LONDON — It’s hard to fit the afterlife within a white cube. Believers purport the next world to be infinite; art, on the other hand, is material. And few galleries have an active market for mystical artifacts. This is at least half the challenge facing Waterside Contemporary’s current exhibit. Step inside this neat space in East London right now and you’ll find a dark, antique script printed on the clinical white walls. Here is the alphabet, there the words “Yes” and “No.” It’s a decommissioned three-dimensional Ouija board.
There are, of course, at least as many versions of the afterlife as there are religions. And Italian artist Chiara Fumai has created a spirit realm of her own in which she channels the ghosts of marginalized women (as well as the occasional useful male). The trappings of a séance set the scene for her new film piece called “The Book of Evil Spirits,” in which she performs the role of the 19th-century psychic and medium Eusapia Palladino.
On screen, Fumai as Palladino sits at her talking board with her planchette in a darkened parlor lit by a single candle. Metaphysical mists roll in and out of the shot. And, one after another, as if in Dickens’s Christmas Carol, three interlocutors arrive with messages from beyond the grave. The first of these is bearded lady Annie Jones, who died in 1902. The second is philosopher Carla Lonzi, dead since 1982. And the third is founder of the Red Army Faction, Ulrike Meinhof, whose mysterious death in prison took place in 1976.
Fumai as Palladino goes into a swoon before hearing from each of these marginal feminists, who emerge from the smoky darkness and fade back into it. The artist plays each of her spirit sisters and conjures up their dark power with sinister delivery. Lonzi’s voice is given caustic reverb. Meinhof snarls through a balaclava. The hirsute Jones, with her uncanny facial hair, derives somber authority from an intimidating large book. Whether or not you believe in psychic phenomena, this procession of vengeful women offers a frisson of fear.
Like many performance artists before her, Fumai turns to film as a way of fixing her many and varied appearances. “The Book of Evil Spirits” is screened in a serial format, and is in fact an amalgam of the artist’s previous films. Séances were previously performed at Whitechapel Gallery in London, MUSAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla) in
León, and Documenta 13 in Kassel, and in these contemporary art contexts — with audiences more critical than credulous — Fumai shifts her focus to questions about artistic inspiration rather than spiritual possession.
Performers are always channeling some or another character, but they more often dabble in drama than the occult. The Italian artist might well be compared to English artist Marcus Coates, whose own activities have also offered a glimpse of the spirit world. Coates will dress up, perform a shamanistic ritual, enter a state of imaginative trance, and return to his audience with practical advice. But unlike Fumai, the shaman in question downplays the mystic element of his practice. Coates insists his process is a creative one, and has nothing to do with any real or imagined spirit world.
But Fumai does appear to offer a materialist explanation for her psychic wanderings. Her 20-minute-long “Book of Evil Spirits” concludes with a lachrymose Greek folk song about drug taking. It became a grimly funny pay-off for an experience which, at times, seriously spooked me out. (The artist’s first performance, at the Documentation Center for Visual Arts in Milan, 2008, was simply titled “I’m a Junkie.”) We might well conclude that Fumai is the real thing, a committed voyager between worlds.
In a wall piece here at Waterside, she elaborates. Photographs of seven hands spell out the word “Warning” in international sign language. Meanwhile, obscure, oracular messages are stitched onto the backgrounds and defy easy legibility. There is a push-me-pull-me dynamic in which we want to read the eerie message but, for superstitious reasons, we might rather not. This goes for the whole show, which leaves the impression that it could, at any moment, imperil an unsuspecting soul. Nietzche’s saying comes to mind: “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Having watched “The Book of Evil Spirits” a number of times, it feels somewhat a relief to put paid to this engagement with a fairly sober review.
Which brings me to the other half of the problem in presenting this artist in a serious-minded art show. Fumai is a versatile actor and an erstwhile DJ, whose skills as a performer and a cold reader have clearly been difficult to bottle up and package — be that as film, mixed media, collage, or installation. The spiritual possession here feels secondhand because Waterside has objectified the most subjective practice of all. It’s the age-old problem for performance art to an even higher degree.
Of course, religious faith still has a place in contemporary art. And, thanks to theosophical believers like Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Hilma af Klint, spiritualism itself has had a pivotal role in abstract art. But whereas theosophy inspired these giants of modern art to produce work that was more or less serene, Fumai’s contact with the dead scandalizes and unsettles the viewer. If it’s just an artistic strategy, it’s a potent way to reactivate marginalized voices. If it’s for real, caution is advised.
Chiara Fumai: The Book of Evil Spirits continues at Waterside Contemporary (2 Clunbury St, London) through April 23.