CRAC Occitanie / Pyrénées-Méditerranée
26 Quai Aspirant Herbert
34200 Sète, France
Photography: Marc Dommage, Aurélien Mole.
Reverse Universe offers the chance to cross two singular worlds of imagination, those of Luigi Serafini (born in Rome in 1949, lives and works in Rome and Milan) and Than Hussein Clark (born in 1981 in Exeter, New Hampshire, lives and works in London).
Curated by Marie de Brugerolle, the exhibition Reverse Universe consists of two distinct journeys mixing sculptures, paintings, videos, photography, poetry and sound works, produced for the occasion or shown for the first time in an exhibition.
For Marie de Brugerolle, what is at play is the question of the hybridisation of bodies and forms, as well as the crossing of boundaries, their transgression, whether they be physical, geographical, linguistic or cultural. Although state boundaries are being reinforced under the pressure of an unprecedented health crisis among other things, the virus eludes them, undermining our presuppositions about the notion of boundaries, about what separates or connects bodies.
Between 1976 and 1979, after studying architecture, Luigi Serafini created the Codex Seraphinianus, a masterful work first published in 1981 by Franco Maria Ricci and constantly reprinted since then. A “book of all books”, this encyclopaedia of an invented, surrealist world – heralding a hybrid humanity in which plants, animals and objects combine – is a worldwide bestseller. Going beyond the boundaries of the visible and invisible, mixing illustrations with writing, the book is an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
A polymorphous creator, Luigi Serafini collaborated with the design and architecture group Memphis, among others. A painter, writer and friend of Fellini, for whom he created the poster for the film La voce della Luna (1990), and the great satrap of the College of ’Pataphysics since 2016, Luigi Serafini is a smuggler between a certain surrealism and Beat Generation poetry, cabinets of curiosities, Proust, Joyce and the contemporary world of social networks. Italo Calvino wrote a preface to the 1984 edition of the Codex, and the cover of Calvino’s book Collection of Sand bears Serafini’s illustration Poissoeil / Fisheye. This fisheye became a favourite motif of young “Sarafans” worldwide, who tattooed themselves with the image, which went viral by circulating on bodies.
The visual alphabet of Codex Seraphinianus is being presented for the first time in three dimensions in an exhibition space that is moreover a French institution. Inspired by the city of Sète, Luigi Serafini has installed a polymorphous universe midway between the vegetable and the animal, between the marine and earthly worlds. In three rooms Luigi Serafini offers a crossing between worlds. His sculptures, drawings, paintings, writing and his highly singular written forms turn the art centre into a scale-model Codex.
The first room on the journey brings together various sea figures, a tuna, carp and mermaid. At the centre of an esoteric-looking altar presides a half-tuna, a recurrent animal in Seraphini’s bestiary that has the distinctive characteristic that it splits in two when it crosses the Strait of Gibraltar, then re-forms in the springtime so as to be able to reproduce.
The second room is dedicated to the Codex, presenting several plates from the book, some of which are original drawings, as well as a large-format painting entitled Genesis, which allows us to dive into Serafini’s organic and mechanical world. The third and final room is dedicated to the world of earth, and is organised around a sculpture of a carrot-woman made of painted resin, combining virtuosic realism and strange masquerade: stretched out on a bed of earth and vegetables like a goddess from beyond the grave, the carrot-woman is reminiscent of the figure of Persephone / Proserpine in classical mythology. Daughter of Demeter, mother of the earth, and wife of Hades, god of the underworld, Persephone lives part of the year on earth, the other part underground, making the link between the two worlds.
In Sète, Luigi Serafini has invented a universe “for oneself ” based on a vision of its global and local organisation, at the intersection of the micro and macro, of the vegetable, mineral and animal. The hybrid, grafted or mutant nature of his visual collages suggests a relationship to the world that involves constant metamorphoses, in which knowledge is empirical and sensory more than scientific and logical.
The Codex Seraphinianus brings into play the learned order and the most unbridled imagination, assembling beyond boundaries. Its encrypted alphabet offers another form of knowledge through infinite visual wordplay. On this subject, Serafini evokes the language of the troubadour, whose stories were transmitted by gestures and words before being conveyed through writing. The artist establishes a dialogue with the subterranean and submarine memory of Sète, which reminds him of Gaète, his Italian cousin, but also of the streets of Rome or certain regions of Italy that, like Sète, are crossed by the Occitan language.
On the subject of the Codex, Luigi Serafini wrote: “It was a writing that contained the dream of many other writings”. Between legibility and visibility, the alphabet invented by Luigi Serafini paradoxically becomes universal because it is illegible, thus crossing cultures and generations, beyond boundaries.
