MAP

A timely encounter

Carol Rama and the uses of biography by Kylie Gilchrist

Carol Rama, Dorina, 1940, watercolour on paper. Photo Pino dell'Aquila

Carol Rama, Dorina, 1940, watercolour on paper. Photo Pino dell'Aquila

By the time I saw Carol Rama’s Antibodies at the New Museum (New York), it was already too late for a review.

 

This timing is fortunate though, because my tardiness and your belated reading are precisely in step with Rama's artistic import. As the artist’s polyphonic practice spans nearly the entire twentieth century, Antibodies might seem most appropriately conceived as an exhibition of modern art with revisionist stakes—a genre with a commitment to feminist histories of art that is wearily familiar. The New Museum’s curatorial position appeared comfortable enough with such an interpretation. Its somewhat staid and claustrophobic presentation cast a museological atmosphere, to which wall text quoting Rama’s personal reflections added a hagiographic accent. Considering how strongly Rama’s provocations resonate with current feminist and art-theoretical discourse, we would do well to question the institution’s framing in light of its self-proclaimed status as Manhattan’s ‘only dedicated contemporary art museum’. The exhibition’s presentation perhaps echoes a broader confusion around the category of ‘contemporary’, frequently mistaken as a synonym for the present day. Contemporaneity is not chronological, however, but elective. It is an effect of affinities and experiences that converge in a particular moment.

 

Antibodies, installation view, New Museum, New York, 2017. Photo Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

Antibodies, installation view, New Museum, New York, 2017. Photo Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

Ironically, it is the prevalence of biographical material in Rama’s work that both aligns her with this current moment, and makes it so difficult to conceive her as contemporary. Her practice is clearly inscribed with the signs of a life lived during the previous century: bicycle tyres, tautly stretched across canvas, rework the products of her industrialist family’s Turin factory to convey the destructive effects of Italy’s breakneck modernisation. These reflections are extended in more personal motifs, such as references to psychiatric wards and mental illness that evoke her father’s bankruptcy, suicide and her mother’s subsequent hospitalisations. And in Rama’s infamously censored first exhibition, scenes of detached genitals, mechanically reproducible limbs, floating teeth and ominously arched high-heels echo the dark mood of gendered life under Italian fascism. [1] Such inventive transformations of life experience render Rama particularly susceptible to the art historical reflex of biographical reduction. However, given the current interest surrounding the politics of subjectivity and personal experience, they also position her work as a powerful interlocutor for artists and writers in this moment.

 

Carol Rama, Appassionata, 1939, watercolour on paper. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin.
Photo Gabriele Gaidano

Carol Rama, Appassionata, 1939, watercolour on paper. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Photo Gabriele Gaidano

According to Rama’s reflections on biography, one’s lifetime defies individual possession. It is a space of relation stretched across a finite time. This claim is epitomised in the artist’s 1990s series La Mucca Pazza [The Mad Cow], a body of abstract paintings in which udders hang beside teeth and inner-tubes. They are ‘extraordinary self-portraits’, in the artist’s words, because of their ‘way of seeing the anatomy of everybody in shared parts, extreme’. [2] This is portraiture expanded into a form of psycho-social and symbolic mapping—an aim made explicit in other pieces that use blueprints and architectural drawings as the backdrop for human figures and detached appendages. In ‘Ritratto come upupa’ [‘Portrait as a Hoopoe’] 1986-87, mythic imagery such as Icarus falling from the sky is superimposed upon a diagram for a gaslight engine. An untitled 1979 work uses a pink commercial printing test sheet as the backdrop for a pair of ambiguously-shaped sandals whose linings resemble tongues bound by the shoes’ limp straps. And in ‘Keaton - The Cameraman’ 1995, a drawing of Italy’s national library is covered by a chain of human figures seemingly conjoined in group sodomy, transposing Buster Keaton’s acclaimed comedy into a striking echo of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo.

