Caroline Vitelli's Tattoos
Caroline Vitelli: artist's destiny, instinct for survival
by Yann Kerninon translatedfrom french by Jeremy Lauer.
Inevitably, all of us are born at a crossroads. We're the filigree of the traces of a
myriad ancestors, the unique and idiosycratic fruit of chance, the product of relentless
social, biological, familial and cultural mixing. We are also all, and for better or
worse, the creatures of our age. This mishmash of influences is our common lot, the
shared heritage of all those who are born into this world.
As we are born, so we mature and age, mysteriously, bearers of a secret unknown
even to ourselves, and the most beautiful facet of which our existence hides as much
as it reveals. Randomness is our foundation and our Achilles' heel. We are thus
inextricably anchored, trapped in the net of our essential ignorance and shortcomings-
-nevertheless we are obliged to pretend, at least in the context of what we call society,
that we are defined by our strengths. A pleasant fiction or a kind of weak joke,
Whether we want to or not, we spend our lives bargaining with our shortcomings. We
learn to live with them, and also against them. Thus we learn to live with and against
Life consists -- I believe anyway -- in investigating that mystery which, although our
most subjective and private possession, also contains within its heart a key to the
mystery of the world and of life itself.
Faced with this challenge, each of us does what he can. Many, let's admit, prefer to
ignore it, and, fleeing as fast as their legs can carry them, act as though everything
about themselves and the rest of the world were perfectly clear. Although possibly a
less rich and profound endeavor, it is indisputably a more comfortable one.
Thus, I define here an artist as one who dedicates his life to tracing, with his own
proper steps, our gaps and obscurities, to treading along the precipitous chasms of our
mystery. One who, while dancing on the high wire, maintains the clear objective of
neither falling nor throwing himself into the void. An artist worthy of the name
retraces, repaces, the thread of his own proper history, as well as the history of his
age, and thus he alone dwells exclusively on the essential: life and death, and perhaps
love too -- love being precisely the the junction point, the commingling, of life
and death, as well as of any meaning it may be possible to give to them.
In fact there are two well worn paths to failure for an artist: to refer only to one's own
personal life (one's family, one's heartaches, one's experiences or one's
psychoanalysis) or to refer only to 'the world' and to scribble over the canvas, the
tiles, or the blank pages, with one's psycho-politico-sociological opinions about
others. Narcissistic self-fiction and edifying lectures about 'the world' are the two
principal means of expressing intellectual and artistic emptiness.
Gothic romanticism, Dada and punk -- or nothing of the kind?
Caroline Vitelli is a child of her age, of our age, which is to say the child of the gothic
romanticism of the 19th century, of the Dadaism of the First World War, and of the
nihilistic punk movement of the 1980s. Gothic romanticism, Dada and punk all have
in common this endeavor of dancing on the edge of the razor, balancing precariously
just on the boundary between the most life-affirming and the most morbid, the most
joyful and the saddest and most overwhelming.
The gothic spirit, whether one takes the example of the filmy and cadaverous
dandyism of the 19th century or the current version of 'Dark Culture', is both a morbid
cult of death and an heroic attempt to survive by finding meaning in life: to believe or
to pretend to believe (laughing all the while) in Satan or in vampires, it's above all a
means of saying that God is not completely dead and that even death cannot tarnish
beauty or extinguish laughter.
Similarly, Dada attempted, in the midst of the corpses of Verdun and the absurd
excesses of a technologically refined butchery, to rediscover life: "Liberty: DADA
DADA DADA, the cry of clenched colours, the intertwining of opposites and
contradictions, of grotesqueries and non-sequiturs: LIFE", one can read at the
conclusion of The Dada Manifesto 1918.
