BY Matthew McLean in Features | 14 NOV 14
Featured in
Issue 17

Than Hussein Clark

Design, deception, sexuality

BY Matthew McLean in Features | 14 NOV 14

Waves (Das Glückliche Rothschild), 2013, exhibition view Mathew, Berlin; all images courtesy: the artist & Mathew, Berlin

Installed in Mathew gallery in 2013, Than Hussein Clark’s show Waves (Das Glückliche Rothschild) transformed the Berlin space into a Wiener-Werkstätte tribute to an Orien­talist boudoir. In part a response to ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s bestselling family-history-via-antiques book, The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010), the exhibition also summized an idea stated in Clark’s 2014 book Sessions 1-8 (co-authored with Christiane Blattmann): ‘to be a house, a sculpture or alternatively a nervous breakdown’. Waves comprised an extended length of carpet through the middle of the space imitating a stucco ceiling, wooden stools, strange ornamental bronzes and an imposing gilt-framed metallic mirror screen. Even the gallery’s side window was fussily draped with a painted curtain. Echoing the sort of decorative environments characteristic of Nick Mauss and Marc Camille Chaimowicz, the show had a queasy elegance and neurotic intensity all its own.

Waves (Das Glückliche Rothschild), 2013, exhibition view, Mathew, Berlin

Inhabited by outcasts, for Clark, the world of interiors is a forum for those ex­cluded from more elevated creative pursuits. Décor is a means to articulate dissatisfaction, anxiety and aspiration – perhaps especially when it looks luxurious and aestheticized. Clark is currently adapting Graham Greene’s 1975 short story May We Borrow Your Husband? to serialize in QX, a London gay listings magazine, but from the perspective of the story’s villains: two predatory gay interior decorators. Clarke finds a sense of mission in reappraising this often suspicious or trivialized role and takes a fanboy pleasure in re-telling the stories of his idols: for ex­ample his series Conversation Piece (1-55) (2009-ongoing) where Clark takes rubbings from the gravestones of gay icons such as Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau.

It was a visit to Eileen Gray at her modernist villa E-1027 (1926–29), located on the French Mediterranean coast, which prompted Bruce Chatwin to undertake his ‘travelogue’ In Patagonia (1977). Chatwin’s travel writing is notorious for its embellishments. Something not unrelated, for Clark, to Chatwin’s disguise of his bisexuality and suffering from AIDS: Chatwin used his HIV-status as a ruse, for example, when he explained his sickness to friends as the result of ingesting guano in an Indonesian cave. In a series entitled Java Nocturne (2014), Clark revelled in this heady mixture of design, deception and sexuality, depicting Chatwin’s fantasy as Gray might: commissioning a set of rugs woven with white torch beams and cascades of bat wings in inky blues and blacks. Subtitling the works using adaptations from Oscar Wilde’s essay The Decay of Lying – An Observation (1891), the series celebrated Chatwin’s self mythology, style and mania – even as the wool they were woven from was partly from Chatwin’s own flock of sheep, bred at his Welsh farm.

Waves (Das Glückliche Rothschild), 2013, exhibition view, Mathew, Berlin

Spinning the yarn from Chatwin’s domestic life into an invocation of the own author’s fantasy is a typical example of Clark’s effort to rework the dialectics of reality and artistry. He treats authenticity like raw material; an object like a piece of text. Cancellation: Binoculars and Cancellation: Lens, (both 2013) are made from porcelain works by de Waal which Clark acquired, laser-cut into new forms and attached to bronze casts of tree branches. For another series (Cancellation: Cigarettes, 2014), Clark purchased rare photographic prints of Henry James and his rumoured lover, the sculptor Hendrik Anderson, and fashioned these Belle Époque reliquaries into crude imitations of contem­porary drug paraphernalia.

This antipathy to authenticity betrays Clark’s affinity with the stage. Studying acting years before he did fine art, Clark also writes scripts, designs sets and directs performances – both as a solo artist and member of the Villa Design Group which he formed with James Connick and William Joys at Goldsmith’s College in 2011. For all their el­egance Clark’s installations and performances share the profusion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. For one installment of the Villa Design Groups’ project Inauguration of the Russian Season (2014), a dinner was organized at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London (RIBA) to announce the shortlist for a library commission to house the lost works of Nikolai Gogol. No guests were invited. Was this a performance, a play without audience, or merely a very odd meal? Video documentation shows waiters shifting awkwardly and speeches delivered to empty place settings – nothing is given by way of answers.

Java Nocturne (Nothing is more evident than that nature hates mind. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world.), 2014, mixed media

This indeterminacy seems precisely the point. Many terms I reach for to describe Clark’s aesthetic are used to excoriate the taste and behaviour associated with the identities of gay men: rarefied, erudite, decadent, hysterical (his performance at the Oslo gallery VI, VII this year featured two bewigged performers entwined in furniture declaring ‘we are catastrophic people!’). In this way I empathize with the RIBA waiters: uncom­fortable with my instincts, not sure how to react, uncertain what I’m looking at. It’s this discomfort – the ‘worry which can get established in a room’, as a character in Greene’s story puts it – in which the urgency of Clark’s work resides.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.