by OLIVIER ZAHM
portraits by ALEPH MOLINARI
Fueled by her passion for the Middle Ages and the cyberpunk universe, Her offbeat work as a curator and artist merges decorative arts, sports, and contemporary art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We imagine ourselves in an age of technological enlightenment, while you look back to a premodern era, the Middle Ages. Why this fascination with a long period of obscurantism?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Initially, my fascination with the Middle Ages was very intuitive, precisely because it’s an area of shadow and vagueness. When I was young, I started raving about the period, initially through heroic fantasy. Then I went to art school and studied art history. What interests me most is the 19th-century rereading of the medieval period: medievalism. For me, it was a refuge, a temporal bubble outside the dominant models of our supposed modernity and postmodernity, as well as our current paradigms. In fact, I’m referring to a very utopian, largely imagined Middle Ages, an imaginary refuge. History remains the only zone of mystery and fantasy, out of control…
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Middle Ages are a troubled, complex period, enigmatic in many ways, which have been largely disqualified, even in artistic terms.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — What really drew me to this period was its profound freedom. It’s a very fragmented history. But even more than the era itself, it’s the rereading of it that periodically interests me. I’m fascinated by the troubadour artists of the 19th century, who depict a fantasized vision of the feudal era, mythologizing its history and society.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean by “fragmented” history?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Fragmented because in the Middle Ages, there was no centralization, no centralized authority; there was a form of ordered chaos. Of course, the Christian church and then the establishment of monarchies gradually took control. For me, being from Marseille, I think this lack of centrality speaks volumes. People say that there’s little culture here, but in reality it’s a different kind of culture, a mixture of high and low culture. Being intellectually constructed outside a capital city brings an extraordinary freedom; it’s experiencing another cultural paradigm, especially in Marseille. I love this step aside, this peripheral location, this geographical gap: it’s outside the official story.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In terms of iconography, how have you been influenced by art from the Middle Ages?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — For my latest exhibition, for example, I created a cyberpunk universe. As a medievalist, I specialize in the moments of friction between Roman and Christian iconography. Under the Roman Empire, iconography was widely used to represent pagan deities and myths. When the empire became Christian in the fourth century, iconography evolved to represent Christian themes and figures. There’s a moment of hesitation, a bit bastardized, between the fourth and the sixth centuries, when we don’t really know what happened. There’s no perspective; Christ is depicted as an emperor… The Christian canon is superimposed on imperial and pagan codes of representation. These are inspiring moments. I’ve looked deeply at medieval painting because it’s very symbolic. It’s deeply intellectual. There’s often a golden background. It’s really a kind of levitating abstraction. From the moment the Renaissance began to depict patrons, we came back down to earth. In this sense, I was greatly influenced by Jean de Loisy and his exhibition “Traces du Sacré.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which artists in particular have inspired you?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — I’m deeply moved by artists who fantasize about the Middle Ages, like the troubadour painters or the Nazarenes. For me, the Nazarenes were the first punks. They’re called that because they had hair like Jesus Christ’s. They were a group of German Romantic artists of Protestant faith, who sought to revive medieval artistic codes. They moved to Rome, where they squatted in a former monastery called the Sant’Isidoro, which they transformed into a painting studio and a type of artists’ community. They sought
to imitate the simple life of early Christians and medieval monks, while creating art that broke with the artistic conventions of their time. I can identify with this type of artist, who at some point broke away from the dogmas of their time. I’m also fascinated by Félicie de Fauveau, a brilliant sculptor who reinvented the Gothic aesthetic. Today, we’re coming out of postmodernism and profoundly questioning the temporality that was imposed on us from the French Revolution onward. Because that’s what the avant-garde is all about: the ideology of progress and infinite acceleration. But I love today’s artists, like Pierre Huyghe and his cross-disciplinary practice.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you also looking for a different iconography?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Yes, I’ve always looked at armor, folk art, decorative arts, and religious art. All the movements between art and ornament, from the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris to Pattern and Decoration in the US in the ’70s. Or postmodern architecture in the ’80s, which sees art history as a construction box. In fact, the minor arts, denigrated by the contemporary art world, interest me precisely because they’ve been sidelined: furniture, tapestry, textile arts, ceramics, embroidery, murals…And this extends all the way to fantasy and fantastic literature, such as Tolkien or Philip K. Dick, right up to video games, all of which find their way into my installations. These are both fringe practices but also popular phenomena that affect just about everyone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you reject hierarchies between popular culture and elitist or high culture?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — I had this discussion with Peter Shire for the Purple Residence catalogue interview. Why shouldn’t a ceramic mug be as important as a sculpture and be both?