 

Carol Rama, La Mucca Pazza [The Mad Cow], 1998, inner tube, acrylic and pencil on mail sacking. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Photo Pino Dell’Aquila

Carol Rama, La Mucca Pazza [The Mad Cow], 1998, inner tube, acrylic and pencil on mail sacking. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Photo Pino Dell’Aquila

Rama thus renders explicit the structures that bind and maim life in the drive for power, at work in classical hubris as much as capitalist exploitation. However, the bodies, appendages and objects that inhabit her images do not appear as disfigured victims. They are desirous beings, mutated and mutable, that find life within the systems attempting to cannibalise them. This vision of agency—an always-illegitimate use of bodies and things, never the property of an upright subject—emerges in Rama’s earliest watercolours. It is emblemised by their signature trope: vermillion mouths blooming on the page with thick and pointed tongues extended, attached to and independent of faces. Amidst candid scenes of sex and swollen genitalia, these mouths are the only truly erotic element. As Rama’s friend and curator Maria Mundici notes, these paintings are more heretical than sexually charged. Genitalia are elements of realism while, in Rama’s words, ‘the mouth is desire itself’. [3]

 

While Rama was largely peripheral to the artistic and political movements of her time, her practice was evidently conversant with formal experimentations and social projects. Her use of industrial materials in the late 1960s and 70s engage with Arte Povera’s vocabulary and provocations. And earlier, after her watercolours scandalised fascist administrators, Rama tamed her heterodox figurations by adopting the geometric abstractions of the Concrete Arts Movement. Yet such associations never coalesced into clear identification. Rama resisted neat distillation into any one tendency while arguably pushing the boundaries of all those with which she opened a dialogue.

 

Rama’s closest kin were not visual artists but adjacent figures among the literary neo-avant-garde, particularly the Novissimi poets and Gruppo ‘63. The Novissimi’s efforts to negate the dominance of subjective expression (the authorial ‘I’) resonate strongly with Rama’s concern for the agency of material things. For both Rama and this school of poetry, artistic experience is an objective and embodied relation that activates the viewer or reader as producer of meaning. [4] Edoardo Sanguineti, one of Novissimi’s central figures and Rama’s closest confidants, consecrates this connection by naming a core body of Rama’s 1960s paintings Bricolages, in reference to Claude Levi-Strauss’s sense of the term. [5] Both within and beyond the Surrealist tradition of objet trouvé, these works incorporate materials, including teeth and glass eyes, directly onto canvas. Such objects are not fetishes but elements of a visual language whose appearance directly manifests what they are, without need for interpretation. [6] In a text described as a viewing guide for the ‘attentive visitor’, Sanguineti writes: ‘The poetry of bricolage emerges also, and above all, from the fact that this “speaks” not only to things, but also through things: recounting through the choices made between a limited number of possibilities, the character and the life of its creator.' [7] Poeticising the necessary contingencies of embodied existence, Rama renders its charms and abjection simply as a mode of relation. In this light, her indifference towards the groupings of her peers is not surprising. Rather than nominal associations, Rama sought her richest influences and artistic dialogues in the protean space of friendship.

Carol Rama, 'Bricolage', 1986, mixed mediums on cardstock. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Photo Elisabeth Bernstein

Carol Rama, 'Bricolage', 1986, mixed mediums on cardstock. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Photo Elisabeth Bernstein

 

When considering Rama’s ties to her peers, her distance from Italian feminist groups among the political avant-garde is perhaps most remarkable. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, as Rama’s singular visual language elaborated its complex challenge to stable notions of sexuality and identity, groups such as Demau (Demystification of Patriarchal Authoritarianism), Rivolta Femminile (Feminine Revolt, co-founded by writer and critic Carla Lonzi), Lotta Femminista (Feminist Struggle), and Libreria delle Donne di Milano (Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective), were similarly working to create structures of social and textual mediation through which gendered oppression might be categorically dismantled. Departing from the party politics of Italy’s Operaismo, these groups sought a form of female freedom more inalienable than recognition under the law. They confronted a core paradox of feminist politics with sexual difference, rather than equality, as their point of departure: how to articulate a desire that does not (yet) have a name. [8] The language of political emancipation inherited from idealist philosophy depended on the erasure of particularity and difference, hence female freedom demanded autonomous forms of language, narratives and symbols specific to women’s experiences.

