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Issue 147

Body Politics

Fabio Mauri's Ideology and Nature was re-performed at Venice this year. Here, Barbara Casavecchia examines the artist's enquiry of art and ideology

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Features | 01 MAY 12

On 2 April 1971, at Rome’s Safa Palatino film studios, Fabio Mauri staged Che cos’è il fascismo (What is Fascism), the ‘complex action [...] somehow akin to a poem’ (in his words) for which the artist is best known.1 The public was seated in six black rows of seats assigned to ‘corporations: authorities, personalities, academics, magistrates, family members, countrymen, Italian and foreign press’; two smaller sections were ‘reserved for Jews’. Twelve young actors danced, fenced and read aloud from fascist books and publications of the 1930s to a blaring soundtrack of fascist songs. A large back-drop declaring ‘The End’ was the screen for projections of documentaries made by the Istituto Luce, the state film institute (that still exists) which produced propaganda films for the fascist government of the time. Che cos’è il fascismo was a fictional re-enactment of the Ludi Juveniles (Youth Games) jointly held by the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (Italian Fascist Youth) and the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) in Florence in 1939, which Mauri had witnessed as a teenager with one of his best friends, Pier Paolo Pasolini. In the cyclostyled text (a pre-photocopy technology) handed out during the evening, Mauri connected Che cos’è il fascismo with the ‘Spiritual Exercises’, a peculiar form of theatre introduced by the Jesuits in the 17th century. Based on Saint Ignatius da Loyola’s eponymous book, it heralded the idea that a physical experience of the horrors of hell (such as fire, smoke and stench) could save the soul from damnation; the implication being that a direct shock could be therapeutic. By bringing back Italy’s fascist past as if it were a readymade, and by confronting the audience with the spectacle of its horrifying mix of order and lies, Mauri was urging them to react and confront the politics of their time, as Pasolini (who attended the first performance of Che cos’è il fascismo) would do a few years later with his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). 

Intellettuale (Intellectual), performance documentation, 1975, showing Pier Paolo Pasolini's II Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 1964) projected on Pasolini. All images courtesy Studio Fabio Mauri; photograph: Antonio Masotti

Although a major retrospective of Mauri’s work, ‘Opere e Azioni 1954–94’ (Works and Actions), was held in 1994 at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome (curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Marcella Cossu), since his death in 2009 there’s been a revived interest in the artist’s life-long, obsessive inquiry into the relationship between art, ideology and totalitarianism. In Milan, Francesca Alfano Miglietti is curating an exhibition of Mauri’s work titled ‘The End’, which will open at the Palazzo Reale on 18 June; it will include a large group of early drawings and a dozen major installations, including Il Muro Occidentale o del Pianto (The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, 1993). 

Che cos’è il fascismo pulls together several aspects of Mauri’s interests, most patently in its critique of the aestheticization of politics and its representational codes. Mauri believed that the explosion of Pop art at the 1964 Venice Biennale made clear that while America mythologized consumerism, Europe did the same with its own mass product: ideologies. He explored this idea as well as the role of the artist in appropriating the rhetoric of documentary material, with Manipolazione della cultura (Manipulation of Culture, 1976, which was exhibited at maxxi, Rome, in 2010–11). It comprised a book and portfolio of 15 black and white silkscreened images taken from Nazi and fascist archives, partly erased by black rectangles, and captioned with sentences in Italian and German, such as: ‘They have an idea’; ‘They define art’; ‘They love beauty’; or ‘They film everything’. Another extraordinary work from the same period is the short video Il  televisore che piange (The Crying tv, 1972), commissioned by rai 2, the Italian state television station. Accompanied by the sound of loud weeping, the screen goes blank for 60 seconds, as if due to a technical failure.

 Che cosa è il fascismo (What is Fascism), performance documentation, 1971. Photograph: Claudio Abate

Che cos’è il fascismo also expressed Mauri’s need to employ autobiography in relation to the collective dimension. ‘It’s easy to see how such prehistory is the basic fabric of the entire work of the artist,’ he wrote in ‘Prehistory Like History’ (1994)2, a text in which he traces a profile of his extraordinary family and childhood. He was born in Rome in 1926 to Maria Luisa Bompiani and Umberto Mauri, who were both members of Italy’s publishing dynasties. Mauri grew up among writers and painters including Luigi Pirandello, Filippo De Pisis and Alberto Savinio; he befriended several authors of the future literary avant-garde of the 1960s, and turned into a polymath: artist, playwright, writer, publisher, painter and professor at the Academy of Art in L’Aquila. In the same essay, Mauri also candidly discussed the breakdown he first experienced in 1945 (‘when I found myself facing the historical totality of intellectual operations based on an elaborate system of fakes’),3 and how he spent time in mental institutions and experienced electrotherapy – a ‘scientific’ version of the healing of souls by means of physical pain. 

