interview by LUCA LO PINTO
portrait by ALESSANDRO CICORIA
Luigi Ontani does not fit into the usual artistic categories. He expresses himself in a language all his own, as fascinating as it is elusive. He emerged in the 1960s, contemporaneously with Arte Povera and Conceptual Art, but chose a different and more personal path. His has been a journey of identity via the image, a voyage inspired by allegory, mythology, and Commedia dell’Arte. He uses his body in a thousand stories, in as many characters, inhabiting worlds between reality and fantasy. He has experimented with every conceivable form and material, from photography, performance, and tableaux vivants to painting, sculpture, and his well-known herms — Ermestetiche — and masks made of wood, papier-mâché, glass, and ceramic. In the current artistic and social climate, Ontani’s work appears particularly significant for its strenuous affirmation of the “elsewhere” as an ideal place in which to experiment and to create a space of action decentered from a world besieged by images. Ontani evades them, producing an oneiric vision of the world in the reality of life and in the fiction of art.
He has lived in Rome since 1970 but travels constantly. On his telephone’s answering machine is the message: “I’m here elsewhere. Message me. Fax me. Long live art!”
LUCA LO PINTO — RomAmor, the place where you live, reflects you and your art.
LUIGI ONTANI — RomAmor was born with the capitalization of Amor, which is how RomAmor appears in the land registry. I didn’t name it. It was a little forgotten villa that hadn’t been lived in for a long time. It was part of the surrounding valley of Rocchetta Mattei. Count Mattei, a pioneer of homeopathy, had chosen this place for his research and built a castle for the people who came here to be cured.
LUCA LO PINTO — When did you buy it?
LUIGI ONTANI — My sister Tullia and I bought it in the early ’90s. It took some time to refurbish. I didn’t wanted a reinvention, not a faithful renovation. The studio where we are now is an annex that didn’t exist before. It pleased me to let the architecture develop into mimesis. The studio’s mask is an echo of the castle. The neogothic onion doors at the entrance to the villa echo the Moorish castle. There’s a projection of seduction with respect to the history of Count Mattei.
LUCA LO PINTO — Did you always think of this place as a work of art, or did that come about gradually?
LUIGI ONTANI — Any pre-established project can be traced to my way of living and being. I avoid being conditioned by elements I don’t enjoy, even when I go to hotels.
LUCA LO PINTO — I’ve always been impressed by the obsessiveness of your choices: from the furniture and the decorations to the artwork on the walls. Every element is specifically conceived. For example, in the bathroom you have a tapestry by Alighiero Boetti that reads, “Pisciarsi in bocca!” In the end, RomAmor is a big museum with a lot of theme rooms.
LUIGI ONTANI — It displays, all the more evidently, my artistic concept between life and art. I’d hesitate to call it a museum, because I want to avoid that kind of instant self-historicizing. I express ideas through images and objects. It’s a process of aestheticization that corresponds to my desire to inhabit an everyday that reaches toward an elsewhere. The idea of the museum was born and grew up with me. It’s more complete and concentrated than the kind of selection that inevitably precedes an exhibition. My desire was to have a place that triggered the pleasure of doing.
LUCA LO PINTO — Was it something you were looking for or did it come about by chance?
LUIGI ONTANI — I started thinking about the possibility in Rome. Before choosing RomAmor I’d been shown various locations, even undeveloped ones. I’d have gotten land for free if I had built my studio / villa on it. Here, I was stimulated by the possibility of responding to a pre-existing fiction, the Rocchetta Mattei. Rocchetta Mattei was a place I visited when I lived nearby. For the future, there’s talk of having part of the Castello della Rocchetta dedicated to me. It’s currently being renovated and will host a permanent exhibition of my work.
LUCA LO PINTO — What inspired your infatuation with art?
LUIGI ONTANI — My desire for art comes from a bookish education, and an infantile wish for knowledge, which came from books and encyclopedias. In the ’50s and ’60s there weren’t that many publications available to me. Mine was a journey through books — novels, art books, or simply the Maestri del Colore series I bought at the newsstand. I had a precocious desire for art, which was denied to me as a boy. I even wanted to go to art school. When I expressed that desire, my father, with his anarchic look on life, took me to a vegetable garden, out of spite, and showed me how you could survive by shoveling soil. Art wasn’t and still isn’t a job. I’ve always tried to avoid the idea of art as a profession. It’s also been a distraction, a game, a playful dimension, but my desire for it has always existed.
