New York

Chiara Fumai, The S.C.U.M. Elite, 2014/2019. Performance view, The International Studio & Curatorial Program, New York, February 12, 2019. Simone Couto. Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon.

Chiara Fumai, The S.C.U.M. Elite, 2014/2019. Performance view, The International Studio & Curatorial Program, New York, February 12, 2019. Simone Couto. Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon.

Chiara Fumai

“A ‘male artist’ is a contradiction in terms,” wrote the radical feminist Valerie Solanas in the infamous SCUM Manifesto (1967). The quote appeared in black lettering on a white wall in a 2013 series of photographs by the late artist Chiara Fumai (1978–2017). In her self-portraits posing as various historical figures, Fumai impersonated the Venetian noblewoman Elisabetta Querini; Annie Jones, a bearded lady in P. T. Barnum’s freak show; the stunt magician Harry Houdini; and others. Fumai possessed the intensity and shape shifting abilities of the most charismatic performers. Her feminist art practice, which she started around the time she turned thirty—before then she was a DJ—revivified the stories of obscure female figures and virtually moribund discourses, with a special attention to alternative spirituality and rituals, such as trance inductions. The Middle French etymology of the word trance—commonly defined as “a fear of coming evil” or “a passage from life to death”—holds a particular gravitas, especially in the wake of the artist’s passing.

Fumai’s alter egos dominated the narrow entrance to “Less Light,” her concise exhibition inside the International Studio & Curatorial Program’s small gallery. It was a sobering venue for Fumai’s first solo show in the United States. The year she died, ISCP hosted the artist for a residency that she cut short in order to return to Italy. Six months later, at the age of thirty-nine, she hanged herself at Galleria Doppelgaenger in the Italian city of Bari. This summer, Fumai is one of three artists representing Italy at the Venice Biennale. This rapid cycle of creative ascent, tragic demise, and public reclamation eerily parallels the fates of the characters in her works.

The portraits provided a conceptual introduction to The Book of Evil Spirits, 2015, a multipart project that includes a twenty-six-minute video in which the artist enacts a fictional séance led by the medium Eusapia Palladino. Here, the illiterate Palladino uses a combination of trance and automatic writing to conjure notorious women—again, all played by Fumai—including the German militant Ulrike Meinhof, and the dopehead from the song “I’m a Junkie,” censored in the 1930s by the Greek government. A loose narrative unfolds about Palladino’s life, including the many attempts by skeptics throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s to declare her a fraud. Annie Jones’s ghost explains that “reportedly, Eusapia uses her sexual charms in an attempt to seduce the scientific investigators.” Fumai also takes on the guise of the nineteenth-century circus attraction Zalumma Agra, a “Circassian beauty” invented by Barnum. Playing on the public’s racist fascination with “white” Circassian women from the Caucasas who were expelled from Russia and allegedly sold into sexual slavery in Istanbul, the showman created the character—an exotic who wore low-cut dresses, “Oriental” accessories, and a teased hairstyle resembling an Afro—for various actresses to play in his traveling act. As Agra, Fumai recited an acerbic text by the Italian collective Rivolta Femminile (Female Uprising), in which she calls culture a “sublime destruction.” During the exhibition’s opening, the threat of destruction was embodied by a quartet of women wearing balaclavas and silently wielding plastic rifles in the performance The S.C.U.M. Elite, 2014/2019. The embodiments of Solanas’s imagined group of “hard-core activists (the fuckups, looters, and destroyers) and the elite of the elite—the killers” never spoke.

An accompanying installation for The Book of Evil Spirits heightened the show’s theatricality while digging deeper into its exploration of alternate forms of communication. Symbols from a Ouija board were plastered on the walls; matted photographs of Fumai’s hands spelling out the words less light, my dear in Italian sign language were surrounded by automatic drawings from a book about Palladino by the author and astronomer Camille Flammarion. Automatic writing is frequently understood as part of a repertoire of mystical practices, often utilized by women, that were either outlawed or appropriated by patriarchal societies. In an interview two years before her death, Fumai (answering in the first-person plural) expressed her enthusiasm for the performative rituals of freak shows and séances. “They show the invisible but without using the rhetoric of Minimalism . . . a concept that we consider highly overrated by contemporary art. Our formal choice is, in other words, a declaration of extreme love for every other form of immaterial art.” These words ring profoundly in her absence.