Giuseppe Desiato (Naples, 1935) is an artist whose practice has always been notable for a transgressive performative activity, closely bound up with social issues related to the Neapolitan anthropological territory. In 1960, when he taught at the Art Institute in L’Aquila, he produced the series of Carte Stracce (“Torn Papers”) and Monumenti Effimeri (“Ephemeral Monuments”), improvised assemblages of everyday objects (cardboard, tin or plastic containers, pieces of broken dolls or mannequins, flowers and fake fruit of the kind found on market stalls or votive shrines, flashing Christmas lights, clippings of photographs from fashion magazines, veils and flowers). Moving in 1963 to the School of Art in Sorrento, he started cellophaning the inhabitants, mostly fishermen, in the small village of Marina Grande. At the same time he began to investigate writing, placing it on living bodies or inanimate images. During the same years, together with a variety of actions (in streets, studios and galleries), he continued to produce drawings and sketches, becoming his predominant activity after 1978, with the “reappropriation of painting after Body Art”. Then followed numerous performances, until the 1990s when they gradually began to be phased out of his work.
A forerunner in Italy of research related to the body and action, Desiato infuses his actions with a demystificatory tension, visible in a dramatization of the image that is akin, by its vividness of expression, to the poetry of the tutelary deity of the Orgien-Mysterien-Theater (“The Theater of Orgies and Mysteries”) Hermann Nitsch, with whom he made contact early in Naples, in 1974, involving the Austrian artist in a series of shots (Film statico, Senza titolo: “Static Film,” “Untitled”). In 1975, in Basel, Desiato performed an action with Charlotte Moorman (Senza titolo: “Untitled”), stripping her and covering her with veils, lights and flowers. Most of Desiato’s earlier works have been destroyed or used as primary material for the construction of new works. Hence the importance of the photographic documentation of performances and happenings that the artist has photographed over the years, bringing out their documentary, dreamlike, ironic, obscene or desecrating significance. Despite his rejection of the art system and its dynamics, since the 1970s he has worked with various dealers who are close to body art and performative art: Studio Morra in Naples, Rossana Chiessi and Archivio Francesco Conz.
More recently, on the occasion of Manifesta 7 (Trento, 2008), he had the first major retrospective dedicated to his work. The photographic works presented in the collection, from the series of Monumenti Effimeri, reveals the choice of the iconographic motifs favored by Desiato, taken from the world of common life and equally from erotic, religious, political and artistic imagery. A universe populated by an array of fetishes, altars and devotional images, in which the myth of youth seems to seek to erect its cult: the whole religious dimension and rituals connected with women’s bodies, invoked by the artist-priest and turned into para-cultic images suspended in the obscenity of vivid celebration. Works constructed in uninhibited compositions and without any apparent rational control, in which the body of the female model is retrieved from academic painting and exalted in its erotic and iconic sacredness, or as the banal object transfigured by the artist’s imaginative intervention.