curated by Kari Conte and Francesco Urbano Ragazzi

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The demon-possessed woman

Let’s build a wall at the border. Less light. Let’s drown people at sea. Less light. Let’s forbid the right to abortion. Less light. Let’s shoot black people and beat the homosexuals. Less light. Let’s suspend the nuclear arms treaties. Less light. Less. Light. LESS LIGHT.

I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, but we are not far from hearing these kinds of horrific and merciless claims casually included in political discourse, both in Europe and the United States. No later than November 2015 for instance, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, guest on a morning TV show, declared he would happily have employed bulldozers to solve the problem of Roma shantytowns. In these interest- ing times, now that the Enlightenment seems to be over, how does one answer Chiara Fumai’s request for “Less Light”? We are already plunged into darkness.

When, around 2008, Chiara Fumai stopped being a DJ to become a visual artist, everything was different. We were venturing into a world that was perceived as dominated by the cold, escalating rationalism of technology and the transnational monopolies connected to it. Following the critical path of Adorno and Horkheimer’s negative dialectics thus appeared to be natural — morally right trying to resuscitate the repressed forces that had shaped the unconscious of Western modernity, from Nietzsche down to Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Austin Osman Spare. But what about now? Doesn’t saying that “truth is as spherical as a planet” equate to justifying the slimy relativism of every fake news story? Isn’t quoting the words of a terrorist the equivalent of rooting for the end of democracy? Isn’t embodying a possessed medium or alluding to black magic the same as indulging the antiscientific trend in these new Middle Ages?

During the last period of her life, Chiara herself was questioning the value of her work within this new political climate. She had started to study Christine de Pisan’s Le tresor de la cité des dames de degré en degré, wanting to build her own fortified citadel for the comrades she had been channeling during her performances: Annie Jones, Zalumma Agra, Ulrike Meinhof, Valerie Solanas, Eusapia Palladino, Elisabetta Querini, the Invisible Woman and all the others. The last time we met — Milan, July 2017— she explained why.

“Not every wall is the same” she told me. “The one Trump wants to build at the Mexican border, for instance, is pure fascism; the walls of a gay club, instead, serve to protect a safe space: it’s right if there are a velvet rope and some bouncers at the entrance.” And then she added: “I think the time for me to display the semiotics of violence, as I did in the past, is over. I’d like to show everybody that all I have done in the last ten years has been to defend a space against oppression.” I believe that Chiara wasn’t speaking about a change to her working methods, but rather about an essential clarification. Something related to the difference between the characters she was embodying and her own identity, between the discourses she was appropriating and the meta-discourse emerging from her practice.

The problem of language — and its relationship to truth — has always been at the core of Chiara’s oeuvre: this is what she declared at every interview, including the one that follows. The ability to speak is indeed a complicated matter for all the personas populating her Mount Olympus: Eusapia is illiterate, Zalumma mute or muted, Dope Head self-narcotized by opium, Elisabetta forbidden to talk in public. Confused by the unintelligible speech of these figures, the viewer is unable to go beyond how they appear and the literal meaning of their words. Some misunderstandings might thus occur. The viewer might not catch the silent matter of spoken language: a certain tone, the context of enuncia- tion, the metaphorical senses and performative power that permeate every sentence.

Or even worse: while being unable to see beyond the dull surface of their appearance, one expects these figures to reveal magic powers and inaccessible mystic truths.

But what if the artist, through the indecipherable codes on which her artworks are based, was only measuring the viewer’s attention, that is to say their will to exercise the faculty of understanding? What if the artist, disguised as a moral philosopher, was only testing the grounds of our habitus and sets of beliefs, that is to say everyone’s tendency to categorize and thus stereotype?

What we believe, and why, are questions that haunt every bit — every byte — of this young century as a specter. In each performance, Chiara exposes us to the grammar of superstition, credulity, reductionism, and ideology (not only the ideologies we proudly dislike, but also the ones we adore). If the artist, for instance, impersonates Zalumma Agra (the Circassian beauty of P. T. Barnum’s Circus) while she recites the words of Carla Lonzi (the author of “Let’s Spit on Hegel” and “I Say I”) during the ecstatic dream of fraudulent Italian psychic Eusapia Palladino, again impersonated by the artist, who exactly is taking responsibility for the monologue and its interpretation? Are these women all sisters in feminism, fighting for the same cause? Are they all speaking with the same voice? Are they all the same, or not? Is irony true or false?

