PRINT December 1986


IN THE WEST TODAY, one of the few kinds of faith in immortality that remains vital is faith in art. Despite the view of certain artists and art movements as phantoms of significance, as the emperor’s new clothes, art is generally viewed as something of great cultural value that will still be here when things contemporaneous with it are gone. This is not to disparage other sorts of artifacts, but rather to speak of art as a deliberate choice of a vision whose life is lived not only through whatever renown it achieves or does not achieve when new, but long after its creator and its original context have vanished. Artists who produce the unprecedented, who bring it into being for the future, resist classification—what one says about their work can be “accurate” in the context of the present, but can become more and more “inaccurate” with the passage of the years. To understand such art fully it would be necessary to live through the cultures of millennia. Failing that, we can start by recognizing that the art’s undertakings bear witness to fragments of truths that change in both geography and time, incarnating vast extremes without actually bringing them within reach.

In the contemporary moment of crisis, in which we live with the prospect of decline or worse, the issue of death is ubiquitous—in art, in politics, in medicine, in science, in philosophy One reason for its strong presence in the world of art is the anguish developing among artists over no longer having a role, over being no longer themselves, but lost. Since 1966, Gino De Dominicis has investigated art as a witness to death and immortality, and death and immortality as a witness to art. He began by posing the problem of verifying the very existence of things:

I don’t think things exist. A glass, a man, a hen, for example, are not really a glass, a man, a hen, but only verifications of the possibility of existence of a glass. a man, a hen. To truly exist, things would have to exist eternally, immortally. Only then would they be not only verifications of certain possibilities, but truly things.1

And a work of his from 1970 is a wristwatch in which the face and hands are replaced by a mirror, so that the wearer who consults it sees his or her own face where usually the passage of time is recorded. Here, one can literally see oneself aging.

Beauty is the shadow of death, not in a romantic sense—both death and beauty are too cruel for that—but in a literal sense. Watching beauty disappear is watching it die. Beauty in all the ancient and modern arts is a fleeting image. If “the ‘history of beauty’ might be called the ’history of the judgments of those nearby and living on those distant and dead,’”2 then the dead, to the extent that they have partaken of beauty, live on in the minds and eyes of those alive. De Dominicis, like the film director Ingmar Bergman, attempts continually to “touch” death and beauty, to understand these dynamics of existence in the moment they are realized, to step outside a view of time tied to our sense of the human body (just as our view of pictures may be subliminally tied to our sense of human scale) and into a different dimension, to fly with time instead of to be run by it. “Stopping in time, at a chosen age, and interrupting the aging process would break the enchantment of the mysterious dimension that rules the universe, and this would be the first true step toward the possibility of a greater comprehension of life.”3 All De Dominicis’ work has tried, in one way or another, to visualize this impossible stopping of time, or flying with time, both of them paradoxical events, usually confined within the realm of the aphysical and immaterial.

The “figures” of immortality and death emerge clearly in De Dominicis’ recurring references to the story of Gilgamesh, the mythical ancient Mesopotamian king who tried to disentangle death from life by seeking the herb of eternal life. This Sumerian of the city of Uruk, two thirds divine and one third human, was born predestined to confront the immortal Utnapishtim, a progenitor of humanity (Utnapishtim and his wife alone survived the flood, in the Babylonian version of that myth.) Gilgamesh’s epic story was probably written in the third millennium B.C., and despite his failure to find the herb, to De Dominicis he is a symbolic figure, representing the being who crosses the bridge between two journeys—the journey of life and the journey of death. In addition, Gilgamesh epitomizes the seeker for the impossible goal—a metaphysical act.

Thus in Urvasi e Ghilgamesh, 1969, originally a photographic work but recreated since in a variety of forms, the artist places two profiles in silhouette facing each other, one connoting Gilgamesh, one Urvasi, a goddess of beauty from the Hindu Vedas. Why Urvasi, a Hindu goddess? Like Beatrice and Laura for Dante and Petrarch, like Eurydice and Juliet for Orpheus and Romeo—in each case, the female figure precedes the male into the other world, accompanying him in the celestial journey—she is in touch with death. By setting the two shadow figures in the form of a “figure and ground illusion,” De Dominicis establishes an osmosis between two different energies, representing two different times, genders, symbols, cultures, and histories. In the space between the two profiles, the space whose shape their outlines define, is a landscape image of the type that 19th-century travelers brought back from Egypt. It includes a pyramid—a concrete example of the constructions humans make around the idea of death, and the waiting room for a future life—and a flying disk. Between the two figures from myth, then, lie more myths, one historic, one futuristic, making possible an infinite suspension.

