Meta is a collaboration between art-agenda and TextWork, editorial platform of the Fondation Pernod Ricard, in which writers reflect on the experience of writing about art. Here, Martin Herbert considers the processes that shaped his monographic essay on Hubert Duprat’s work, “Bothness.”

My trip to the South of France, in April last year, to meet Hubert Duprat at his home (which contains his studio) called for a layover in Paris, not least to see the artist’s show at Galerie Art Concept. That evening, wandering around at a loose end after ducking out of a panel discussion at Kader Attia’s multifunction venue La Colonie, I started seeing social media posts to the effect that Notre Dame was on fire. I’ll spare you another first-hand reminiscence of that grim event, which, as I’m writing from quarantine, seems a long time ago. The next day, over lunch and a wide-ranging conversation chez Duprat as the afternoon unwound, we didn’t discuss the fire; it seemed unmentionable. The cathedral was an extraordinary human achievement undone by—seemingly—faulty wiring. Talking with Duprat about his work, with its vast timescales and reflection of creative ingenuity, I guess we might have made something of that.

Instead, as we spoke, something else was on my mind: my increasingly discomfited sense that the one time I’d previously written about Duprat, in a catalogue essay, I’d misread his practice. Even in expansive mood after some wine and roast lamb, he is, or was to me, a somewhat elusive interviewee—the necessity of translation, and my occasional veering into rickety French, maybe didn’t help—mostly, I think, because he doesn’t want to close readings down. (A number of his answers were variations on “yes… and no.”) When I first analyzed his work I’d couched it in melancholic terms: that Duprat’s art summarizes the grand arc of human action on the planet at the point when our time on it is running out. Yet his reticence concerning this reading, and his simultaneous hesitancy to clarify another one, led me eventually to read his practice at least in part through the filter of our chat, which never quite reached an endpoint.

Most artists accept “art” as the category they work within. I think, now, that Duprat is ambitious enough to want to problematize that: hence, within his practice, his stylistic intransigence, his disavowal of the basic notion that art is made solely by human beings (and not his frequent insectoid collaborators, caddisflies), his engagement with artisanal traditions and scientific processes and the mining of minerals—all of which adds up to a nesting of art within a larger sphere that we might call the creative act. Writing about Duprat this time, though, I came to this conclusion only to see it as a matryoshka doll within another: taken individually, his artworks convey a stubborn obliqueness mingled with certitude that suggests their maker knows that art, today, might be at its most ambitious by dissolving its own givens, resisting precisely the kind of drab conceptual lassoing I attempted on it before.

Of course, articulating this as his “position” leads us towards the paradoxical. But then so does the fact that my encounter with the artist himself—my feeling, on a northbound train, that this had been a pleasurable visit but that I hadn’t “got” what I came for—ended up being key. Meeting my expectations, whose conventionality and boundedness I could now see, would be against the spirit of this artist; maybe even, by his lights, against the purpose of art itself. As we were leaving Duprat’s home, as he handed us—myself, and Colette and Pauline from the Ricard Foundation, who’d joined us in the conversation—some of his own wine, he mentioned that he would be going to Paris the next day. It crossed my mind that we could have met there, and skipped a lengthy southward trip; after all, he’d had barely any art in his studio. Aside from his generous hosting, it didn’t quite compute. I wondered, I wonder still, where Duprat’s art ends.