This review of Chiara Fumai’s show at Centro Pecci appeared in the October issue of Artforum:
“Poems I Will Never Release 2007–2017,” a traveling retrospective dedicated to the late Chiara Fumai, follows its debut in Geneva with this staging in the artist’s home country. Curated by Milovan Farronato and Francesco Urbano Ragazzi in collaboration with Cristiana Perrella (and Andrea Bellini in Geneva), it takes its wistful title from an unfinished work featuring those words printed on a T-shirt worn by a headless stuffed puppet with outsize limbs. The voluminous catalogue accompanying the exhibition features essays commissioned from some of Fumai’s closest collaborators and friends, as well as some who got to know her only after she took her life in 2017 at the age of thirty-nine. The texts read like so many love letters to the departed artist.
Fumai did not write poetry, to my knowledge, but a record label she founded did release The Church of Pippi Langstrumpf (2009), a digital collection of tracks by various musicians. Its title refers to the stage name the artist assumed in her earlier career as a DJ. Eschewing a strictly chronological order, this survey exhibition encompasses the bulk of Fumai’s artistic output, beginning with the video I’m a Junkie, 2007, in which she appears lip-synching a cult song by Greek folk singer Roza Eskenazi, and ending with a colorful presentation of the complete collection of vinyl records by Nico Fumai, a fictional songwriter loosely based on the artist’s father. “Both as a disc jockey and as an artist, I play things created by other people,” Fumai once said. But she viewed her practices as sufficiently distinct that she reserved her real name for her artworks. Still, the overlaps explain her penchant for mixing and matching seemingly disparate sensibilities and time periods, high and low cultures, and incompatible social and political agendas—often to disconcerting effect.
Sundry objects culled from the artist’s archive—including records, books, family photo albums, furniture, items of clothing Fumai wore in some of her most memorable performances, and a doll protruding from a suitcase grotesquely stashed away under a desk—are on view in Chiara Fumai House Museum, 2011–17/2020, modeled on the studio space where Fumai lived and worked in Milan. A show within a show, this shrine of sorts, placed at the outset of the exhibition, offers a more intimate way into her artistic practice. Although Fumai appropriated other people’s spoken and written words for her creative purposes, her own voice comes across loud and clear, above all in her lecture performances attacking patriarchal society and its values and promoting in their stead a radical form of punk feminism. The idea of a comprehensive show of this artist’s work might have seemed inconceivable without the forceful personality, stage presence, and versatility of its protagonist. Not only did the artist singlehandedly embody nearly all the saints and sinners, freaks and prodigies of nature, terrorists and revolutionaries who inhabited her layered performances, she also regarded the documentation of performance as tautological and pointless. Nevertheless, the artist reading Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto in the guise of six characters familiar from her past performances is here captured in the six-part photographic work Dogaressa Querini, Zalumma Agra, Dope Head, Annie Jones, Harry Houdini, Eusapia Palladino read Valerie Solanas, 2013, and in the many historical figures she plays in the video installation The Book of Evil Spirits, 2015.
Presented within a white-cube context, the audiovisual traces of performances that took place over time at various atmospheric venues inevitably seem somewhat sanitized. The material remnants of live rituals enacted before an audience—ranging from books, stage props, and costumes to the calligraphically neat automatic writing Fumai embroidered onto paper collage works and painstakingly drew in wall paintings, remade for the show—have an arcane feel that is effectively offset by the spare exhibition design, privileging bold colors and stark, esoteric symbols. Among the last is an enlarged version of Fumai’s personal seal based on a design by occultist Aleister Crowley but incorporating the slogan of its title, quoted from Cher’s defiant speech to the audience in her first farewell tour. In Follow This You Bitches, 2013–17, Fumai equally challenges the rising female stars of performance art to beat her at it.