Life & Culture

Emi Maggi: A Performance Artist Obsessed with Dance and Dress-Up

Italian multidisciplinary artist Emi Maggi’s work combines ceramics, costumes and choreography

No matter how hard he tries to leave, multidisciplinary artist Emi Maggi always ends up back in Rome. It might have something to do with his beautiful studio, and uninterrupted access to the specialist makers and rare raw materials vital to his practice. The paper-thin porcelain tiles he decorates with bright pencil-like glaze, which at first glance seem like rough sketches on sheets of wet tissue, pay testament to that.

Ceramics are only part of the picture. Whether in sculptural form, or tiled on a gallery wall, they lend his ideas a sense of dimension. The static elements of a performance that always includes dancing bodies for movement, and a live musical soundtrack. More often than not, the audience finds itself sucked into the work too; whirling theatrical pieces combining costumes, drawing and choreography. With master of ceremonies, Maggi, in the middle.

Here, he explains how fairytales and fables inform the storytelling in his work, and why he feels naked without a hat, ruff or heels.

“My world is a gentle, noble freak show. It’s like a ballet or getting ready for a baroque carnival. Masks are important, because I love how you can create a second skin with costume. I studied under Piero Tosi, who designed film costumes for Fellini and Pasolini, at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Not because I wanted to be a costume designer, but because I wanted to understand the body and history in a way you can’t at art school. It’s like studying the anatomy of society through how we dress.  

“In the 70s my parents worked in film, theatre and television as make-up and costume artists, so I grew up in a house where people liked to dress up and have fun. They enjoyed transforming themselves. And that’s one of the most important things in my work, using costume to change the body.

“An artist needs to know how to experiment with materials and practices, from painting and dancing to making music. Like how I mix sculpture with performance. You’re born with special powers, but they have to develop. It’s sad today that there are so many artists producing work that they don’t feel. It just seems commercial. A piece has to be beautiful but say something – open a dialogue, or an exchange with the viewer. That’s what a painting in a museum does. Art that comes from a different time has that power.

“Sometimes, I try to make the audience part of the performance, inviting them to join a parade of musicians, or letting them play an instrument that I build. Then, they can have a relationship with the artist through the piece. That’s what’s beautiful about being an artist, you can be with your audience in millions of ways. It becomes like one big installation: the audience, the piece of art, and then me moving between them. Even when I use clay and ceramics, I need movement, because my creations need to live, and react. And when I make something it always has a soundtrack.

“For a performance about gender at Mimosa House last year, I created a life drawing class where I was the model, wearing different historical costumes. Then, for the last sitting I was naked, apart from a moustache and wig - my own drawings are always the same, nude but with shoes, socks, or a hat on - giving people a chance to draw my body. I made nothing; the audience made everything. I was just there to be drawn, and I remember crying while I was posing, because it felt so good to share myself.  

“I’m obsessed with fables because transformation is so important. Turning from human to animal and back is a process of learning morals and lessons. That’s why I like to dress up and create characters. Like the travesti in Shakespearian theatre – a male actor who also played female roles. He was being two different figures at the same time. It’s very sensual. Very important for modern drag. And I think people should know about these things today.”

A version of this article appeared in the S/S19 issue of Another Man.