Strolling through the empty streets of Venezia in a breathtaking summer night we passed a surreal gallery which would not really fit in the picture of this antique and romantic city. Right next to a beautiful church and a few restaurants you could see neon lights on an Andy Warhol portrait, a muscular mannequin, skulls made out of glass, plenty of silk-like showy clothes and lots of extremely impressive photography showing very dark Venetian masks combined with naked skin and a sadomasochistic touch.
On the next day we visited the place again and found ourselves in a mix of art gallery and fashion store, all created by fashion designer and political artist Fiorella Mancini. After a charming and informative conversation with the main employee we were asked to interview her a few days later, enough time to do some research.
First opening a store in Venecia in 1968 she was already collecting pieces from the most extreme design avantgardes of the 20th century long before it became a trend. With her spectacular performances, political and anti-Venetian art, hand painted velvets and one-of-a-kind apparel she shocked the conservative and well-heeled people of the city and also made herself an outlaw. At the time for example she sailed on a battleship with a commando of guerrilla girls, launching on an attack for the liberation of the Venezia Biennale where she and other alternative artists where never invited to present their work. Also she held legendary parties for a whole bunch of artists, designers and powerful people with names like Pink Prison Party or the Cat International Party, which we were told must have been orgies in any kind of ecstasy you can imagine.
1984 was the year of her landmark exhibition I Dogi della Moda, presented in the prestigious Palazzo Grassi. Twenty of the most influential fashion designers of the time, from Armani to Vivienne Westwood, created a piece on the theme of disguise, presented on mannequins sculpted by Australian artist Rod Dudley, featuring the heads of twenty doges, members of the venetian parliament 300 years ago, on a stylized female body.
The visitors were accompanied by guides carrying on the back sculptures of giant bees.
In the mid 80′s, as she was shuttling back and forth between Venice and New York to manage her Broadway showroom, she opened Fiorella Gallery in Campo Santo Stefano. It was to become one of the most iconic and controversial spots in the city. The gallery showcases rare pieces by designers and artists including Gaetano Pesce, Ettore Sottsass, Mario Schifano, Rod Dudley, Ludovico de Luigi and G.K. Bodanza. Still, the majority of the pieces are by Fiorella herself.
We spent about two hours with Fiorella, talking about her past and the politics of the time. During that time pretty much happened at her store. From one moment to another there where about 20 people of different groups creeping through the impressive landscape of her art, always nicely welcomed and treated well. An artist from England bought one of Fiorella’s beautiful jackets for an installation he build up at Burning Man this year. When we had a discussion about Silvio Berlusconi a suited lawyer entered the conversation, speaking 10 minutes about the radical politician and his connections to the Italian mafia. Later we were told not to publish this part, and we respect that.
Trying to understand Fiorella Mancini’s person and art is quiet impossible because of her wide range of style and influence in fashion, photography, sculptural work and political activism. After all these years Fiorella’s mind still seems to be lead by rebellion and anarchy. It is a big pool of unity and contradiction, the looking for truth and the vivification of human fears.
Fiorella, thank you for having us here. In the late 60s you were forced out of a velvet factory in Marghera for leading a strike against the rough working conditions. Was this the point in your life when you decided to create art which questions and criticises Venecia and its society?
I have already been doing performance art with other fashion designers before, also combined with erotic influences. During the protest we were all wearing gas masks as a sign of insurgency against the politicians of Venice who pretended a change in their acting but it was not allowed to say anything against them at that time. Surely, it was an important incident for me as a political artist.
Your anti-Venecian art caused a lot of bad reactions by the people who lived here. Still you are an exceptional artist. How do people from the mainland and specially other artists who live here react to your person today?
Most of them ignore my person. Of course they know my work, but they do not come here, I still do not fit in their conservative thinking. Children pass my store and run into it, immediately being pushed out by their embarrassed parents. Though, it also happens that they are already crying outside when they look through the windows.
Can you see a change in the urban society during the past decades?
There is no real change in the minds of the people here; I got the feeling that it is even worse than 20 years ago. There is too much private interest of the politicians, also the church has a lot of power and influence on politics. Since the financial crisis a lot of Chinese business-men are buying shops in the city as they are the only ones who can afford the high rents.
A lot of your work features gay men and HIV/AIDS. Why?
I do not really have an answer to this, it just happens. Lots of my friends are gay and I also think they are very attractive and sexually more open than women. A few years ago a gay man was working for me in this gallery all day long. Later I was told that he often locked the store at lunchtime, which he was not supposed to do. Then I found out that he has always invited his lover to fuck him in the backroom. Also I am using the grindr app for my mobile phone, it is an application which shows gay people if there are other gays around; that brings me more customers (laughs).
Especially in Italy women are hypocrites and loose themselves in their imagination of true love. While they live in their romantic fantasies men just do their thing. Again it is religion which still causes the gender segregation. But I have to add that there is a big swinger club culture in Italy, especially in rural environments, it is like an open secret.