LUCA LO PINTO — Your early years as an artist coincided with a very turbulent historical and political moment, 1968. A lot of artists took a political stance. Was your idea of playful art as a form of escapism a reaction to the more ideological attitudes of, for example, Arte Povera?
LUIGI ONTANI — I may have worn a uniform during my military service in Turin, but I’ve never accepted the uniform of political commitment. My behavior isn’t reactionary, but I’m self-taught, and in teaching myself I gave importance to certain ideological or literary elements that allowed me to not condition myself or the thoughts of others. I believed that art should be neither pseudodidactic nor pseudoschematic. For me art wasn’t, and it still isn’t, a form of non- commitment. There is an ethic of nonbelonging. I’ve never tolerated political correctness.
LUCA LO PINTO — Were there exhibitions or situations that particularly influenced you during that formative period?
LUIGI ONTANI — At the time, I was living in Bologna, which attracted designers from all over the world. The writer and critic Dino Gavina articulated a very rational idea of the living environment, from Bauhaus to Castiglioni and Carlo Scarpa. When I made my first pleonastic works in 1965, I was striving to create an object that was obviously not sculpture, not painting, and not design. The declared uselessness of the pleonastic object was, in itself, this consciousness. Initially, my hunger was that of an autodidact. The Futurists, Surrealists, Joseph Cornell … they all influenced me. In New York, I intentionally paid homage to Cornell and not to Duchamp. Cornell had links to old Italian art, to European art, to not forgetting or uprooting oneself. My other references were Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. Nouveau Realisme was also important. These artistic tendencies placed a lot of value on the object. That’s why I still find Readymades to be contemporary objects, even though they’ve been around a hundred years or so. I also like to discover other paths. I chose to stay in my bel paese, or ex-bel paese, not to fuel the local dimension but to take notive of cognizance of non-artistic or unconventional elements in order to do something different. That’s why I decided to express myself through photography even though I’m not a photographer, and why, later on I thought I could express something in ceramics and other materials. My discourse isn’t material; it’s linguistic.
LUCA LO PINTO — In the winter of 1970 you moved to Rome. Why? You once told me, “Rome is interesting because it remains a mystery even though we don’t want it to be, while in New York, for example, mysteries are prohibited.” Who were the first artists you came into contact with?
LUIGI ONTANI — I went to Rome after meeting Fabio Sargentini, my future gallerist. Legend has it that Fabio, standing on the balcony of his gallery, L’Attico, yelled, “An angel has arrived!” My social life was typical of the Rome of those years, which abounded with places to meet people. The gallery was a place for conversation. Gino De Dominicis, Emilio Prini, Vettor Pisani were the most frequent and significant visitors, but also Mochetti, Mattiacci, Patella, Mario and Marisa Merz, Pasolini, Pistoletto. I went from the reality of the provinces to the vivacity of the Rome of that time.
LUCA LO PINTO — What was Rome like then?
LUIGI ONTANI — There was a constant existential communication between the worlds of entertainment and art. There were places where people could meet without prior agreement. I was accepted from the start. Social life was dictated by a will to live. Artists shared that ease in different places day and night. In Rome it was possible to live without the problem of surviving and without recourse to mercenary or opportunistic expedients.
LUCA LO PINTO — Was it a mixed environment?
LUIGI ONTANI — The artistic community was a kind of cohabitation and conviviality without promiscuity. It was as easy to meet de Chirico, Twombly, or Schifano as it was Sandro Penna or Alberto Arbasino. I went to all the shows, as I still do. That’s how I met Nam June Paik, Jack Smith, Donald Judd, and Charlemagne Palestine.
LUCA LO PINTO — In 1975, your first time in New York, you arrived dressed as Christopher Columbus, in a performance that lasted for days, ending in the famous Columbus Circle pose.
LUIGI ONTANI — I intend to go on a journey dressed as Christopher Columbus. Sargentini offered to accompany me. When we got on the plane I was already in costume. The Alitalia staff organized a toast during the flight. As soon as we landed we went to SoHo, to Joan Jonas’s loft, and then to Gwen Thomas’s studio, which was nearby. She documented my journey through the city, including taking the Columbus Circle photo.