Trapping us in a net of quotes that we don’t fully understand without some studying, Chiara blinds us with the automatism of our laziest thinking, while at the same time keeping us awake. Her work pushes us to desire “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Have courage to make use of your own understanding! This is Chiara Fumai’s motto. Chiara Fumai: not the Illuminati, but rather the Illuminist, the Enlighted. Lucifer, qui mane oriebaris.

When she saw Jesus from a distance, she ran and fell on her knees in front of him. She shouted at the top of her voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to her, “Come out of this woman, you impure spirit!”

Then Jesus asked her, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” she replied, “for we are many.” And she begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside.

The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the woman who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in her right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed woman — and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region. (Mark 5:9)

FUR  All your performances are remixes, mash-ups of texts written by others: playwright and anarchist Valerie Solanas, art critic and feminist Carla Lonzi, journalist and terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, to name a few. Has your career as a DJ influenced your artistic practice?

CF We had worked as DJs for many years before completely dedicating ourselves to contemporary art. That’s why our artistic practice has so many things in common with DJ mixing techniques. As artists we only assemble, select, re-edit, re-contextualize and give rhythm to other people’s works. We focus on certain points that culture hasn’t digested, yet: the madness assigned to Ulrike Meinhof compared with the rationality of her writings and the consistency of her actions (Der Hexenhammer, 2015), the brilliant parody of macho culture which was so cleverly written by Valerie Solanas only to be mistaken for a real manifesto (Chiara Fumai reads Valerie Solanas, 2013), the repression of the deep philosophical thought of Carla Lonzi and Rivolta Femminile, and the prejudice against theories considered useless and out of fashion (Shut Up, Actually Talk, 2012).


Here is an example of a performance piece that assimilated the mash-up structure: the intervention at the Foundation Querini Stampalia in Venice, where we hid an anonymous message during a tour of its historical art collection (I Did Not Say or Mean ‘Warning,’ 2013). We began by saying that the hidden message is a short, anonymous text, printed on a 1970s flyer. Apparently, it was left in an answering machine, but we found it many years later while we were studying some pages about feminism and violence. As we were reading it, we had goose bumps; it felt like being thrown into the void, all of a sudden. It’s a violent message using the first person and concerning subversion, a subject absent from history and an upcoming threat. We like to call the author “Invisible Woman” and imagine her like a sort of kamikaze, but we actually don’t know who she is. We like to play games within our art, but not this time: we didn’t make up that message.

As the words of the Invisible Woman were still echoing in our heads, we were offered the chance to make an exhibition at the Querini Stampalia Foundation in Venice (Furla Art Award, 2013). The silence of the Venetian halls, the eyes of the Renaissance portraits exhibited in the building, the lack of information about the models, felt like elements which could create a suitable context for the expression of that anonymous message, in order to amplify, on a spatial dimension, the vertigo we experienced when we discovered it. So, we started studying the female portraits exposed in the palace, putting together the pieces of the unknown stories of figures like the Dogaressa Elisabetta Querini and Nicolosia Mantegna, in addition to the many female faces whose identities we can only hypothesize. Their biographical information and historical-cultural contexts contributed to a very detailed and somehow traditional “guide” to all the female portraits exhibited in the Querini Stampalia collection. At certain moments in the guide, we inserted parts of the anonymous message, sentence after sentence, like a haiku. We blended the two texts, making it impossible to tell them apart, just like when a DJ plays two pieces, mixing them into one. Some parts of the message were too direct to dialogue with an art history tour, and that’s why we “effected” them, applying some seconds of silence: we learned to perform certain words using the LIS (Italian Sign Language) hand-spelling. You know when during the peak of a mix the DJ lowers the volume and the audience goes into raptures? In I Did Not Say or Mean ‘Warning’ we applied the same effect: by censoring some of the spoken parts we amplified the emotion of their transmission.

FUR You are also interested in late nineteenth-century forms of "spectacle" such as freak shows, magic shows, and séances. Why do these forms fascinate you? Are you attempting an alternative reading of modernity?

CF We like alternative histories related to performance practice, i.e., the historical counter-culture of performance art. Art allows people to transcend history and present a whole Anti-World. With Anti-World I’m not speaking about the romantic idea of a certain artistic practice, something very far away from real-world problematics and facts.

