Turin is the city in which Nietzsche lost his mind, succumbing to his overwhelming empathy for a flogged horse. Of the many scribbled notes the philosopher wrote in the months before he entered into a fully vegetative state, the most troubling is the one that stated that he himself was the God he had declared dead in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). But then Turin in winter lends itself both to reinvention and to a questioning of reality. Nearby, in the 12th-century Castello di Rivoli, curator Andrea Bellini presented works that examine the identity of a nation, of a city and of the self, via a series of sculptures, photographs and videos by artist Luigi Ontani, who explores and/or assumes the role of historical and archetypal figures. In so doing, he conjures up a vision of nationhood, provincialism and history that can be utilized by each person anew.
‘RivoltArteAltrove’ (RevoltArtElsewhere) is the sum achievement of a career spanning five decades, which has seen Ontani rigorously explore the notion of identity in a way that is both peculiarly narcissistic and introspective. His two-pronged approach allows for the personal to become socially applicable, whilst the grand symbols of Italian society become assimilated and made personal. For example, Ontani embraces the idea of deception by assuming the character of Pinocchio – who was used as a moral example in the early days of Italian unification – in his photograph Pinocchio (1973). Similarly, the figure of Garibaldi, the strutting leader of Italian unification – who is remembered in Italy as both Jesus-like and a consummate womanizer – is portrayed by Ontani in a feminine and mystical light, as with the 2003 self-portrait GariBalDanza (the title being a play on the General’s name and the words ballare ‘to dance’ and la danza ‘the dance’).
Works such as these hang alongside self-portraits exploring the themes of Eastern Mysticism, Egyptian symbolism and the figures of Christ, Napoleon, Medusa and Saint Sebastian, amongst others. The show is part of the series ‘Living Boxes’, in which the Castle’s long hall houses several exhibitions in succession in one half, and a series of containers to be opened during regular events in its other half. The art works within the containers – relating to the shows which will successively appear alongside them – will be discussed in a series of public talks by curators.
‘RivoltArteAltrove’, the first of these shows, provided a welcome antidote to the eight Arte Povera shows currently on display in Italy. The exhibition served as an important reminder that the predominant trend in any era fails to tell the whole story. Quite apart from the generally machismo sentiment of the Arte Povera movement, Italy has been home to more esoteric trends in the postwar period, which arguably chime more closely with the Italian Renaissance. Arte Povera, however, spoke of material poverty as an antidote to the slick consumerism of American Pop art. Ontani countered the same trend with mysticism.
A life-size porcelain statue of Nietzsche, ErmEsteticaZarathustrAsso (2006), strongly expresses what is at stake in this confrontation between materiality and spirituality. Conveying Nietzsche’s delusory illumination as an intense moment of psycho-magical awakening – grapes emerge from his nether regions, while a winged foot suggests a desire to fly too close to the sun – the sculpture has the pathos of a religious icon, albeit one stripped of God. This is art that contains the sedimentary trace of its forebears – nationhood and religion – transmogrified into a personal spiritual code. Above all, Ontani signals that art’s potential is not exhausted with the materialist and economic register we have become accustomed to associating with reality to a perverse degree.