LUCA LO PINTO — How were you received in New York? I imagine there would have been affinity among artists who moved between art, music, and dance, like Simone Forti, La Monte Young, Steve Paxton…
LUIGI ONTANI — I’d already met many of them. Soon after my arrival, Avalanche magazine published an image of the Christopher Columbus pose. When I went back two years later, for the Sonnabend show, Rauschenberg hosted a dinner for me in his studio. There were many active centers, like The Kitchen, where I did two tableaux vivants, or Franklin Furnace. I stayed with Simone for months.
LUCA LO PINTO — What were you looking for in New York, a city without without Rome’s history
LUIGI ONTANI — It’s an extraordinary city. At the time, the artists who lived there made it a capital of art, just like in Rome. There weren’t so many attractive cities then. It was an incredibly vivacious city, and just what I needed after an isolated education. New York had a vitality that I’ve never seen before and I’ve never seen since. It’s no longer like that. Every generation has the pleasure of discovering a metropolis. What I don’t agree with in American art is the desire for conquest and permanence with respect to other cultures. New York is more open, but it’s indifferent to conserving what comes from far away. With a certain vampirism, it grabs whatever passes by in order to appropriate it, conserving only its own. I had three friends at the time. Edit DeAk, Diego Cortez, and René Ricard. I was very eager, so I accepted invitations even to the outskirts. What surprised me about New York’s postwar kind of existence is that it struck us as a particularly advanced society, but actually it wasn’t. On a daily level it was a city at war, surviving on a notion of modernity that wasn’t democratic.
LUCA LO PINTO — There’s an obvious leap between the pieces you made in the 1960s and your later work. From direct, manual intervention, you moved toward delegating the execution to other people…
LUIGI ONTANI — There was a logical progression. I began with self-portraits and ended up in cinematography. I was a simulacrum. So it was a journey into art, into mythology, into the allegory of folklore, but also a journey of identity. I contemplated making a cast of my face, like a death mask. The specularity of the photographic image allowed me to project a sculptural mask modeled on my physiognomy, and in doing so to avoid sculpture. That’s why I talk about hybridization, idols and hybridols. At the beginning, this reflection on the theme of specularity wasn’t didactic or anecdotic; it was a stimulus to travel. Starting from an interest in masks on a local level, I embarked on a geographical journey, mapping the mask-makers of the world, in Mexico, Japan, Egypt, and, finally, Bali, where I’ve continued to make them because the style there corresponds to me better than the others. My entire trajectory is intentionally empirical and true to the perspectives that motivated me. Initially, I was influenced by Picasso and Severini. I made my first masked poses while I was still in Bologna. One of them, which no longer exists, was called Priapesco. I’m lying naked on a chaise longue, my face covered by a mask with a very long nose that’s stylized and geometric in its phallic force. I’ve also got an erection.
LUCA LO PINTO — But you rarely exhibit the masks as self-contained works.
LUIGI ONTANI — Actually, in the ’80s I exhibited them in a show and made the book Facciapule. For years now, I’ve been mixing works from different periods because they contribute to my illusion of the present. Sometimes they’re not conditioned by aims so much as coincident with them. As far as I’m concerned, there is no invasive drive to the masks, since they represent performance rituals. I’ve expressed that with the so-called “ANAMORpose” — the lenticular prints. It also surprises me that few people are aware that I paint. Recently, someone hesitantly asked me if I’d painted the large watercolor hanging on my studio wall. I don’t always delegate the work of the paintbrush. My directorial mode derives from my awareness of the impossibility of doing things better than an artisan and the fact that artisans are prisoners of a banal and utilitarian repetition.
LUCA LO PINTO — Your art is often interpreted as kitschy, decorative, and formalistic. In reality, there’s an elaborate thought process behind all of your work, one in which linguistic discourse bears more weight than formal discourse. Moreover, the associations contained in your works are so complex that, for those who don’t share your cultural references, can be difficult to read. In this sense, your early pieces, including the large-scale prints, appear more accessible than the ceramics, the masks, or the works in glass.
LUIGI ONTANI — It doesn’t bother me. The masks have an intentionally folkloristic aspect because I want them to reach beyond their time. I want to express concepts, which should be obvious. The masks look Balinese even though they no longer are. My translation consists in preserving a language that I don’t speak while also expressing something else. Despite the beautiful promiscuity of globalization, there’s an evident distrust of pseudotribal situations that emerge from the nonacceptance of the origins of the other. My masks inhabit that distrust. They inspire this misunderstanding. But I’m not concerned with either distancing or enticing potential observers. I’m interested in making masks that retain the material and visual elements of their tradition, even though they are entirely the fruit of my imagination.
