BY Emily Verla Bovino in Profiles | 25 AUG 17

Chiara Fumai (1978-2017)

Remembering the artist whose occultist experiments transformed her body and biography into art 

BY Emily Verla Bovino in Profiles | 25 AUG 17

She emerged an anarchist after an education by Jesuits. Like her speculative fictions, Italian artist Chiara Fumai’s mythologization of her early life between Rome and Bari is full of oppositions revealed to be continuities. Thus, Fumai – the Milan then Brussels-based artist known for her occultist experiments – explained how an early fascination with Catholic ritual led her to the radical ‘spirituality’ of Aleister Crowley and Madame Blavatsky: Crowley, the painter who led the controversial Thelema cult in Sicily; Blavatzky, co-founder of Theosophy, the syncretist movement established with the late 19th century founding of the Theosophical Society in New York. Theosophy counted many artists among its followers and, imagining herself in their tradition, Fumai used theosophist magic to upset the antiseptic aesthetics of contemporary institutional critique. Indeed, it was the theosophical journal Lucifer, named after the Bible’s rebellious angel, that initiated her into the nexus of individualist anarchism, socialism, occultism and feminism she brought to dOCUMENTA (13) in 2013.

Chiara Fumai, The Book of Evil Spirits, 2015, video still. Courtesy: Waterside Contemporary, London

Fumai’s liberation required self-objectification: spirits of the repressed, from feminist Carla Lonzi to circus act Zalumma Agra, made her their physical medium, and the artist transformed her body and biography into art objects. Her engenderings were hilarious yet melancholic manifestations of fetishized freaks and mournful hysterics. Fumai performed philosopher Max Stirner’s mantra: be ‘the man and the un-man in one.’ Stirner declared this endgame when, amidst early 20th-century debates among communists, anarchists, and socialists, he argued for triumph over a world ‘haunted’ by ‘spooks.’ The ultimate ‘spook’ was the concept of the ‘human.’ In what Fumai called her ‘un-work,’ she declared her own post-humanist stance ‘against ideology.’ With Stirner’s Ego and Its Own (1844) on her desk, Fumai devised ways to invite hauntings. Her aim was not to exorcise the in-human but to nurture it, and in the encounter, transform herself and those watching the battle. 

Chiara Fumai, ‘Less Light, My Dear’, 2016, installation view, MACRO Testaccio, Rome. Courtesy: Guido Costa, Turin

Her practice as she described it was ‘hybrid […] between medium and disc jockey,’ an iteration of her ‘favorite childhood pastimes playing with a Ouija board and drawing cartoons.’ The parlour game’s characteristic graphic of letters and numbers made its appearance as a wall-painting in various iterations of Fumai’s The Book of Evil Spirits (2015), produced for the moving image biennal, Contour 7, Mechelen, and most recently presented at Horse and Pony gallery in Berlin. The campy video-performance is a gathering of all the radical ‘inhumans’ that have occupied Fumai in the past decade, from Red Army Faction militant Ulrike Meinhof to Dope Head, the female subject of the Greek song Eimai Prezakias (I’m a Junkie, c.1930), once banned for celebrating drug use.

Fumai’s wall-paintings exemplify the expansion of her work in recent years from live and mediated-performance to live-performance and object-based performance-installation. This expansion led to the project Der Hexenhammer (2015) which Fumai characterized as an ‘infestation’ of another artist’s exhibition. Part of her intervention in Rosella Biscotti’s 2015 Mueseion, Bolzano, exhibition ‘The Future Can Only Be For Ghosts’ involved Fumai-as-Ulrike-Meinhof conducting guiding tours of molds that Biscotti cast from the colossal head of a fascist-era bronze Mussolini.

Chiara Fumai, Shut Up, Actually Talk, 2012-13, video installation, installation view, dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel. Courtesy: Guido Costa, Turin

These ‘expansions’ all play with the auratic affect of the artist’s absence and presence. In her performance at MAXXI, Rome, The Show Which is Also Falsely Called Breaks (2014), Fumai was accompanied by ‘the Killers,’ four masked women invited to crowd control during her performance-lectures. The vitrines in Free Like the Speech of a Socialist (2011-13) and The Book of Evil Spirits are reified metaphors of the artist’s body: automatic writings and embroidery are surrounded by wigs, costumes and props, necessary gear for the physical medium who welcomes demons. In One Strangling Golden Hair (Tribute to Vera Morra) (2013), Fumai created a full body cast by covering her body with glue, then peeling it off in sections. For her solo exhibition at A Palazzo Gallery, Brescia, With Love From $inister (2013), the translucent skin was displayed under a gilded ceiling over the cut-up remains of a Valentino dress Fumai wore in the video-performance Chiara Fumai Reads Valerie Solanas (2012-13).

Chiara Fumai, Chiara Fumai Reads Valerie Solanas, 2013, video still. Courtesy: Waterside Contemporary, London

In the latter – her most reproduced work – Fumai reads extracts of playwright Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1968) channelling Solanas through former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Solanas, the would-be ‘sweet assassin’ of ‘plastic man’ Andy Warhol speaks through Berlusconi, the eponym of a decadent political culture that journalists call ‘plastica berlusconiana’ (berlusconian plastic). The Society for Cutting Up Men is heralded in a scenography inspired by the television speech that began Berlusconi’s political career.  

Chiara Fumai, performing as part of the ‘Mycorial Theatre’, 2015, Rabka Zdrój, Poland. Courtesy: Fiorucci Art Trust

In anticipation of the recent Great American eclipse, Fumai allegedly conjectured about the turmoil astrologers predicted. Would it be the ouster of Donald Trump? A war between the United States and North Korea? When the moon cloaked the sun, Fumai was gone. Curatorial duo Francesco Urbano Ragazzi recount that one of their last conversations with the artist was about the 15th century writer Christine de Pizan’s Città delle Dame (Book of the City of Ladies, 1405). Like de Pizan, Fumai was constructing an allegorical city in the defense of noble women, only Fumai’s city of the wretched lay no claim to virtue. In the darkness of Fumai’s passing, we are left to contemplate the repressed histories that threaten to haunt us into the future and beyond.

Main image: Chiara Fumai with Harry Houdini, Free like the Speech of a Socialist, Volcano Extravaganza, Stromboli, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Fiorucci Art Trust; photograph: Matthew Stone

Emily Verla Bovino is an artist and art historian based in Hong Kong.