Before you begin reading, an important note: Laure Prouvost may not be telling us the truth.
The French provocateur is an art world trickster, one who spins meaning, turns it on its head, and does so in funny, unconventional ways. At times, she can be shocking. Even Page Six was paying attention when, during an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony last November, she told a crowd that her grandmother used to tie herself naked to airplanes and float through the sky. Seemingly caught off-guard, the New Museum’s director, Massimiliano Gioni, had to reassure attendees that, for Prouvost, fiction and reality are blurred.
This year, the artist is representing her home country of France at the Venice Biennale, becoming only the third female artist to do so. But today is a busy day too, as she opens a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, her largest solo outing to date, and a survey of the past 15 years of her work.
From there, the marathon continues: in March, she will perform at Performatik19, the Brussels biennial for performance art, and is also preparing installations and performances in London, which will take over advertising posters, screens, and city maps around the city. She will also have works at Heathrow and Stratford airports and will commission a performance for the London Underground, which she’s been working on with a choir for months.
The truth is that it’s a busy time.
A New Dictionary for a New World
Speaking on the phone from her studio, Prouvost sounds reasonably relaxed about her stack of tasks. “Ideas are welcome,” she says.
Prouvost was born in 1978 in Croix in northeastern France and studied at Central St Martins and Goldsmiths College in London. Soon after finishing at Goldsmiths in 2010, she began to garner attention for her unique braiding of poetic humor with intimate—and maybe untrue—references to her own life. She currently works in Antwerp and, according to the press release for her Venice show, is also based in a caravan in the Croatian desert (though a quick Google search for the term brings up Croatian desserts first).
For her work, which stretches across performance, installation, and video, she won the Max Mara art prize for women in 2011 and the Turner Prize in 2013. She has had shows at the Palais de Tokyo, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, and Witte de With in Rotterdam.
“We need to question everything in history,” Prouvost tells artnet news. Asked about her feelings on the current political upheavals in Europe, she sounds a note of optimism. “It’s an interesting moment. There are a lot of ideas and desires that we can hold on to, but there is a lot we can question and also re-invent.”
In that vein, for her show in Antwerp, which is called “AM-BIG-YOU-US LEGSICON,” she has released a dictionary-as-catalog that reads like a surrealist encyclopedia. For each word she includes in the publication (cheekily called LEGSICON), she has invited different authors to come up with new definitions, genders, and histories for the words.
Her practice can be traced back to this way of thinking. Boobs, which is one of the words in the dictionary, often crop up in her work, in sculptures and paintings and elsewhere (“All the very breast, Laure Prouvost,” she signs off in the book’s introduction). Most recently, breasts also figured largely in her show “Ring, Sing and Drink for Trespassing” at the Palais de Tokyo, as a fountains spraying water in hilarious arcs through many nipples.
Another word, grandad, recalls her acclaimed video work Wantee (2013), based on a fictional narrative of her fictional grandfather. (The video helped her secure the Turner Prize.) Wantee will join other greatest hits, such as DITLEARN—a rapid succession of words and images that breaks apart old meanings—in Antwerp. In addition, new works, layered together in a perfectly tangled mess of references, are also on view. The museum is calling it a “total environment.”
Prouvost says elements reappear throughout the exhibition in surprising ways. “It’s interesting to connect all these works; it can be quite intense,” she says. “It can be about building a sequence, but it can be also about building a labyrinth.”
What Prouvost Is Planning for Venice
Octopus, another word in the dictionary, signals things to come. From what is known of her French pavilion project, and based on Prouvost’s preparatory images, the octopus will completely surround the building.
“I like this metaphor,” she says “The octopus is the oldest mind or brain of this planet. With her arms, she’s touching and thinking many things at one time. And could it be where we all come from? The only thing the octopus doesn’t have is memory, so she cannot evolve so much. She cannot pass down knowledge.” With a laugh, she adds: “I also often forget things, so I can connect to that.”
The project’s title, “DEEP SEA BLUE SURROUNDING YOU / VOIS CE BLEU PROFOND TE FONDRE,” was announced in January. The core of the pavilion will include a fictional film based on a meandering road trip from the Parisian suburbs to the floating city of Venice, and will features 12 characters, including a rapper, a dancer, a flutist, a priest, a karate master, and a magician.
“The film is in a way the head of my octopus,”Prouvost writes in a conversation with the pavilion’s curator, Martha Kirszenbaum. “The installation is alive because of the film […] I would like for each spectator to feel himself/herself becoming a tentacle of the project.”
To help finance the project, Prouvost has created a limited edition of embroidered silk tapestries, which you can buy online from her Berlin gallery, carlier | gebauer. The works feature a mistranslation of a popular French expression, “On va vous raconter des salades” (we will tell you lies), which foreshadows some of the trickery to come in Venice. To follow up on her Antwerp show’s lexicon, Prouvost will produce an atlas, which will likely rework the world’s geography.
“My grandma has been making the tapestries,” Prouvoust tells me. “She takes time to make them, and she knows a few ‘salads’ as well,” she laughs, punning on a French slang word for lies. “We are happy to have her in the family and get creative together.”
On the gallery website, I noticed a slightly different story, referring to a Belgian “specialist” who has been making the tapestries. I decided not to ask. Creative ambiguity, again, is Prouvost’s goal.
Asked if there are any other words floating around in her mind for her Venice project, the artist answers that “extremities” is a metaphor she is channeling into the show. What exactly it means in Prouvost’s lexicon is anyone’s guess. And knowing Prouvost’s propensity to surprise us, it may be best to just forget what you know.
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