Besides this, from a strictly formal point of view, we have developed a sort of fetishism towards some performative formats that are not contemplated by contemporary art, for example freak shows or séances. If you pay attention, all those practices have a common denominator: they show the invisible but without using the rhetoric of Minimalism, the same rhetoric that gives value to absence, 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.

FUR Your live performances are always anti-spectacular, and the feelings you provoke, especially in men, are often frustration,  embarrassment, or even boredom and anger. One has to be a little queer or freak or punk to understand the comical side of your work. How do you think about your relationship with your audience?

CF We’re more interested in the dynamics of the spectacular rather than the audience, or better, as you have properly defined it, the anti-spectacular. Our method and language work towards breaking the established rules on which stand the relationship between the viewer and the artist. Our artworks often appear to be politically incorrect. Nevertheless, they are always perfectly inserted into an institutional context that supports them, so much so that everybody should wonder how they ended up there. That’s it; our main job is making one thing appear as if it was something else, and making this experience pleasant for the most prepared audience. We don’t quite know at what point this kind of art actually addresses men, since we usually embody female figures. It’s likely that in some countries men feel called into question by our artworks, as men are culturally more used to expressing opinions, even disagreement, and feeling like protagonists even when they’re not supposed to. However, this phenomenon doesn’t really trouble us: we hit female stereotypes, and we surely aren’t the only ones to do that. It’s the way we do it that creates estrangement.

FUR You often play the role of the preacher, the lecturer, and the tour guide in a dialectic based on frontality. Is there a pedagogical aspect to your lecture-performances, or are you simply mocking the traditional forms of education? Is it possible to teach feminism through discipline?

CF Our work stands exactly on this contradiction, and that’s why it belongs — thank God — to art and nothing else. It happened in the past that someone, because of the intrinsic complexity of these artworks, came to us to sermonize about how some topics should be treated, about what should or shouldn’t be said, without realizing that if we had accepted those suggestions, we would have quit being artists.

FUR Your collages function as scripts in automatic writing, your photographs set the iconography of the characters you play, your installations and objects are the continuation of your performances by other means. Apparently, there’s no place for proper documentation in your artistic practice. Why?

CF There’s no space for proper documentation in our practice because we don’t love tautologies, but, on the other hand, we love to put into circulation several material forgeries of live performances. Such operations, which we call post-performative, require the audience to pay a lot of attention, precisely because they play on the border between artwork and falsity, between the oral language of the performance and its echo, between the impossibility of transmitting the cognitive experience through an image and its own parody. There’s a performativity even in this. I’m thinking about the case of the photographic prints where the protagonists of some of our artworks simulate the execution of another of our artworks, doing something that has nothing to do with their role (e.g., Eusapia Palladino reads Valerie Solanas, 2013). If this performative action was really carried out, it would make no sense at all, but the diffusion of its pseudo-documentation is an act that can destroy the idea of performance as an original, heroic, and historically unique act.

Think about the mediumistic tradition. The séance represents the immaterial performance at its highest point. Have you ever watched a film that really documents a séance, without its being a simulation? No. At the same time, the way everyone orally reports a paranormal experience is loaded with a strong performative charge, something out of the ordinary. It’s not important whether Eusapia Palladino (a world- renowned nineteenth-century psychic and our muse since 2011) could actually create ectoplasms with the power of thought or if she realized them with a tissue placed on clay. The fact that her ghosts put the positivists up for discussion makes her a great artist. Who cares if, on an artistic dimension, Dalì was divinely inspired during a hypnotic trance or if he composed unconscious visions using the instruments that he could more easily find? Psychics like Eusapia did the same thing. That fear, that alienation, that sinister irony that often emerges from paranor- mal phenomena are the features that we try to apply to the immaterial work and to the performative space, precisely because they recall in all respects the real nature of the unconscious. Moreover, what does a viewer expect to receive emotionally from the observation of a video in which an artist performs in front of a group of other people? It’s too easy. The viewer who wants to witness a real miracle must show up.

Courtesy of the International Studio & Curatorial Program and The Church of Chiara Fumai

LAYR, Vienna
High Art, Paris
Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, Kristiansand
Der Tank of the Art Institute, Basel
Lafayette Anticipations, Paris
Kunsthalle Lissabon, Lisbon
JTT, New York
Édouard Montassut, Paris