Greed may be out of fashion these days, but it remains very much on the mind of Francesco Vezzoli. Demure and self-effacing, Vezzoli claims to live out of a suitcase in Milan, and would seem to be far removed from the fashionable subjects that preoccupy him. He is known, however, for spectacular and very costly art productions, including theatrical performances that often grapple with themes of vice and virtue. For this show, Vezzoli staged a luxury perfume launch. The spectacle included a 60-second commercial directed by Roman Polanski and featuring a tussling Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams, an enormous crystal flacon filled with amber liquid and other supporting props.

True to the sleight of hand that characterizes many of Vezzoli’s productions, a real perfume was never produced. Rather, his installation dealt with the hype that drives fashion, commerce and art, and shapes the experience of desire. A slide-show version of the commercial could be seen on the Internet in advance of the show, a special color advertising supplement appeared in the London edition of the International Herald Tribune the day of the opening, and duped perfume bloggers eagerly speculated about the possible “notes” of this newcomer to the scent scene.

The Polanski video was featured on a large plasma screen surrounded by a gilded frame, like a masterpiece, placed in an antechamber of the gallery. Lining the red velvet-curtained main space were 10 needlework portraits of grandes dames of 20th-century art: Georgia O’Keeffe, Eva Hesse, Meret Oppenheim, Louise Nevelson and others. Their faces streaked with Vezzoli’s trademark embroidered floral “tears,” they overlooked a brilliantly lit glass vitrine in the center of the room, which contained a big bottle of Greed, The Perfume That Doesn’t Exist. The liquid contents weren’t even included on the checklist (“crystal, paper, ribbon”), though the label’s subtitle, “Eau de larmes” [perfume of tears], gave a clue as to its purported composition. Vezzoli landed celebrity photographer Francesco Scavullo for his mug shot on the black-and-white label: an impish, Boy George lookalike peeping out of an oval portrait frame.

What was not real? The launch succeeded on most counts, from press conjecturing to the fashionable mob attending the opening and the brisk sale of the portraits. Just as Vezzoli had willed it, a name brand, the real subject of the exhibition, took off. The only blemishes in the otherwise perfect simulacrum were the perfume’s name, which coincides with a real one created in 2005 by Gendarme, and the overly insistent references by the show’s promoters to Marcel Duchamp’s 1921 altered perfume bottle, Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette, featuring a portrait of the artist in drag (taken by May Ray) on the label.       

In a panel discussion the day after the opening, Vezzoli stated that he is not so much interested in objects or Duchamp as he is fascinated by media strategies. It is in the arena of the Bacardi ads of Jeff Koons, the logo works of Ashley Bickerton, and the re-presentations of Haim Steinbach and other 1980s artistic “commodity traders” that Vezzoli’s real inspiration can be found. Vezzoli’s homage to appropriation and commodity sculpture is perhaps the most enduring (and endearing) aspect of his latest excavation of art and marketing.

Photo above: Enjoy the New Fragrance (Meret Oppenheim for Greed), 2009, inkjet print with embroidery and mixed mediums, 71 by 513⁄4 inches; at Gagosian.