I like things that you can’t completely prioritize and control. Armor, for example: there were few aesthetic standards, and they were beautifully designed and decorated. Folk art is something you can’t control. It’s an unconscious collective movement; there isn’t an elite at the helm. The same goes for tuning today, and what we do with car bodies and grilles. Armor and tuning are the same thing. Sports aesthetics, too: there are a few aesthetic codes, for example in mixed martial arts [MMA] or boxing, but they’re not controlled by a desire for classic beauty. It’s popular and uncontrollable because these aesthetic universes come and go very often from below. This is also the case for epic and fantasy literature, which for a long time virtually disappeared from academic culture and is now coming back through video games.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Through your work, whether it’s a ceramic piece, a sculpture, an installation, or the way you conceive group exhibitions, you assert a rejection of the often masculinist figure of the artist — the artist as representative of the uncommon individuality that emerges with the fall of the religious paradigm and the arrival of industrial civilization (the mass-produced object).
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Yes, totally! I refer to a more Aristotelian vision of the artist; i.e., that the works are more important than the artists. But I don’t like to oppose things head-on. And I do so through my dual position as artist and curator. I talk about soccer and tuning, and at the same time, I’m a medievalist, a professor at Sciences Po, and a curator. I see absolutely no opposition between all that. Stadium culture inspires me just as much as museum culture does. It’s our new collective religion. It’s extremely important. I look at sporting iconography and the way people behave. Sometimes it inspires me more than going to an exhibition.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it also gives you an angle as a curator. You’ve discovered and invited artists who weren’t recognized and not necessarily identified as such.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Yes, I’ve done that a lot. In 2015 in Montpellier, for example, I designed the exhibition “Pré-capital” with Charlotte Cosson and Nicolas Bourriaud. The idea was to explore popular and rural forms in contemporary art considered “minor,” to open up contemporary art to popular techniques or local knowledge. Now I’m working on the aesthetics of the trophy, for projects linked to the Rugby World Cup and soccer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s an attempt to confront contemporary art with precapitalist forms of expression, even though it’s the cutting edge, the avant-garde of capitalism, at least in terms of symbolic exchange.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — It’s quite a Marxist position because I could see that contemporary art is dominated by the world of global capitalism. I showed quite a few artists who came from rural backgrounds or who had left the big capitals — a movement that’s gaining momentum today. I sensed this change, with artists returning to alternative, precapitalist modes of production, using poorer materials, for example. This was the moment when ceramics began to make a comeback.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, is this a reconciliation between contemporary art and craft?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Yes. I did a series of exhibitions with the idea of questioning the hierarchies established with modernity and the difference between minor and major arts. This hierarchization took place in the 17th century but, in fact, began long before, as early as the Renaissance. We still often hear the judgment when faced with a work of art: “It’s decorative.” However, if I’m interested in this phenomenon between art and craft, I don’t rule out techniques that require more machinery, such as metal. It’s the creation of historical fantasy and imaginary worlds that, above all, guides my practice.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your exhibition “Les Chemins du Sud” in 2019 at the Regional Museum of Contemporary Art in Sérignan also spoke of this revaluation of the decorative.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — “Les Chemins du Sud” was an exhibition I did around a theory of the “minor.” I worked precisely on artists from the 19th and 20th centuries who had challenged the idea of modernity — symbolists and decadent artists like Odilon Redon, Félicien Rops, and Gustave Moreau, or 20th-century painters like Raoul Dufy. It was at this point that I founded Pavillon Southway in Marseille, which is clearly inspired by Arts and Crafts, and is a total domestic project before being an exhibition space. But I think the real premise on the interaction of art and design was the “COOL / As a State of Mind” exhibition, where I talked about the deeply American culture of “California Cool.” I fantasized Californian culture as another artistic model, a counterculture to the hegemony of New York art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With a focus on artists who are considered secondary in the history of art?