For his one-man show at the Galleria l’Attico, Rome, in November of 1969, De Dominicis had posters printed in the form of an obituary notice announcing his death. And on the back of a photograph of himself from this period he wrote, “Gino De Dominicis was born in 1947 but no longer truly exists, being only an instrument of nature, which verifies certain appropriate possibilities through him” By “dying,” De Dominicis set in motion a process of release from the concepts of fate and destiny—from their hideous shaping—and also revealed the anguish we feel about the inevitability of death. He began to develop an illuminated thought. To him, the artist, like Gilgamesh, stands opposed to predetermination in life and thus is privileged with the possibility of immortality. This is the symbolic meaning of what the artist represents to De Dominicis; the reality with which he identifies is the dandy, who also opposes the indiscriminate egalitarianism of death, which comes to all, by his estheticizing of his own self in life. (Unlike death, immortality is not democratic—Christian culture’s idea of afterlife to the contrary—but rather is the privilege of a caste, one member of which is the artist.) The artist can stage the impossible, and thus, in 1969, both ironically and seriously De Dominicis began an attempt to fly jumping off a low rock and waving his arms as if they were wings; the idea of the piece was to make this attempt every day and later to teach the movement to his children, who would then teach their children, until one of his descendants would actually be able to take off. In another work from the same year, and videotaped along with the flight piece, he threw a stone into a lake, trying to make square instead of circular ripples; and in yet another he built an “invisible” cube, pyramid, and cylinder, simply by marking their outlines on the floor.

Having died, De Dominicis was able to be reborn, and to declare his reappearance as an artist. A materialist might find all this rather delusional, or might assume that De Dominicis belonged in a spiritual, idealistic fold. In fact, his choices were both practical and enlightened, and had a vital relationship to contemporary art. The years 1966 to 1969, the period preceding De Dominicis’ “death” and “birth,” had seen spun what might almost be called a “conceptual” vertigo in art, a journey that at times seemed bound for a black hole, for art’s self-extinction. In keeping with the group therapy to which society was submitting itself at the time, and following Ludwig Wittgenstein, artists of the “neo-Renaissance” forced themselves to justify every aspect of their role and of their work. What mattered in the art of these years was discussion and the enunciation of meanings. This X-ray force, which gained its energy from compulsive self-searching, had taken art to science, philosophy, and contributions to the politics of communication, to a country without images, a country whose existence was entrusted to words and possessed by the ectasy of ideas. This was the result of passion but it also created an imbalance, a form of hara-kiri that ripped into the body of art as a visual practice in order to express breath and its voice—the word.

De Dominicis shared this same exorcism, living out the anguish of the reduction of the image in art—living out its possible death. He reacted by seeking not a return to the ways things were before, but a rebirth through a reduction of the word to image, instead of the other way round. Drawing a visual logic from words, he proposed them in nonverbal terms, as vision; to him, written and spoken terms were not to be thought of as independent of sight. In April 1970, again at the Galleria l’Attico, he exhibited the zodiac, making the astrological signs material: the sign of Virgo was documented by a young girl, Leo by a real lion in a cage, Taurus by a live bull, Pisces by two dead fish lying on the floor, and so on. This crystallization of astrological signs into concrete images created a metaphysical suspension, a realization that a terrestrial constellation could embody magical forces. In November of that year, in the same space, he showed the term “mozzarella in carrozza” (the name of an Italian cheese dish) by setting a mozzarella cheese in the back seat of an old-fashioned carrozza or carriage. In 1971, he installed speakers in the empty space of the Attico gallery and broadcast a high-volume laugh; the invitation read “D’io,” a play on the Italian words for “God” and “of I.” Through operations such as these, he gave embodiment to concepts and made physical the metaphysical, siting it in time and place. In these works, words escape their usual meanings, and art reveals the marvelous in them. If thought thinks images, images can also see thought. De Dominicis thus passed the word to the senses.

