Chiara Bersani: Seeking Unicorns review – moments of mythical presence

National Gallery, London
With delicate movements and precise details, the Italian performance artist evokes a magical creature against a backdrop of fantastical art

Chiara Bersani has declared herself a unicorn. You’ll find the Italian performance artist in Room 31 of the National Gallery, surrounded by 17th-century French painting, curled in the corner of the floor while the audience sits on cushions around the edges of the room.

It’s a fantasy that Bersani somehow makes it easy to join her in, however you might translate the idea of unicorns. The less that happens in any work of art, perhaps, the more open it is to interpretation, and for 40 minutes, Bersani does very little. She awakens from a little slumber, she sits, crawls very slowly on hands and knees, looks at us, crawls closer.

Although there’s so little action, there are deliberate details everywhere: fingers flickering on the floor, or the way that when balanced on her knees, Bersani’s feet cross in the air like a mermaid’s tail. And there’s something magical about her presence. Big round eyes taking us in, unafraid of us strangers. She takes little gasping breaths and giggles of pleasure. She’s seeing and hearing everything with a knowing quality, as if she’s beamed in from another plane and already has the secret to this universe.

Bersani has the brittle bone condition osteogenesis imperfecta, and is only 98cm tall. She has said herself that the body cannot escape being political, especially one that doesn’t fit societal norms. And here she is being observed by a room full of people, and Nicolas Poussin’s canvases full of semi-clad mythical bodies, where she can hold the moment and present herself as something precious. As she moves to sit with the audience Bersani backs into someone’s lap, looks into their eyes, as if trying to find where she fits in. And in what’s a very endearing denouement – which I won’t spoil – she does in the end find her tribe.

It’s a very simple performance, ephemeral but engaging. There’s a great bit of sound design where we can hear air being blown through a trumpet, but see the trumpet lying on the floor, unplayed. It’s like a phantom, a memory, a premonition; definitely some magic in the air.

At the National Gallery, London, until 23 October, as part of Dance Umbrella.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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