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — They’re seen as “minor” rather than secondary — not as second-rate but as marginal or niche painters. Raoul Dufy, for example, made furniture, so he’s seen as a “decorative” artist, despite a brilliant career. Except that Dufy was to inspire Pattern and Decoration in the USA in the ’70s. “Les Chemins du Sud” was the first exhibition to show Pattern and Decoration with Betty Woodman and Robert Kushner in France. I invited them; they came, and we had a huge number of loans. I reworked a kind of filiation between these artists and the young creation I showed in the exhibition.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but at the same time, the decorative work you’re supporting isn’t just decorative.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — My conceptual subject is everything that goes beyond the norms of art. Decorative art is part of that. And that’s why I love your work — because you, too, go beyond the norm.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not post-decorative, either. It is a rehabilitation of the decorative as an artistic position. Or would you say that decorative art is a conceptual camouflage for attacking the fortress of contemporary art?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — I’ve talked a lot about this with Bernard Stiegler.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I didn’t know that you knew Bernard Stiegler. This philosopher and his critique of digital capitalism are a major influence on this issue on revolutions.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — I was very close to him. We wrote together and did a lot of interviews, and we exchanged e-mails. He pushed me a lot. I talked to him about ornament as “care.” And he told me about the idea of the “pharmakon,” both remedy and poison, which for him described the ambivalent effects of technology. He was one of the first philosophers to theorize about the problems associated with the Internet, artificial intelligence, and the senseless acceleration of culture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Unfortunately, he died not long ago, just before we experienced what is happening to us now, the irruption of artificial intelligence into our daily lives. The effective beginning of the automatic production of texts and images, perhaps even feelings, on a large social scale. We are beginning to delegate to machines the production and manufacture of language, the instrument that unites us, that produces all our religious, political, economic, and scientific narratives, as well as our intimate ones.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — It’s the new centrality, a source of power and control. Bernard Stiegler warned us!
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you manage to articulate your work as a curator and your personal work as an artist?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — They’re not mutually exclusive. When I imagine an exhibition with other artists and their works, I build environments, and what interests me are the links between all these things. So, initially, when I produced my pieces, it was to complete them. I put myself in the gaps. An exhibition is an ecosystem that I’ve set up, where my own productions have found their place. There are pieces that are articulated, that are really scenographic pieces. And there are pieces that remain after the exhibition, which become autonomous sculptures. But I have the impression that they don’t clash.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your production paradigm is ultimately more collective than subjective?
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — There’s a great deal of individuality in my work, but I find it hard to say “I” because I’m always working with other people. I’m always saying “we.” It’s not for nothing that the Middle Ages interest me — they had a profoundly collective dimension. When I created the Pavillon Southway, it was to offer an artists’ residency, with my work and that of other artists, but it was also a global project, perpetually in motion. It’s always changing because there are things leaving and then new pieces or sets. I love the fact that traces of it remain, like sedimentary remains. It’s an ecosystem, which means it’s always changing, and everything that goes into it has a purpose, from residencies to exhibitions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s your personal revolution.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — It’s a hallucinating illusion to sign an exhibition or a work of art as something purelypersonal.
