"I have been intrigued by the comically misleading and inaccurate accounts of history common to most textbooks, where ethnocentric perspectives read like rant narrations of American exceptionalism. I have also been fascinated by the fact that history, once manipulated by the machine of propaganda, is more akin to folktales than real historical events."
- Federico Solmi
New York-based, multi-media artist Federico Solmi (b. 1973, Bologna, Italy) exploits the virtual architecture of video games to create a phantasmagoric world of whirling space, jerking movement and oscillating facades. Solmi’s art investigates the contradictions and inaccuracies of historical narratives that have led society into a chaotic era of misinformation.
In 1999, lacking any formal education or training in fine art, Federico Solmi left Italy and immigrated to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He had a profound hunger for learning and very quickly immersed himself in the explosive cultural scene of his newly adopted city "where pornography, religion, violence, greed, sex and blood baths coexist in perfect harmony,” visiting galleries and museums and reading books on history and philosophy. His experiences as an outsider helped to shape his views of Western culture and post-modern consumerism which he translated into raw “visionary” drawings, paintings, and rudimentary stop-motion animations.
Over the course of two decades Solmi has transformed himself into an accomplished and respected video artist and painter, with an impressive and growing list of museum exhibitions and collections, international biennials and honors to his name, including the 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship in Video Art, the Main Prize at the 2015 B3 Frankfurt Biennial, and finalist in the National Portrait Gallery's 2019 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. In 2017, Robert Storr appointed him visiting professor in New Media Art at Yale University, where he taught for several years.
Since 2004 Federico Solmi has created increasingly complex two-dimensional and animation-based works in which he employs extreme satire to critique the corrupting influence of power across cultural, financial, governmental, and religious institutions. Early works such as Rocco Never Dies (2005) and King Kong and The End of the World (2006) function as alter egos of the artist, expressing a fundamental dissatisfaction of the “wicked 21st century life” dominated by rampant consumerism, unchecked Wall Street greed, and a dearth of ethics. These short black-and-white stop-motion drawing animations combine youthful innocence and fanciful naivete with a sharp social-political critique and dark, irreverent humor—elements which have become among the strongest characteristics in his oeuvre. (Below: video of Rocco Never Dies.)
In The Evil Empire (2007), Douche Bag City (2009), and Chinese Democracy and The Last Day on Earth (2011-14) Solmi turns his full attention upon the despots and tyrants at the heart of his eviscerating and rambunctious critiques. With their increasingly apocalyptic and dystopic world views, these animated videos are “not just dark fantasy but were inspired by a deep analysis of serious conflict occurring in society’—a society, he says, that ‘I love and choose to live in.”
The Evil Empire (presented above) is perfectly expressive of Solmi’s intricately lurid wit, wherein a porn-addled Pope Urban LXIX of “Vatic-Anal City”—His Holiness shod in Prada as befitting any hedonistic consumer—is throttled by the various trials and tribulations of being mortal and randy; and for it, must be sent on a journey to hell.
The Evil Empire provoked controversy and censorship in France and Spain and escalated to an infamous trial in Italy in which Solmi was charged and tried for obscenity, blasphemy and offense to the Catholic church. A number of related objects accompany the series, including a crucifix that features Solmi as the Pope with a large grin and a huge erection. The charges against Federico Solmi were ultimately dismissed, but the controversy led to him being awarded a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, the proceeds of which he used to produce Douche Bag City—his official entry to “The Dissolve”—the 2010 SITE Santa Fe Biennial.
Douche Bag City is a video work comprised of 15 single-channel, hand-drawn animated films installed as a montage of ornately framed screens—a Baroque altar of gaming excess. A satire about the 2008 world economic crisis, Douche Bag City proffers a devious fantasy: a place where Wall Street grifters are imprisoned with no hope for justice or escape; where mercy and salvation are delivered as punishment and torture like three-square meals a day. The video's protagonist, Dick Richman, an egotistical Wall Street broker whose mission is to survive within the different chapters of the "video game," can be understood to be an incarnation of Bernard Madoff, the infamous investment advisor and financier who orchestrated a massive multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. (Above: installation view of Douche Bag City at the 2010 SITE Santa Fe Biennial.)
In Chinese Democracy, Solmi examines the self-destructive nature of mankind spurred by repressive authoritarian power structures and misguided ethical and moral values. This swarming animation articulates a fictitious portrayal of an imaginary 21st century Chinese leader who, driven by ruthless ambition for world domination, embarks on his final march toward immortal glory, culminating with an epic finale—a military invasion of New York’s Times Square and the annihilation of planet Earth.
The first part of the Chinese Democracy video trilogy, titled "A Song of Tyranny" (presented below), centers on the protagonist in the phase of becoming a dictator and examines the values and models that will influence his rise to power. Beyond the apparent Manichean character, Solmi's playful aesthetics integrate a series of visual metaphors that present viewers with a comedic-grotesque parabola on power and excess. This sarcastic and irreverent tone allows Solmi to target the epitome of human folly, greed, and lust for power, preventing a simple reproduction of the good-versus-evil dichotomy.
"Imagine animating the surging throngs in James Ensor’s monumental 1888 masterpiece, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, with its grotesque painted caricatures of mobs populating church and state and engulfed in an alarming aura of surging madness. You’ll have some idea of what Federico Solmi’s The Brotherhood is like."
– Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times
Chinese Democracy may be considered both the culmination and the beginning of a new chapter in Federico Solmi’s work. A year after completing the trilogy and taking a well-deserved break, Solmi returned with The Brotherhood (2015-17), a new series of animated videos that parody the iconography of historical portraiture. Suddenly, the entire history of mankind became fodder for Solmi's piercing critiques. A fictional secret society whose members represent some of the world’s most feared and beloved leaders, The Brotherhood torches the veneer of mystique surrounding these legendary figures and exposes history as a propaganda-fabricated ruse that has been carefully manipulated and crafted to suit their selfish interests. (Above: video of The Brotherhood triptych.)
Yet, rather than reimagining history, the leaders enter into our conceited present-day celebrity culture, calling to fault our own complacency and perpetuation of skewed historical myths and perspectives. They strut down red carpets to the flash of camera lights, descend imposing flights of stairs and socialize at a magnificent ball on the fashionably gross order of New York’s famous Met Gala. (Below: video of The Ballroom installation.)
The Great Farce (2017-19), an immersive nine-channel video installation that was commissioned by the Frankfurt B3 Biennial of Moving Image and presented on a series of digital billboards across the façade of the Schauspiel Opera House, is Solmi’s most ambitious work to date in terms of technical complexity, physical scale, and scope of content. Hand-made paintings, drawings, and motion-capture images are stitched together using 3D digital gaming technology to create a surreal universe. The installation presents a sprawling send-up of empire building as an enterprise, and a scathing commentary on contemporary culture, where spectacle and celebrity may be distractions from sinister machinations, and where the speed of things contributes to the blurring of myth and truth.
The Great Farce features a cast of characters introduced in The Brotherhood, world leaders culled from ancient Egypt to the present-day United States. In Solmi’s rendition of history, Marie Antoinette and Christopher Columbus occupy the same milieu. Acts of political aggression meld into decadent parties and ceremonies fueled by a feverish energy and unbridled quest for power. The aesthetic of the work—marked by exaggerated facial features, a jarring color palette, and a dissonant soundtrack inspired by amusement parks—underscore the frenzied narrative. The work invokes the word “farce” both as a plan or a situation that has gone terribly wrong, and in its literary sense as a satirical comedy that relies upon extreme exaggeration to create an improbable, often, complex plot.
“There's something missing in all writings about power: Very few are able to capture how funny it is. When they examine the horrors that power commits, the sufferings it imposes, the blood with which it stains itself, historians and political scientists always forget to highlight the ridiculous aspects of the inevitable monster and how funny they are, with their ironed uniformed, unearned medals and invented awards.”
- Oriana Fallaci
Interviews with History and Conversations with Power
In 2018, Solmi presented The Great Farce as a site-specific installation at Open Spaces 2018: A Kansas City Experience, a new biennial organized by curator Dan Cameron, founder of Prospect New Orleans. It was presented as an immersive gallery installation with nine projections circumscribing the interior of the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC) Gallery of Art. Later, Solmi created a sculptural “portable theater” edition of The Great Farce with embedded video that represents the content, spirit and aesthetic of the larger installation.
In 2019, Solmi was invited to present an adaption of The Great Farce in Times Square as part of Times Square Arts “Midnight Moment.” Presented daily across 30 digital billboards during the month of July, American Circus holds up a funhouse mirror to Times Square and, by extension, to America. This collage of animated videos is a maximalist portrait of Times Square as an eternal carnival, filled with food stands, whirling amusement rides, American flags, fireworks, an absurd collection of iconic world landmarks, and signs advertising “EVERYTHING 99¢ OR LESS.” In American Circus, a cheering crowd seems to revel in a continuous spectacle of entertainment, consumption, and nationalism. (Below: video of American Circus in Times Square.)
“Irreverent, beautiful and complex, The Great Farce is among the most compelling works The Block Museum has recently acquired as part of its Thinking About History initiative.”
– Lisa Corrin, The Ellen Philips Katz Director
BEHIND THE SCENES
Federico Solmi’s animations combine traditional media, such as drawing and painting, with innovative media such as 3D animation, video-game technologies, and kinetic technology. His process has evolved over time as he has embraced advancements in technology. He first creates a story board to guide the process. He then creates embellished drawings and paintings which are digitized so they can be incorporated into the software to create the video. The early works were comprised of hundreds of hand embellished drawings to create stop-motion animations – much like early Disney cartoons. They have since evolved into the construction and development of a virtual world within a video game engine.
Today, the digital scans of the original paintings and drawings are texture-mapped onto 3D models using software to create the surfaces of his dimensional environments (virtual sets) and characters. Within the game design engine, Solmi uses the first-person view to explore the environment as a voyeur, and as a director the characters become puppets, animated with motion capture technology and computer scripts rather than being manipulated by strings. Shots of their actions are captured in real time with screen recording software and audio is added to the final version. Once displayed, the resulting cinematic animations merge seamlessly with the unique hand painted frames around each digital video monitor/TV. Stylistically, his work can be seen in the tradition of the painters George Grosz, Otto Dix, and James Ensor, and the silent films of expressionist cinema. Overall, these projects can take from one to three years to complete and during this production process the narratives and images continually evolve and are further developed and enhanced with additional drawings and storyboards.
We wish to express our deepest gratitude to all of the curators, institutions and collectors who have supported Federico Solmi over the years. We also offer our sincere thanks to and acknowledge all of the critics and writers whose words have been incorporated into this text. They have been invaluable in contributing to a greater appreciation and understanding of his work.