If words have a place in De Dominicis’ work as an event of the imagination, so the spheres of entities thought to be unthinkable are real to him, and capable of being made perceptible and visible through a symbolic art. Fundamentally, the issue is that of making visible the inaccessible, giving it a point of reference. In 1972, at the Venice Biennale, having the preceding winter sent out a Christmas card announcing “Gino De Dominicis wishes everyone immortality of the body: the artist presented La seconda possibilità di immortalità (l’universo è immobile) (The second possibility of immortality [the universe is immobile]), in which a Down’s syndrome youth sat on a chair in a corner facing one of De Dominicis’ invisible cubes, a ball placed on the floor and labeled “rubber ball (fallen from a height of two meters) in the moment immediately preceding its rebound,” and a rock labeled “expectation of a casual, general molecular movement in a single direction so as to generate a spontaneous movement of the rock” In the same room sat twins, one behind a table in the symbolic role of the lecturer, the other—sitting among the chairs that were also included in the piece—representing the public. The twins connoted the sinister part of life. In some ancient cultures twins were killed because their doubling was thought to represent something “unnatural,” bad luck. They were sometimes associated with the devil, the dark, the unknown, the unthinkable that must be eliminated. Twins today are still mysterious in some ways, but they are no longer eliminated from culture. The Down’s syndrome man, however, has much less social place. He represents the unthinkable, not only in ancient cultures, but also in ours. To De Dominicis, he exemplifies a distant realm of the mind, a bridge between the thinkable and the unthinkable. If we accept De Dominicis’ view of art as the site of the unthinkable, the inexpressible, and also as the site upon which one can move these elements toward the thinkable and expressible, then the Down’s syndrome youth, whose presence upset much of the press—its defenses against such images led it to gauge the situation inaccurately as a manipulation—represented the autonomy of a different energy between life and death. To De Dominicis, the presentation in Venice concealed a revolution: by showing people and things on an unpredictable, uncontrollable course, he symbolized a way of thinking for which the culture has little framework, and showed it as a powerful potential force of internal energy “If all men,” he wrote, “could imagine and desire their own salvation . . . the second law of thermodynamics would no longer be valid, for it would be contradicted by the behavior of an organism that could project without distraction (entropy) its eternal condition of ’isolated system.”4

De Dominicis, in his work from 1972 through 1979, referred constantly to the territory of the “unthought of” In 1973, at the Lucio Amelio gallery, Naples, he showed a sculpture of a laughing madonna, on a six-foot high wooden base. She smiles, in De Dominicis’ thinking, because, through her Assumption into heaven, she has been able to die without loss of her body. In 1975, for a show at the De Domizio gallery in Pescara, the artist sent out announcements that “reserved entry to animals”; animals again, of course, are symbols of the mystery of thinking, of a framework of thought for which we don’t have much of a key. In 1977, at the lncontri Internazionali d’Arte, in Rome, De Dominicis worked the symbolic miracle of making a person vanish. For a show beginning on January 14, 1977, at the Pio Monti gallery, Rome, he exhibited a large boulder inside an “invisible pyramid” marked on the floor, and with a vertically suspended lance, a red ball, and a pair of delicate blue glass vases resting on or near it; for a show on January 14, 1978, in the same space, he exhibited exactly the same piece, which was not only an amalgamation of a number of his earlier works, thus keeping them alive, but specifically symbolized, because of its repetition in space and in time, the defeat of art’s death. Doing the piece twice prevented it from aging and proved its ubiquity. In 1979, at the Mario Pieroni gallery in Rome, he presented invisible statues—for example, by hanging a straw hat at about body height above a pair of slippers on a pedestal, and leaving empty the space between. The disappearance of the body is testimony to De Dominicis’ interest in being “outside” the world—without gravity, a phantom, a shadow, in an interplay between the real and the unreal.

In a large untitled painting by De Dominicis from 1980, in tempera and plaster on board, two mysterious figures, again black silhouettes, watch Earth from somewhere in space. The vision of these beings (artists?) outside the world, exiled within the boundaries of the empyrean, flows from a sphere that has nothing above it to contain it. Their privileged placement, with all ties dissolved, is rooted in displacement. In 1982, in a show at the Sprovieri gallery, Rome, De Dominicis set a metal outline of the profiles of Urvasi and Gilgamesh in an open window looking out onto the Piazza del Popolo. Inside the room, a constructed wall held a simple lens; looking through into a dimly lit space, the viewer could make out a painting of a large female head, an image based on a Sumerian sculpture from Uruk, and dating from the fourth millennium BC The eye sockets of the sculpture are hollow; De Dominicis gave the head contemporary life by adding bright eyes. One had the impression in this installation of having stumbled onto a sacred site, almost a crypt, the reliquary of an ancient culture. The way one saw the piece, through the hole in the wall, was not voyeuristic (despite the connection to Marcel Duchamp’s libidinous Etant Donnés . . . , 1946–66); rather, it reflected the mystery of an ancient icon brought to light out of the dark obscurity of history. This rediscovery of an “elsewhere” addressed the fracture, caused millennia ago, between a culture of the marvelous and the Judeo-Christian civilization that conquered it.