Ebrea (Jew), performance documentation, 1971. Photograph: Claudio Abate

Most of Mauri’s installations, actions, performances and conferences of the 1970s and ’80s involved the live presence of bodies, both clothed and naked; the physical medium was his favourite instrument to represent revolt and revulsion. After the military coup in Greece that established the so-called ‘Regime of the Colonels’ (which lasted from 1967 – 74), Mauri produced a ‘political multiple’ titled ‘Vomitare sulla Grecia’ (Puking on Greece, 1972): it comprised 500 paper bags, identical to aeroplane sick bags, filled with reproductions of vomit. In the provocative performance Ebrea (Jew, 1971), a naked young woman cut her hair and glued it to a mirror in the shape of a Star of David. She was surrounded by objects with sickening titles that described their derivation from bodies of Jewish individuals or families (for example, one translates as ‘ski skins made from Oswald and Mirta Rohn, captured in Davos’). Ultimately, however, Mauri’s relationship to the body was allegorical. In a remarkable essay on the artist, the art critic and Mauri’s friend, Lea Vergine, wrote: ‘“The painter takes his body with him,” says Paul Valéry. By giving his body to painting, Fabio Mauri turns painting into the world. It is not a body of the here and now (hic et nunc), but the body of images in the world.’4

Mauri’s fascination with moving images played a key role in his thinking: after relinquishing his first experiments as gestural painter and draughtsman, in the late 1950s he began a series of white, monochrome paintings titled ‘Schermi’ (Screens). Projections became one of Mauri’s main devices to highlight the relevance of the past to the present, and to elicit reactions from the public. ‘For Mauri, art […] plays the role of a cognitive catharsis, and gives a sense of ethical responsibility to individual acts,’ wrote Christov-Bakargiev.5 His installations and performances, ‘Proiezioni’ (Projections) took place from 1975 to 1980 in various cities across Italy and Canada. For the series, Mauri projected the work of avant-garde directors – including Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Elia Kazan, Fritz Lang and Leon Pabst – directly onto objects and bodies, as if to fuse fiction and corporeal reality. One memorable episode of the cycle was Intellettuale (Intellectual), organized at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Bologna in 1975, when Mauri asked Pasolini to wear a white shirt, sit on a raised chair and become the transfixed live screen for his own movie Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 1964), which was projected onto his chest. When Pasolini was murdered in Rome only five months later, Intellettuale became a symbol of his tragic absence: ‘The author disappeared, the art work is equally eloquent’, wrote Mauri; he continued to show Intellettuale with the film projected onto the late director’s shirt. 

Che cosa è la filosofia. Heidegger e la questione tedesca. Concerto da tavolo (What is Philosophy. Heidegger and the German Question. A Table Concert), 1989

With their ‘ethical’ stance, Mauri’s performances follow the tradition of didactic theatre, ranging from mediaeval morality plays, to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. ‘In our present state of degeneration,’ proclaimed the French playwright in The Theatre and its Double (1938), ‘it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.’ It was by putting Western metaphysics and culture centre-stage, by making them physical, that Mauri questioned their incapacity to oppose the material world of politics. On the occasion of the performance Che cos’è la filosofia. Heidegger e la questione tedesca. Concerto da tavolo (What is Philosophy. Heidegger and the German Question. A Table Concert, 1989), Mauri asked the Italian philosopher Giacomo Marramao to interpret Martin Heidegger – a symbol of European high culture who was also sympathetic to Nazism – and lend him his voice (in Italian, while the other actors spoke German), as well as to enunciate Mauri’s concerns about the ‘European problem’ during the year of the fall of the Berlin wall, and the supposed ‘death of ideologies’. ‘I know that unresolved problems have the invisible prerogative of remaining intact,’ Mauri wrote for the occasion. One of the strengths of his works is their coming alive when projected on the screens of different historical backgrounds. Che cos’è la filosofia suggested multiple readings, when experienced in the 1970s, during the Italian right-wing's so-called ‘strategy of tension’ – its attempt to control the public opinion through terrorism and fear – or in 1993, on the verge of the rise of a new wave of populism, videocracy and the return of the right in Italian politics. Nowadays, when the ideology of the free-market seems to overrule all others, Mauri’s work still asks good questions. A personal favourite, from the conference ‘Art and Ideology. 21 Years Later’ (1989), is: ‘What has the ideology I talk about become, in Europe, in the average intellectual conscience?’ Or again: ‘Should art […] occupy itself with the world, not in terms of its phenomenological dramaturgy, but out of necessity of a civil role? I cannot answer with precision: my education, or mis-education, shares that of the art world I grew up in.’

1 Che cos’è il fascismo, was performed at the 1974 Theatre Biennale of Venice; in 1979 at Performing Garage in New York; and, with the help of 44 students from New York University, at Centro Pecci in Prato, Italy, in 1993. Ironically, Safa Palatino studios are now one of the main tv production centres of Mediaset, Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire.
2 Scritti in mostra. L’avanguardia come zona 1958–2008 (Exhibited Writings. The Avant-Garde as Place, 1958 – 2008), edited by Francesca Alfano Miglietti, Il Saggiatore, Milan, pp. 95 – 100
3 Fabio Mauri: Opere e azioni 1954 – 94 (Fabio Mauri: Works and Actions 1954–94), curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Marcella Cossu, Editoriale Giorgio Mondadori, Milan, 1994, p. 216
4 ‘Il Corpo delle immagini nel mondo’ (The Body of Images in the World), Op cit., Fabio Mauri: Opere e azioni 1954 – 94, p. 15
5 ‘Nello Schermo’ (In the Screen), Op cit., Fabio Mauri: Opere e azioni 1954 – 94, p. 24

Fabio Mauri was born in Rome, Italy, in 1926 and died in 2009. An artist, writer, playwright, critic, publisher and professor at the Art Academy of L’Aquila, he participated in the Venice Biennale in 1954, 1974, 1978, 1993 and 2003. Major exhibitions include: ‘Opere e Azioni 1954 – 94’ (Works and Actions 1954 – 94), Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, 1994; Kunsthalle Ritter, Klagenfurt, Germany, 1997; Le Fresnoy, Lille, France, 2003; and Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 2008. ‘spazio/Omaggio a Fabio Mauri’ (space/Homage to Fabio Mauri) was held at maxxi, Rome, in 2010 – 11. ‘Fabio Mauri: The End’, will run at Palazzo Reale, Milan, Italy, from 18 June – 23 October 2012.

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.