The bright space of waterside contemporary welcomes the visitor with a clean arrangement of diverse material. Some bold, black letters decorate the walls, composing simple Italian words, sì, no, arrivederci. The urge to open up an indirect conversation with the spectator, investigating the possibilities of language, is echoed in a series of photos, which portray the hand of the artists spelling a word in International Sign Language alphabet, W.A.R.N.I.N.G (2016). Three vitrines at the centre of the room display old laces, shoes, a prosthetic beard, wigs, pieces of paper embroidered with handwriting and photographic fragments, an Ouija board and a crystal ball. Through simple symbols and minimal signs, the visitor is immediately called to grasp the singularity of the environment s/he is going to explore. Chiara Fumai’s first solo exhibition in the UK is as paradoxical as it can be, considering the specific attitude of the artist, whose work embodies and possesses subversive (and potentially dangerous) narratives in the most truthful yet ironical manner.
The Book of Evil Spirits is a one-work anthology. The figures, symbols and images most typical in Fumai’s artistic production are here crystallised in a single piece, presented in the form of an expanded video installation. The writings on the walls, the photo-collages Photographs of Criminals and Prostitutes I and II (2016), the few objects neatly arranged in the glass cases, have no other function than guiding the wandering spectator to the focal centre of the exhibition, which is also its conclusion: the video piece. Indeed, all the other elements presented in the show are just an emanation of the imaginative apparatus created by Fumai in this 26-minute long work. Passing through this antechamber made of falsely dusted props and (apparently) pointless sentences, we enter the world of Eusepia Palladino, the 19th-century Italian psychic, whom Fumai incarnates, and whose voice the artist uses to convoke other dark spirits of lost female figures. The piece connects the conceptual elements investigated by Fumai in her previous works, involving some of the female characters already called to action by the artist during the course of her career.
Fumai’s work is grounded in a performative practice of appropriation, misinterpretation and confusion of identities and subjectivities. Since her debut in the visual arts world, in 2007 with the video I’m a Junkie, the artist demonstrated her capacity to confuse reality and fiction, mixing dissonant narratives and temporalities, in order to produce a discourse that is singular/personal as much as it is plural/collective. In performance-based works like Chiara Fumai Reads Valerie Solanas (2012), Shut Up. Actually, Talk (The world will not explode) (2012) or Moral Exhibition House (2012), Fumai appropriates the voices and thoughts of marginal historical figures, to address issues related to the position of the female subject in history and contemporaneity. The troubled figures that the artist brings back to presence, with her impersonating body, are extreme, original and belligerent women, like journalist and terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, art historian and intellectual Carla Lonzi, writer and radical feminist Valerie Solanas, or the 19th-century bearded lady and performer Annie Jones. Some of these women make their appearance in The Book of Evil Spirits, in the form of ghostly shadows evoked by the artist/medium Fumai/Palladino. These so-called evil spirits –evil in so far they confront and jeopardise the tranquillity of bourgeois order– whose words, mottos and ideas are taken and re-interpreted by Fumai, participate in the production of a new, original and politically active discourse. Acting as a medium for strangers’ words, the artist digs into darkness, protected by a revealing veil of grotesqueness.
Fumai chooses irony as productive tool; her work lies on the precarious and thin limit dividing real and fake, seriousness and joke. The exaggerated characterisation of the mask is functional to the artist’s willingness to escape norm and forced normalisation. In the performative constructions that give body to The Book of Evil Spirits, Fumai systematically overcomes the first person singular, using the static language of the manifesto and of the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) report to produce mutable and ambiguous statements. Fumai refuses the immobility given by univocal relations between signifier and signified. Her practice investigates extreme and new possibilities for language(s) and communication. The Book of Evil Spirits is a small but dense exhibition/work, which perfectly summarises and comments Fumai’s work to date, describing its ineffable plurality, and stressing out the artist interest in absurdity as a means for transformation and revolution of sense.
Chiara Fumai, The Book of Evil Spirit, 2016, still da video, courtesy Waterside Contemporary, London
Chiara Fumai, The Book of Evil Spirits, Vitrine II, 2016installation, fabric, embroidery on paper, found objects, 150x60x75cm
Chiara Fumai, The Book of Evil Spirits, Vitrine I, 2016 installation, fabric, embroidery on paper, found objects, 150x60x75cm
Chiara Fumai, The Book of Evil Spirits,2015, video, HD 26’24”, video still
Chiara Fumai, The Book of Evil Spirits, Vitrine II, 2016 installation, fabric, embroidery on paper, found objects, 150x60x75cm