Chiara Fumai (1978-2017)

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

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.jpg

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

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. 

08-installation-view-at-macro-testaccio.jpg

Chiara Fumai, The Book of Evil Spirits, 2016, installation view, MACRO Testaccio, Rome, 2016. Courtesy: Guido Costa, Turin

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.

04-chiara-fumai-shut-up-actually-talk.jpg

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

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-reads-valerie-solanas.jpg

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

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.  

mycorial_nicolo1.jpg

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

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 Southern California.

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018