Punk, finally, is of course, the triumph of lower-class nihilistic despair confronted by
the revolting cynicism of liberalism: the kind of cynicism that smells of ketchup and
bears the stamp of brainless experts in public relations, i.e. the real "No future". But it
is also the culture of "Just Do It", that is, the "go ahead, do it" of Iggy Pop... Even if
you can neither play or sing, go ahead, jump up on stage, take the guitar and sing,
Caroline Vitelli's work inhabits this same tension, that is, the ambivalence and
bipolarity of a constant flashing between light and shadow. Notwithstanding, she
attempts to overcome that dichotomy. In fact, she is neither gothic, romantic, Dada, or
punk, which is to say that she is not merely the refrain of her influences. Her work
represents her own unique and utterly contemporary attempt to live in her age and in
her own mystery. Her work is, as every worthwhile one, an investigation into the
meaning of life and the reality of things. It also represents, therefore, an attempt to
survive. Our age is dark, black, ominous, hopeless. Caroline Vitelli knows it, and we
know it with her. But as Kostas Axelos wrote, "It's necessary perhaps to try to
stand upright in the face of the void in order to overcome hopelessness." A goal
that is without doubt the principal aim of Caroline Vitelli and her work.
Black and white and red all over...
The non-colours black and white dominate the works of Caroline Vitelli. Yet, in the
vibration of an infinite variety of shades of gray, colour makes itself known, quietly
but insistently: and by colour, I mean to say a sign of the living. Certainly, Caroline
Vitelli and her works are well described by the labels gothic, nihilist, and punk. But,
fortunately, not only by these labels. Rebounding from despair and hopelessness, the
firm resolution to look forward, to look for life, is born. In the midst of the drab gray
that is her birthright, Caroline Vitelli searches, with neither hope nor hypocrisy, for a
trace of the living. And she finds it in the conjunction of elegance, sensitivity and
humour: qualities pre-eminent in all her work.
The first thing one perceives in her drawings, engravings, and installations is neither
more or less than their beauty. A beauty pure and simple, an elegance almost
aristocratic. Not yielding to the siren call of a crass vulgarity, neither to that of a slick
beautification and the facile reproduction of images (two currently fashionable
tendencies which will just as surely be outmoded tomorrow), Caroline Vitelli aims for
a true beauty of refinement, of detail, of the precise line. And, as for any true
elegance, hers is not without roots. She takes her marks from our age, she reads back
into the past, she represents the present, and imagines the future in juxtaposing a
gothic aesthetic to the irony of Dadaism, in mixing the vintage chic of the 1930s and
the 1950s with the raw energy of punk in order to give the whole new form and
meaning. Neither a backwards-looking and fundamentally conservative nostalgia nor
the rootless hyper-contemporary style of today: in other words, her work represents a
One remarks an almost feminine elegance in the spirit of dandyism, a lightness that
refuses to take itself too seriously. In Caroline Vitelli's installation Dystopic analysis
an elegant wallpaper using the prints of chicken feet as its principal motif serves as an
accessory to series of engravings, paintings, small molded sculptures and photographs
that in their ensemble evoke the spectre of a chicken with four feet: a supposed
genetic fiction that is nevertheless an object of serious interest for the agro-food
Far from making a frontal attack, in the style of university militants, the installation
unsettles the viewer principally and precisely by its very beauty. A bit in the manner
of Brummell, the prince of dandies, who by his elegance alone laid bare the
monstruous mediocrity of his contemporaries: high-bred aristocrats and bourgeois
nouveaux riches alike, each fearful for his 'career' or 'position', all in submission, in
spite of their elegant neckwear, fortunes or grandiose titles, to the slavery of the
emptiness of their own vulgar time. Thus, the elegance of Caroline Vitelli's work is
not only a means of denouncing the ugliness of the world and the mediocrity of her
own time, but also a means of saying... "Fuck!", for example. A dandy-punk way of
spitting in the face of the world by reflecting its own crassness.
Nevertheless, her taste for the beautiful would not amount to much if it was not
sustained by a genuine sensitivity. For an artist is not one who knows, or who merely
pretends to know. Nor is the artist the one capable, in a technical sense, of sculpting
or painting. Above all, the artist is the one who knows how to see and how to
feel. And, by every evidence we can find in her works, Caroline Vitelli is profoundly
moved by things. It is clear that she feels, as would a master printer in his workshop,
the texture, grain, and quality of each kind of paper. She intuits, like a decorator, the
just measure of both silliness and rigor that can make her wallpaper, strewn with the
motif "Motherfucker", remain nevertheless a sober and elegant object (from her
installation Jouy). She senses, as does a poet, how objects speak to each another and
arrange themselves into a new meaning, how "the chance meeting of an umbrella and
a sewing machine on a dissecting table" can be a source of beauty, how a
landscape or a situation, a face or a meeting, can each have its unique meaning.