With this exhibition, De Dominicis made it clear that he had chosen his symbolic roots in the same way as he chose his subjects, the basic truths of death and life. Sumer was among the first complex civilizations, a basis for civilizations to follow Its protagonists were warriors, and a 1983 painting by De Dominicis shows a one-eyed warrior whose red lance, glowing golden at the top, spreads a golden aura around his head, at the same time that it pierces a block of material of the same black that forms his own body. This cyclopean figure is surely to be identified with De Dominicis—his face recalls the artist’s profile. The reinforcement or affirmation here of the artist’s role as a warrior is developed farther in the large paintings that De Dominicis has been working on since 1983, and which he exhibited at the Mazzoli gallery Modena, earlier this year. Mainly stylized, long-nosed faces, again recalling the artist’s own, they are very dark, often painted in blacks; like shrouds, these paintings are metaphors for an evolution from one state to another. The figures’ long noses act to establish their roles as witnesses to invisible, immaterial forces. A sensorial organ like the eye, the nose here is hypersensitive, suggesting a kind of clairvoyancy of the senses.

At times, De Dominicis’ figures hold and observe signlike forms, in particular one made up of symbols such as the Christian cross, the Greek cross, the swastika, and the Saint Andrew’s cross, among others. This pattern of interweaving signs stands for a cosmos in which many cultures and perspectives, mystical and pagan, spiritual and solar, converge. The complex configuration, which De Dominicis designed in 1970, reappears in yellow—watched by the usual black witness, outlined in white and holding a single white cross—in a large canvas that formed part of a work shown at the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, this fall, in an exhibition curated by Lia Rumma. On a wide band of blue that crossed the floor diagonally lay a rock, painted red, and the white-painted skeleton of a man on roller skates, holding a leash, which led to the white-painted skeleton of a dog. (These two skeletons, in their unpainted state, were the parts of an installation by the artist in 1969.) Two tall lances, colored black and yellow, stood vertically on their points within the blue stripe, while a third, in white, stood on the red rock. As in all De Dominicis’ previous installations with lances, they stood “magically” erect, with no visible support. Behind and convergent with this arrangement was the canvas, also apparently freestanding, also on a diagonal, and also a broad expanse of blue with motifs in black, white, and yellow.

Death here was not static but dynamic; the skeleton figure was on the run—on skates. Yet his or her connection to the dog, its leash painted in black, served to underline the inevitability and faithfulness of death. The skeleton—diagonally across from the black-painted witness in the painting, and touching with one hand the black lance, thus possessing knowledge—was passing over the threshold between the known and the unknown, yet this character was still here, his lance held in balance. At the center of the composition was the red stone, pierced by the aerial lightness of the white lance. It was the Kaaba of creativity, the site of maximum concentration of the force and energy from which all intellectual and visual movement spring. Finally, the yellow lance, in an alchemic triad with the other lances, created a third moment in the transformation the work described, a hot, ardent moment, which cut across the blue ground like the sun. The color of light and gold is the color of transmutation. It is the force that allows communication in the cosmos of the material and immaterial.

The continuous movement in this work between horizontal and vertical, between second and nth dimension, served to show that the worlds described here—the worldly one below the empyreal one above—are in reality one world. Its two flat surfaces touched at their vertex, forming a pluridimensional triangle. In addition to invoking the power of the alchemic and cabalistic number three, the triangle particularized the manner in which De Dominicis’ work tends toward the harmony of opposites—past and future, accessible and inaccessible, surface and volume, open and secret, earthly and celestial. In a triangle, such oppositions cannot be total; the elements of this geometric figure are already set in tension, as if secretly attracted. In the Naples work, then, the real did not oppose the imaginary—each resolved the other. And this interweaving of parts suggested a further reality in which the thinkable and the unthinkable, life and death, dance together, as they really do.

Germano Celant is a contributing editor of Artforum. Most recently, he curated “II Corso del Coltelle,” an exhibition of work by Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen, and Frank O. Gehry, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, from December 16 to February 16, and at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, from December 13 to January 24.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Gino De Dominicis, statement written in Ancona in 1966, and published in the catalogue fora show of the artist’s work at the Galleria l’Attico, Rome, November 1969.

2. From a statement for a show at the Skema gallery, Florence, November 1972.

3 Galleria I’Attico catalogue statement.

4. De Dominicis, statement, Incontri Internazionali d’Arte, Rome 1972.