The object on display in the vitrine in front of us – which looks at first sight like an abacus gone awry – consists of branches of red, precious coral (Corallium rubrum, Linnaeus, 1758) glued together with pellets of dried and compressed white bread.
As much as I am tempted to write, ‘artist Hubert Duprat has made the object’, such a statement would be problematic on several levels.
Firstly, Duprat, who is perhaps best known for his work with caddis flies (Trichopterae, 1980-2011), has been characterised as an ‘artist’ and ‘sculptor’, but his practice also lends itself to comparisons with that of the naturalist, alchemist, architect, goldsmith and artisan. His interest in concepts of materiality, form, surface, space, trace and fissure have placed him – in the eyes of some critics – in proximity to minimalism, while his concern with the relationship between nature and culture has earned him the labels ‘arte povera’ and ‘land art’.
Moreover, rather than ‘making’ the object, i.e. creating it with his own hands, Duprat enlisted the help of skilled expert craftsmen to assemble the pieces into the intricate structure in front of us. Having stumbled upon the coral twigs originating from the Costa Brava at a maker of marquetry and cabinet maker’s in Toulouse, he sent them to a coral workshop in Torre del Greco near Naples to have them polished and manufactured into the finished piece.1 While such an emphasis on coincidence (the quasi-Surrealist chance encounter with the found material), research and collaboration has implications for authorship and authenticity, Duprat’s tongue-in-cheek comment, ‘If I touch it, I break everything!’2 also highlights his kinship with the historical figures of the amateur, dilettante and polymath: his encyclopaedic mindset and erudite, larger-than-life library take precedence over concrete spaces of artistic production such as the studio.3
Lastly, while Costa Brava Coral is certainly an ‘object’, it could just as well be described as a subject, a specimen, a work of art, an artefact, a collage, or an assemblage. It is both natural and artificial (organic materials are transformed by human craftsmanship); it is animal, mineral and vegetable (true to the metamorphic, unsettled and unsettling status of coral);4 it is one and many (the singularity of the object is challenged by the multitude of the materials and elements it is made of as well as the plurality of coral as a colony of polyps and of bread as a conglomerate of ingredients); it is precious and banal (what is more valuable, we may ask, the costly, endangered coral pieces or the bread, which is a staple of our diet, and how does this relate to consumption and the distribution and depletion of resources?); it is both useless and potentially useful (bread crust plaster, a poultice made from bread crusts soaked in vinegar and mixed with red coral powder, was applied hot to the body to alleviate stomach pain and help keep food down);5 it is rigid and soft; smooth and rough; polished and porous; it is both surface and interior; voluminous and void; simple and complex; grown and made; alive and dead.
In light of such an obvious resistance to labelling and categorisation, as well as Duprat’s interest in fields and disciplines as diverse as photography, optics, natural history, and popularisation of science, works such as Trichopterae have been situated within a return of certain postmodern artists to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century epistemic reign of curiosity.6 Costa Brava Coral can certainly be seen as echoing the narcissistic, self-contained nature of the cabinet of curiosities on the one hand and its programme of displaying a totality of knowledge, a microcosmic version of the world through juxtaposition, analogy and affinity on the other. Such a link is also encouraged by its exhibition context at the Musée Gassendi in Digne-les-Bains, a museum of art, science, natural history, geology and archaeology that has invited collaborative projects from contemporary artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, herman de vries and Mark Dion. In contrast to its sister object at frac franche-comté, a ‘classic’ white-cube museum of contemporary art, at Digne, Costa Brava Coral is displayed in the Old Masters Gallery (Salle d’art ancien) alongside historical and religious Baroque paintings. But it would not look entirely out of place in a natural history or anatomy museum either.
What makes the act of applying a longer historical attention span and tracing trajectories so rewarding and apposite is the object’s rhizomatic configuration that can be compared to dendrites, neural networks and resin models of cerebral blood vessels. Our thoughts can either permeate the object and linger in the hollow spaces between its branches, or we can choose to explore its many meandering pathways.7 But ultimately, although Costa Brava Coral is seductive and seems to invite an intimate relationship, it remains elusive, undermining our tendency to read things into it. Rather than us interrogating the object, it is the object interrogating us, opening up gaps in our knowledge and perception and keeping our definitions, descriptions and categories in suspension.
Images reproduced with the kind permission of Hubert Duprat and the Wellcome Collection / Gordon Museum, King’s College London.
2 ‘Si j’y touche, je casse tout !’, quoted in Frédéric Paul, ‘La bibliothèque de l’instituteur: Hubert Durpat, archéologie et macération’, in Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no. 72, summer 2000, pp. 56-79, here p. 67.
3 ‘I think that, in a sense, I have a fantasy of totality and maximum density. The desire for an encyclopaedic way of working, for cutting across different fields.’ (‘Je crois effectivement que j’ai un fantasme de totalité et de densité maximum. Le désir d’un travail encyclopédique, de recouper les champs. ’) Hubert Duprat, ‘Entretien avec Éric Audinet’, in Magazine no. 2, Bordeaux, Galerie Jean-François Dumont, February 1986, sp. For a description of the copious contents of Duprat’s library, see Besson 2002 as in footnote 1, pp. 5-6, 12-14 and 31, and Paul 2000 as in footnote 2, p. 65. An exhibition and series of events based on Duprat’s library, entitled La Dernière Bibliothèque, is taking place at LiveInYourHead, Geneva University of Art and Design, 08.06.-14.07.2012.
6 See Stephen Bann, Ways Around Modernism, New York and London: Routledge, 2007, pp. 103-172 and Marion Endt, Reopening the Cabinet of Curiosities: Nature and the Marvellous in Surrealism and Contemporary Art, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2008.
7 Duprat does so retroactively: ‘Then, once the work is finished, I try to trace its genealogy.’ ‘Artist Hubert Duprat discussing his work’, short film, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e78hni1LoSo.