 

The project of ‘engendering female freedom’ emerged through autocoscienza, a translation of the consciousness-raising practice common within North American feminisms. [9] Gathering in small groups, women shared personal stories and literature to build relationships with each other and an understanding of self. Generative encounters with psychoanalysis led some to develop autocoscienza into the ‘practice of the unconscious’, enabling them to locate individual experiences within the social and psychic dimensions of sexual difference. Through ‘entrustment’, they brought their critique of equal rights to bear on the structure of collective relations: women would put themselves under the tutelage of others who were older or more fluent in the registers of a nascent female discourse, acknowledging power differentials and mobilising them towards collective emancipation. The concept of ‘symbolic motherhood’ repurposed the maternal-daughter relationship as the model for this conception of female freedom, enabling women to recognise themselves as empowered and desirous beings while honouring and transmitting influences to future generations. Foregrounding positive notions of debt and obligation, ‘symbolic motherhood’ provided a point of origin and legitimating ground for an emergent genealogy of women.

 

Carol Rama, 'Movimento e immobilita d Birnam', 1977, rubber tire and iron hook on coated canvas. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Photo Pino dell’Aquila

Carol Rama, 'Movimento e immobilita d Birnam', 1977, rubber tire and iron hook on coated canvas. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Photo Pino dell’Aquila

Italian feminisms’ efforts to transform structures of identity and social relations established subjectivity as a key horizon of feminist struggles, and prefigured more radical challenges advanced in much contemporary thought. In the context of contemporary art, their relevance was notably articulated, if not inaugurated, by the London-based Feminist Duration Reading Group and their 2015 event series Now You Can Go, followed by several related programmes and publications. [10] Such discussions have broadly centered around, in Claire Fontaine’s reference to Carla Lonzi, the task of ‘inventing one’s own freedom’, where living and thinking coincide without domination or containment. [11] They have significantly extended the roots seeded by Italian feminisms—a ‘weed’, in Fontaine’s words, whose growth is radical, not horizontal—through both celebration and critique. [12] The latter contends, in large part, with the limitations of the subject of feminism(s) itself. Who can act in the name of a feminist politics, and how can such a politics transform the dominating structures of subjectivity while claiming the position—however heterogeneous, strategic or fleeting—of a subject? In light of the currency that Rama and her feminist peers sustain today, perhaps a fortuitously belated meeting between the two can contribute something to this question.

 

Where Rama’s feminist peers name the desire for an autonomous female subject and social-symbolic agency, the artist’s practice outlines an emergent form of freedom that transmutes, possibly by negating in the process, the figure of a subject entirely. As Paul Preciado describes in his extensive and incisive catalogue essay for MACBA’s 2014-15 retrospective, the mouths, shoes, tyres and tongues of her paintings are not fetishes of repressed desire and do not translate into a normative ‘economy of sexual difference’. Rather, the erotics of such objects serve to suggest the radical openness of their possible use: ‘the shoe and the brush are not penises’, he describes, ‘yet the penis could function as shoe or a brush’. Through this depiction, they become actors and producers of their own field of signification. [13] Rama thus resists what Preciado terms ‘the conceptual sovereignty of Oedipus’. She dismantles the grammar of sexual identity, breaking binary fixations and setting the entire structure in motion.

