New York

Luigi Ontani and Joan Jonas

Both Luigi Ontani and Joan Jonas rummage in folklore, fairy tales, and finally world culture as if shopping in a flea market of the collective unconscious, looking for items to combine with autobiography to create contemporary mythical personae. Both use mixed media, costumes and masks, and environmental constructions to present this old wine in new skins, imagistic formal containers which are intended to re-ferment their elemental psychological contents. And both recently presented performances that showed some of the problems this promising idea seems to be stumbling over.

Ontani’s neo-myths appear in tableau vivant form. In this gallery space he filled a room with artwork: a wall display of Balinese masks; tondo paintings which look like personalized serving trays, each featuring an Ontani figure as a central motif; and a large quasi replica of the classical statue, The Discus Thrower, altered into a virtual mini-anthology of myth by the addition of a unicorn horn, an extra Shiva-like arm, a bullish tail, and a Cyclopean eye. For the live tableau Ontani perched on a window ledge in this room, adopting a slumped standing pose; he wore a clown-type costume and held a Balinese mask over his face. By simply posing in such a suggestive context Ontani threw out lots of intimations: was this unidentified Pierrot-like figure waiting? Brooding? Scheming? But any interaction that would explicitly animate these ideas was withheld. Ontani’s deconstructed anthropology holds that contemporary mythologizing works purely through the manipulation of images and symbols; the primitive belief that once informed myth is vitiated in post-Modern culture. Thus, his post-Modern “myths” exhibit their artifacts and trappings without any belief system to motivate them, so no action. A nearby video monitor playing a tape-loop of a toylion accompanied by an incongruously “real” lionish roaring was a perfect metaphor for Ontani’s whimsical/conceptual idea of myth as static object.

That notion is a precious one, and unfortunately, the atmospherics required to give it some performance pizzazz were in short supply here. Ontani arranged a cramped audience as if for an active theatrical show, but his decorative cultural quoting asks for sidelong glances, not sustained stares. Lacking the elemental emotional force of, say, the tableaux vivants of Biblical scenes performed by fervent believers in the South, or any action to develop his intellectual theorem, Ontani’s suggestive divertissements are like icing for an unmade cake, and are best tasted in brief doses.

Jonas’ m.o. is to set up an image collage, a mixed-media assemblage of associative bits whose form duplicates its content: her multi-part, scattershot, personal/universal myths. At the Whitney she deployed the full vocabulary of her decade-long explorations, including live and prerecorded dialogue and video, film, dancelike and mimelike live action, and toylike props and decor. These essentially nonlinear tools were applied to fracture two simple narratives, from newspaper accounts of grotesque incidents: one about a berserk American soldier who ran amok with a stolen tank, the other an account of spontaneous human combustion, a woman who inexplicably burst into flames while seated in her car.

As usual Jonas the performer appeared as an unnamed, omniscient character/author in her symbolic picture show; dressed in a sort of New Wave, sci-fi playsuit, she set in motion . . . Burning’s allusive events. A cardboard toy car and tank rolled back and forth, propelled by Jonas and an assistant; Jonas “danced” with two golf clubs, then with some flaglike banners; there were fake flames, a linguistic examination of the word “berserk,” oriental fans and masks, the execution of a painting on cellophane, a pseudo-Rorshach test, and spinning globes. Intercut throughout these symbolizing activities was video footage of an actor and actress reciting the two tales in a flat, documentary style.

Trouble was, none of the imagistic mythologizing illuminated or filled out the stark, mysterious stories Jonas took for raw material in any major way. The fragmented, “neutral” rendering of bizarre acts, a tedious nouveau roman tactic, offered only small conceptual pleasures; the mind remained stumped at the surface of the inexplicable (madness, gruesome death), the muteness of language to explain. And Jonas’ usual sense of wacky, childlike play didn’t have much room to act out in the performance’s cramped space. Her performances are usually spatially inventive, so it was surprising to see . . . Burning pushed up against the wall like a garage theatrical; with an audience seated in her lap, her homemade theater of the off-the-wall was more awkwardly demonstrated than intriguingly played out. With no gripping idea beyond its conceptual premises, and with no real theatrical juice, . . . Burning’s “new visual narrative” couldn’t hold a candle to the mind-tickling melodramatics of television’s In Search Of . . . .

John Howell