Group work is beautiful. There’s always a collective dimension. Sculpture is a team sport. When you’re sculpting, there are many of you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a lecture by Stiegler on precisely this idea of the end of art from this point of view, which is the end of the artist as a hero. The end of this artistic supra-identity, which was born as a production of the bourgeoisie, refusing for itself the mass-produced, industrialized object, and preserving for its salons the ideal of uniqueness. I can see the link with Stiegler, and it’s a pleasure to discover that you’re in this vein. In this issue of Purple, I wanted to pay tribute to him, but I didn’t know how. His death is a great intellectual loss for us all.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — I’ve kept all our exchanges. Sometimes, I reread the things he wrote me. He said something personal to me, something that stuck with me and sustained me: “You’re a Dionysian, Emmanuelle. You’re here.” There’s something deeply carnal and messy about Dionysus, and I think he was evoking Latinity and élan vital.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He gave you confidence, both theoretically and artistically.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — And above all, he watched and listened to everything. We wrote to each other all the time on all sorts of subjects, from art to geopolitics. I’d talk to him about my intuitions, and he’d respond philosophically.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You also had an important exchange with the critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Nicolas was extremely important because he spotted my work very early on. He’s the person who gave me a methodology as a curator. I did an exhibition called “DOMESTIC — Like a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” 10 years ago in Switzerland. I was talking about the return of domestic artworks, and that was the trigger for “Pre-Capital,” which I did with him in 2017. Since then, my dialogue with Nicolas hasn’t stopped. He’s a true researcher, and he has no limits. He is one of the few people in the art world with whom I’ve always felt total freedom. He taught me the most about what I do. I’ve observed him a lot in museums and in his exhibitions. He creates ecosystems, in fact. He composes. He’s an exhibition composer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, and no doubt for Nicolas, too, art is a place for experimenting with the world. A place where prototypes of new possibilities are proposed.
EMMANUELLE LUCIANI — Yes, for me, art is the formal crystallization of societal change. And when you observe works of art as formal crystallizations, you sense the beginnings of change in the midst of a period of unrest and friction.
[Table of contents]
editor’s letterRead the article
by Daniel Pinchbeck
by Paul B. Preciado
cover #1 cindy shermanRead the article
best of the season f/w 23-24
photography by Olivier Zahm
art or the possibility of the impossible
by Alain Badiou
cover #2 milla jovovich in gucci f/w 2023-24
photography by Cameron McCool
evgeny morozovRead the article
cover #3 aylah peterson in prada f/w 2023-24
photography by Reto Schmid
cover #4 john giornoRead the article
photography by Ethan Skaates
mariko mori, the unseen power of energetic fieldsRead the article
cover #5 margaret qualley in chanel f/w 2023-24
photography by Jeremy Everett
de wain valentineRead the article
cover #6 zegna x the elder statesman f/w 2023-24
photography by Olivier Zahm
interview by Oliver Zahm & Aleph Molinari
what climate collapse asks of us
by Bayo Akomolafe
cover #7 gabbriette in guess usa f/w 2023-24
photography by Richard Kern
cover #8 minttu vesala in balenciaga winter 2023
photography by Juergen Teller
cover #9 mariana arias in dior cruise 2024
photography by Olivier Zahm
cover #10 saskia de brauw in fendi f/w 2023-24
photography by Brett Lloyd
cover #11 caroline polachek in givenchy F/W 2023-24
photography by Kira Bunse
cover #12 carsten höllerRead the article
is there an angel in the ecosystem?
by Val Plumwood
anthea hamilton “mash up”Read the article
interview by Aleph Molinari
charles rayRead the article
cover #13 louis vuitton pre-fall 2023
photography by Takashi Homma
interview by Olivier Zahm & Aleph Molinari
hinako, the rubber queen of tokyo
interview by Bobbi Salvör Menuez
cover #14 hari nef
photography by Steven Klein
hour of the wolf
photography by Robi Rodriguez
the idiots revolution
by Byung-Chul Han
cover #15 melvil poupaud in dior men f/w 2023-24
photography by Ola Rindal
cover #16 marie-agnès gillot and charlotte dauphin in valentino f/w 2023-24
photography by Andrea Spotorno
cover #17 loro piana f/w 2023-24
photography by Dario Catellani
cover #18 emmanuelle lucianiRead the article
cover #19 sascha rajasalu in saint laurent f/w 2023-24
photography by Esther Theaker
interview by Daniel Pinchbeck
interview by Daniel Pinchbeck
“what can the body do?” with georgia bryan
photography by Dana Boulos
fashion factionRead the article
cover #20 moncler karakorum f/w 2023-24
photography by Henrik Purienne
find each other
By The Invisible Committee
cover #21 dash snowRead the article