LUCA LO PINTO — Being “hybridols” makes them difficult to understand. Perhaps they require a hybrid form of interpretation.
LUIGI ONTANI — I find that almost incomprehensible. It’s a cultural distance that generates the incomprehension. For example, the herms, busts or canopic ceramics all originated as a means to exhibit all over the world. At times, the link with the place is so obvious that the native population doesn’t accept it because it looks like a caricature. The scandal of the Grillo Mediolanum in Milan is a case in point. The Grillo Mediolanum wore an armored waistcoat with La Scala facing downwards, Manzoni’s shit, the golden egg with Fontana’s cut across it, the tail of the lamb-pig that the Mediolanum legend came from, and a panettone for a hat. It looked like a provocative caricature of the city’s archetypes, but in reality it was a form of adoration. Which is why I call them idols.
LUCA LO PINTO — Another distinguishing aspect of your work is your adherence to the places in which you exhibit. In a historical moment when the possibility of creating site-specific works is often debated, you manage to do so without being didactic or manneristic.
LUIGI ONTANI — I think it’s about the Italian context, but not only. There’s so much history and artistic memory that people generally don’t accept the fact that the artist is alive. It’s as if the living artist didn’t exist. He’s either ignored or ephemeral, like in big touring exhibitions. I began my adventure working with a precarious art form, but ultimately arrived at a tangible one that could be conserved. Respect for that isn’t there. Tradition isn’t taken into consideration. I think it’s interesting to rediscover a way of working that’s not academic, not obvious, not consumerist, and even within a great tradition. That’s how the masks led me to search for artisans.
LUCA LO PINTO — You’re preserving disappearing realities, as though you’re reactivating a nearly dead language.
LUIGI ONTANI — Yes. It was like that in Murano with the glass.
LUCA LO PINTO — Words are very important to your work. It’s not a coincidence that many artists of your generation drew on the language of poetry. Today, this centrality seems to have waned. Poetry seems to carry less weight than it once did.
LUIGI ONTANI — Maybe. I don’t think that poetry is obsolete, but clearly the scholarly aspects of an artistic education are very different from what they were in the past. Today, the best artists travel the world for their education. I continue to insist that more culture and more information is better, whether it’s produced by computers or by books. Personally, I get bored in front of the computer, because it makes me feel like I’m living an office life.
LUCA LO PINTO — You don’t have a cell phone, you don’t read e-mail, you design your own clothes, and you follow your own schedule. This refusal of the computer is part of your decision to live on your own terms.
LUIGI ONTANI — For young artists, growing up with computer-generated information is obvious. For me, it’s an office thing. Maybe it’s an allergy, a component of my senility. I’d rather experience something else.
LUCA LO PINTO — Speaking of technology, given all the art forms you’ve experimented with, you never turned to cinema.
LUIGI ONTANI — When I first came to Rome, I thought about it, as an extension of my tableaux vivants, but it didn’t happen.
LUCA LO PINTO — And today?
LUIGI ONTANI — The desire’s petered out. For personal reasons it never convinced me, even though I was tempted. You need the equipment and people with specific skills for the craft. There are many possibilities, but it takes a lot of will to lead them to your idea. Directing a film would cost me a tremendous amount of energy. Artisanal mediations are complicated enough; the cinema involves even more organizational distraction. Whenever there’s an image in motion I become distracted. Maybe because I don’t share in what is seen. It’s not a coincidence that my favorite directors, from Herzog to Tsai Ming Liang, make a kind of non-cinema: their films have performative, documentary, and objective elements. It’s not just fiction.
LUCA LO PINTO — In 1974 you wrote and published a sort of manifesto of your views on art. If you had to rewrite it today, what would you write?
LUIGI ONTANI — I wouldn’t renounce it, but the words, the illusion, the screaming, the intolerance, the manneristic lyricism, the use of the dissonant verb, are all typically post-adolescent. I’m proud of having written those things. It was more than a manifesto; it was a declaration of the aims of my being, playing with the concepts of illusion, androgyny, and mythology. If I had to write it today I’d take into consideration an outlook that allows for the possibility of being aware of art and life in their totality, while maintaining a desire for mirages that go beyond the constrictions of commonplaces or utopias. At the time, there was an illusion of progress, whereas there’s been a regression. Despite the civilizing process, everyday reality is barbaric. There’s a tribalism in the self-defense of the trite. Fortunately, I’m still following an artistic path that stands a chance of being non-conditioned.
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