As an artist, designer, scenographer, writer, poet and actor, Than Hussein Clark creates work that brings theatricality into various contexts. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Goldsmiths College in London and the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg, Than Hussein Clark has to his credit around twenty theatrical plays and just as many exhibitions. He endeavours to explore that which eludes the dominant culture, whether through architecture, the decorative arts, or theatre. He decompartmentalises genres, canons and know-how while enlisting a variety of techniques: rug weaving, wood sculpting, resin, metal. A screen becomes a landscape, a window a painting, a coat a sculpture. By intensifying styles to the point of rendering them “decadent”, he reminds us that glamour is a deformation of the grammar of forms. Equally active both in the theatrical field and on exhibition sites, Than Hussein Clark shifts boundaries and transforms the uses of objects and places.
For him, every new project is a chance to develop research on art figures who have remained on the margins of grand history. For the exhibition at the CRAC, he takes inspiration from Tangier and from the cosmopolitan art scene that injected life into that city throughout the 20th century (William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, Paul Bowles, Yves Saint Laurent, or the fabulously wealthy heiress Barbara Hutton…). The artist has produced a series of sculptures, images, sound works, as well as a log book of a journey from Tangier to Sète in 2019 in the company of American poet James Loop, whose poems lend inspiration to the exhibition.
A city of arrival and departure, Tangier faces the Mediterranean just like Sète, allowing the artist a kind of permutation of the perspectives on both banks of the Mediterranean. In the exhibition, various decorative elements evoke notions of the stage, the threshold and the boundary. Perfumes, windows, clocks, furniture and fabrics reflect the city of Tangier through several figures of wilful exile, both European and American, who went to that port city throughout the 20th century, some of them in search of the possibility of exhausting their eccentricity, others wanting to experience the fantasies of elsewhere, or simply have a love affair.
In the first room, visitors are welcomed by a chequered stage, a reference to the Villa Mabrouka in Tangier, which Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought and decorated based on the theme “an eccentric 1950s Englishman”. On this stage, Than Hussein Clark has placed a mannequin evocative of the rich heiress Barbara Hutton, who moved to Tangier in the 1940s after a life of problems with family, the media, and love, worthy of a Hollywood film. This woman and her extraordinary destiny are represented by a dressed-up skeleton, embodying a modern vanity no less than an extravagant lifestyle pushed to the extreme.
The exhibition also summons the figure of Jean Genet, who regularly sojourned in Morocco, and built a house there for his lover and his family in Larache, south of Tangier, where he is buried. The series of staged photographs that Than Hussein Clark created in front of the writer’s grave, and the re-creation of Divine, a perfume designed in 1948 and named in reference to a drag-queen character in Genet’s first novel Our Lady of the Flowers, echo not only the writer’s transgressive power, and the sexual, political and intellectual freedom that characterised him, but also his paradoxical reverse side, full of secrecy and confinement.
For the exhibition at the CRAC, Than Hussein Clark is producing some thirty new works, like so many perspectives on the city of Tangiers, including a monumental installation entitled A Year in the International Zone, consisting of 365 clocks collected in Tangier: each clock symbolises a day in the year 1956, a time of change marking Morocco’s independence and the end of Tangier as an “International Zone”, that is to say a zone administered by the United States and several European countries.
Than Hussein Clark’s creative profusion launches the visitor into a labyrinth of references and intermingled stories where exaggeration and a kind of extreme elegance are made into a weapon, where being a drag queen is a political position that makes it possible to escape gender and class norms.
Marie de Brugerolle is a curator and art historian. She has collaborated with many institutions (Musée national d’art moderne – Centre Pompidou, MoMA in New York, Centre National d’Art Contemporain – Le Magasin in Grenoble). She has contributed to a better understanding of the California scene and its links with Europe (first retrospectives of Allen Ruppersberg, John Baldessari, Larry Bell). In 2007 she conceived Faire des choses avec des mots / Making Words with Things at the CRAC in Sète. She regularly collaborates with other curators and artists: Ne pas jouer avec des choses mortes with Éric Mangion (2008, Villa Arson, Nice), I Was a Male Yvonne de Carlo, an exhibition on satire and humour in art with Dora Garcia (2011, MUSAC in León, Spain), ALL THAT FALLS with psychoanalyst Gérard Wajcman (2014, Palais de Tokyo, Paris). Recently, the exhibition RIDEAUX / blinds (2015, IAC Villeurbanne) explored the curtain as a paradigm of our ways of seeing in the era of the screen. In 2019, she created C’BARET, What Not / Speak Easy, events bringing together 22 artists, including Asher Hartman, Than Hussein Clark, Andrea Fraser, Nour Mobarak, Brandon Lattu, at the invitation of Hamza Walker (LAXART, Los Angeles).