This sensitivity, one realizes, is at the same time a source of joy and of suffering.
Which explains why to be an artist means both to touch a joyfulness most inner and to
feel, at times, devastated, miserable and ashamed. Art supports us, roots us, helps us
survive, and constructs us... yet it also tears us apart, disorients and destroys us.
Her series of 130 selfportraits, grouped together under the title States of Me, and
drawn at a rhythm of about one per day between June 7 and November 14, 2010,
confirms this truth: to be an artist is above all to know how to suffer. As well, by the
way, as to know how to try to be happy. To judge by the manner in which Caroline
Vitelli shows herself in these portraits, feeling one's feelings strongly is by no means
a free lunch. To be sensitive means, at times, taking one's head in one's hands, being
bored, stiffening with anxiety, bending over in despair, screaming, feeling naked and
fragile, being ashamed, mocking oneself, hiding, cutting out one's tongue, piercing
one's cheek with a stapler, and crying. But it also means accepting, with rare intensity,
a joy without equal: playing the clown, dressing up, being as light as a feather, feeling
one's heart take flight, being truly free, dansing, laughing, pretending to be a lobster --
being, finally, just oneself. Sensitivity is the principal engine that allows us to carry
out our investigation, to explore the mystery of our existence, of the world and of life
itself. States of the world, states of me, states of my relation to the world. Sensitivity
is that which allows us all, and in particular the artist, to perceive the meaning of
things in their whole. Rimbaud, the pre-Socratics and Georges Bataille would all say:
to perceive the meaning of things in their eternity. To know how to feel is to feel the
eternal in the ephemeral, to see the meaning of the whole through the shards of an
infintely fragmented world.
Caroline Vitelli is a young artist, and is therefore only at the beginning of her
investigation, at the very beginning of her work. But she is, without any doubt, well
equipped with that which an artist-investigator requires: a sensitivity that knows how
to read the signs, which dares to commit itself, one that dares to risk suffering so
much does it long to decode the clues, a sensititivity, moreover which alone is capable
of perceiving the truth and of finishing the investigation, at least her own part of it.
An elegance that battles vulgarity and a sensitivity that reveals suffering both arise out
of rude discipline and dry asceticism. But they become fluid, fertile -- and bearable --
through the agency of humour, as when a laugh or smile flashes through, both giving
life and relieving pain. Tears are not always sad, and laughter is frequently stupid or
insipid. But smiling through tears is almost always interesting, precisely because it
shows the way towards a manner of being that is light though not superficial,
profound without being heavy.
At first glance, Caroline Vitelli's work is not comical, humourous. Yet, with attention,
it does reveal a discreet and agile sense of humour, a humour with a smile just in the
corners of the mouth, or even the naughty humour of the tipsy girl in an evening dress
who tosses the champagne from her glass over her shoulder without looking to see
who's behind her. In the midst of despair, betwixt a cool elegance and punk-rock
gyrations, one sees a skirt that spins, the outline of the hips inside that pivot, two
spoiled brats blowing bubbles with their gum, a pseudo-hedgehog with the face of a
lovable idiot, a crow rapt in concentration as he performs a tribal danse reminiscent of
that of a Masai warrior (cf. Chymères).
Through the holes of a punctured melancholy, across a desperate and
diaphanous elegance, we can perceive, at least when we lend a certain complicity to
the task, a smile and a sense of humour that prefer to dwell in the rubble, which are in
fact an attempt to survive in this desert of a world, a smile and a sense of humour that
elicit the sympathy of all the tight-rope walkers who -- dangling in the midst of and
over a vast space -- are nevertheless neither lost nor pitiable.
André Breton (Les pas perdus): "It goes without saying that I appreciate only things
that are half done. There's nothing worse than holding on for too long. The iron grip
of the will to dominate is the one real trap. So it's enough, for the moment, that a
pretty shadow should dance along the edge of the window, through which each day I
will begin again to throw myself."
Caroline Vitelli: elegance, sensitivity, humour. A love of fate and a love of necessity -
- honestly, much better than shooting oneself.