Giacinto Di Pietrantonio
A body of art
Luigi Ontani literally lives in his tableau vivant. Since the end of the 1960s, he has been revealing himself in the guises of some of the most famous mythological and religious icons, such as the Capitoline Wolf or Saint Sebastian, and as some of the most acclaimed historical and folkloristic characters, such as Dante or Tarzan. He has worn many masks, all of them universal. He uses his body as a language: cultured and popular, serious and ironic, tall and short at the same time, creator of new meanings, founder of new identities. In museums his work is shown life-size, in photographs retouched with watercolour brush strokes. His first public tableau vivant performance was as Tarzan, in 1973. This work was the starting point for a narcissistic interpretation of his work by intellectuals such as Goffredo Parise, who wrote about him: “Personally, I envy him many things: his being vegetarian, not drinking alcohol, being childish, a super-narcissist, yet also a classic narcissist, the young man who is reflected in a pool of water. Hence the schizoid nature. I especially envy him for walking this earth with those huge-soled boa shoes with infinite lightness and irony, not the irony of reality but that of metaphysics, much more subtle and, in the best of intentions, eternal.” But Ontani is not really the character he plays and he doesn’t want to take its place, he remains himself in all his work. Ontani plays the character, identifies himself, but the person remains evident. He disguises himself as in the Greek theatrical tradition and states: “The mask is the mask of my identity, photography testifies to the change in identity while preserving the quality of my evident, or even illusory, physiognomy.” Ontani offers his body to put it at the service of art, his body is here and elsewhere. As Michel Foucault wrote in The Utopian Body, “My body, in fact, is always elsewhere.” Our body is ground zero of the world; thanks to the body there is an above, a below, an in front of, a behind and a near for us, but the body is basically everywhere and nowhere, and this makes it possible for the artist to move in space-time with so much interpretative agility.
Ontani is the director and protagonist of his work, which is continually marked by the search for dualism. Experience the body as a double: not as division but as unity. He interprets double gender as essence in Shiva (1977), one of the works that testifies to his passion for the East, together with San Sebastiano Indiano (Jaipur) from 1976 and Krishna from 1978, where he travelled often and learned artisan techniques to apply watercolours to photographs and the practice of carving pule wood, which he used above all to make colourful masks. In works such as EvaAdamo he splits/reflects himself in both, while always respecting the traditional iconography of Adam and Eve holding the apple of original sin. Lupus lapsus is a work from 1992, in which Luigi Ontani revealed himself in the guise of the Capitoline Wolf nursing little Romulus and Remus. Here the artist chose to blend the sexes: he is both a wolf and a she-wolf, exploiting his natural androgyny, and the two brothers are black. First, even just biologically, it is clear to us that Luigi Ontani is unable to breastfeed children and therefore to feed them so that the legend of the birth of the city of Rome is feasible; in addition, he upsets tradition by having two black children play Romulus and Remus, intent on fighting an increasingly rampant ethnocentrism. Thanks to these two expedients, he bypasses history and aims to go beyond legend.
Unlike Allan Kaprow’s happenings, which were so in vogue at the time, the artist chose to fix his figure by immortalising it, anchoring it in time, giving life to a fixed performance that would then establish itself in the late 1980s thanks to artists such as Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. As he himself explained in a 2003 interview with Federico De Melis for Alias, the supplement that comes with the Il Manifesto newspaper: “I chose to make my painting performance and performance painting, not to experience oblivion but to resurrect the history of art, fable, mythology, allegory, folklore, iconology. I have never been interested, or only relatively interested, in whether it is the aspect of the happening… what interests me is the space built by thought.”
Ontani affirms his histrionic immortality thanks to the medium of photography by resurrecting the past through it. He feels he is an heir of the past, the search for origins is one of the central themes in his work. “An artist must not be original, but originary” claimed Giorgio De Chirico, an artist who has always been close to his heart and whom he pays homage to several times, for example with the work Autoritratto nudo (d’aprés Giorgio de Chirico) in which he photographed himself in the same pose as the greatest exponent of metaphysical painting in one of his self-portraits, oil on canvas, in 1945, once again escaping modernity. The past is presence, origins are the present.