together for celebration and mutual congratulation. The Brotherhood’s members include Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Inca Emperor Pachacuti, Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus, Julius Caesar, and Benito Mussolini. On Artnet, Blake Gopnik called them “some of history's greatest tyrants and creeps”. Not surprisingly, their latest eager member is Donald J. Trump.
Last week Federico and I had a phone conversation about the current political crisis and I began by asking him why he’d felt moved to include Trump in the Brotherhood.
Federico Solmi: I have a history of working with political and social themes over many years, and after all of my investigations into corruption and political scandal and abuse of power, I felt that it was a natural evolution to include him. I use irony and satire and grotesque imagery in my work to show the dark side of power, and I was struck by how grotesque Donald Trump is as a character. I like to maintain the humor, but of course all the work is very dark.
Robert Ayers: How quickly did you realize the threat Trump would pose to artists?
FS: You never know how political situations are going to turn out, but immediately Trump became president, I knew that the situation in this country with regard to censorship was going to change. And then straight away we see that the NEA is threatened.
RA: Have you ever seen anything like this before?
FS: I have a long history of fighting authority through my work. Sometimes I’ve had to pay the consequences. I've been taken to trial in the past for what I have done. I had to hire lawyers and defend myself in court. I don’t want to think about it happening again. It’s scary, but I can't change my work.
RA: Where did that happen?
FS: It was in Italy, about ten years ago. I did a video that was a kind of satirical history of the Catholic Church. The carabinieri seized the exhibition and I had to defend myself (while simultaneously I won the Guggenheim Fellowship to make the same work in the United States!). It was very scary for me because I had to go to court and defend myself. Of course it was thrown out, but it was the first time that I saw how power can be used just to scare people.
RA: It seems that similar things are starting to happen in this country.
FS: Absolutely. But power is always hypocritical: they wouldn’t be so obvious as to cause people that sort of trouble. Their first step is to cut the funding for the arts. They try to throw obstacles in the way of artists getting access to the money they need to work. It’s a way of attempting to silence us.
But here’s another thing that I think is critical. You and I are talking about these issues now but for the ten or twelve years I’ve been working in New York, there’s never been much of an interest in political work. It’s as though there’s been a disconnect between the art establishment and the real world.
There’s never been a major New York exhibition of contemporary political work during all that time, while in South America, in Spain, in Italy, in Germany, and in France political art has been very important, and I’ve been very active as a part of that.
RA: But now I think that there’s been a wake-up call.
RA: Tell me, what else do you think we need to look out for with this administration?
FS: I think we are already in a situation in where they’re making the truth unimportant. We're going to find ourselves in a fictionalized political situation in which telling people the truth is not important. Like in many authoritarian regimes in the past, they will just repeat their fictional stories, and we’ll become so confused that basically we’ll lose all sense of what is real and what is fake. Propaganda will be so widespread that people will feel so disillusioned and so powerless that they will find it very difficult even to form an opinion.
This is what happened in the Soviet Union and other regimes in the past. I think it’s unlikely that we are going to see a dictatorship in the United States, but we’re going to experience a complete loss of reality because what they're telling us is lies, so we don't know what's going on. I think we’ve already had an appetizer of the direction they're taking because Trump says one thing, and then the administration goes off to do exactly the opposite. It's creating confusion because we really like don't know where Trump stands, or where the government stands, or where we are left standing. This creates extreme uncertainty that gives the government even more power.
RA: People make comparisons with Mussolini. Do you think that's overstated?
FS: The times are different, but there is a lot of similarity in terms of behavior. The main difference is that Mussolini was an intellectual and he came from a well respected background in socialism, whereas Donald Trump just comes from a ruthless business background. I'm sure that in practice as a businessman he’s not unlike Mussolini. He doesn't want to be stopped.
RA: Do you believe he can be stopped?
FS: I hope that the United States government with all of its checks and balances can somehow block his path, but he is trying to overcome everyone and run everything by his own rules. When you allow a right wing conservative leader a free ride, of course there will be trouble, and immediately we see him accusing the press of publishing fake news. At his press conferences he says they’re all liars.
This is something that dictators all do, they take control of information and the press. We saw this during the campaign – they deliberately created confusion with their fake news. People were completely confused. I was completely confused.