 

Rama’s singular formal language needs no prototypes, however provisional, nor any precursors, maternal or otherwise. She precipitates a mode of profane self-origination that defies the legitimacy of any inheritance. In a statement quoted so frequently as to be the artist’s mantra, Rama states: ‘I didn’t need a model for my painting, the sense of sin is my master.’ Elsewhere, she names ‘error’ as her ‘true instructor’. [14] As an insistent autodidact who spurned formal art education and social standards of all kinds, Rama engendered the precursors and references of her work from the experiences of her personal life. In Sanguineti’s words, Rama ‘very much resembles her painting in the sense that… the artist has been made by her work’. [15] Inverting both the models of biographical interpretation and the willful self-production of the artistic subject, her act of self-making is an effect of relations with objects, human and otherwise, encountered throughout her many years.

 

Antibodies, installation view, (Autorattristatrice, 1970 pictured), New Museum, New York, 2017. Photo Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

Antibodies, installation view, (Autorattristatrice, 1970 pictured), New Museum, New York, 2017. Photo Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

Sanguineti’s words are echoed in an exemplary Rama self-portrait, ‘Autorattristatrice’, 1970, the title of which is an untranslatable pun of the words author – self-portrait – auto – depressing. In this piece, several rounded pelts of bicycle tyre rubber are bolted to a cream canvas. Ripples form where the rubber’s manufactured curvature strains against the flatness imposed. Within the rubber’s splayed and despairing body, a pair of bolts, like eyes, cast an empathetic and curious gaze towards viewers. This painting requires no translation into a legitimating discourse. It exists as a desiring witness, articulating through its physical form precisely the conditions of its existence. As Rama says, channeling her friendship with Andy Warhol: ‘It’s a kind of unlawful appropriation, it’s what each of us does with life.' [16]

Kylie Gilchrist is a London-based writer and editor. She also works with the nonprofit Art Resources Transfer

Carol Rama: Antibodies was on view at the New Museum (New York, US) from 26 April to 10 September 2017

[1] Rama’s first solo exhibition at Turin’s Faber Gallery in 1945 consisted of provocative watercolour paintings. Government censors learned of the works’ contents and removed 27 of them prior to the opening, some of which may have been lost or destroyed. The artist would not again resume watercolour figurations until after this body of work was re-exhibited in Italian curator Lea Vergine’s 1980 exhibition at the Giancarlo Salzano, ‘L’altra metà dell’avanguardia, 1910–1940’
[2] Interview with Carol Rama by Corrado Levi and Filippo Fossati, Turin, 1996, cited in Paul Preciado, ‘The Phantom Limb: Carol Rama and the History of Art’ in The Passion According to Carol Rama, ed. Preciado, Barcelona: Museu D’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), 2015, p. 31
[3] Maria Cristina Mundici, ‘Her Story’ in Inside Carol Rama, ed. Mundici and Bepi Ghiotti, Milan: Skira, 2014, p. 172
[4] See ‘The Novissimi’ in John Picchione, The New Avant-Garde in Italy: Theoretical Debate and Poetic Practices. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004
[5] Paolo Fossati and Maria Cristina Mundici, ‘A Career’ in Carol Rama, Turin: Charta, 1999, p. 22
[6] This point is underscored in several of the more insightful discussions of Rama’s work, among them Preciado’s ‘The Phantom Limb’ and Mundici’s ‘Her Story’
[7] Fossati and Mundici, p. 22
[8] The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: A theory of social-symbolic practice, trans. and intro. by Teresa de Lauretis, Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990, p. 25
[9] ‘The engendering of female freedom’ was the original subtitle to Sexual Difference. Ibid, p. 12
[10] Related programs included Work, Strike and Self-Abolition: Feminist Perspectives on the Art of Creating Freedom at Monnaie de Paris in 2016. Such events were folded within discussions emerging from a June 2010 special issue of May Revue and continued in the journal’s Fall 2016 issue
[11] Claire Fontaine, ‘Weed and the practice of freedom’, trans. Anna De Filippi May Revue No. 16, Oct. 2016, http://www.mayrevue.com/en/weed-and-the-practice-of-freedom/ 
[12] Ibid 
[13] Preciado, 30
[14] From an interview with Carol Rama, cited by Mundici in ‘Her Story’, p. 171
[15] Fossati and Mundici, p. 22
[16] Ibid., p. 25