Laure Prouvost: ‘My work cannot exist without someone looking’

Laure Prouvost’s world is a wonderland of fantastic grandparents, ego museums and translated emotions

Laure Prouvost by Marc Latzel
Portrait by Michaël Smits

Turner Prize-winning French artist Laure Prouvost animates real life encounters that spark memories and associations. Using a network of ambiguous signifiers, she mystifies and tantalises, drawing audiences deep into her work. Indeed, the experience of her art is like that of Alice going down the rabbit hole, where words, images and sounds carry unexpected, and sometimes startling, meanings.

Late one afternoon on a cold winter’s day in her studio in Antwerp, Prouvost called SLEEK to discuss the strange logic of her aesthetic universe, as well as her current shows at the HangarBicocca in Milan, and Kunstmuseum Luzerne in Switzerland. The results were curious, to say the least.

 “My work, like any artwork, cannot exist without someone looking” – Laure Prouvost

Laure Prouvost, GDM – Grand Dad’s Visitor Center, Installation view, Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 2016
GDM – Grand Dad’s Visitor Center, Installation view, Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 2016

Many people have become familiar with your work since you won the Turner Prize. You spent many years living in the UK. Do you feel British?

I travel a lot. I feel like I am a plane. I feel very metallic with my body spraying petrol all around the world. I feel European. In terms of nationality, Europe was a big thing and it has been pretty sad for me with Brexit. London has a nasty taste. I am more or less living underground, looking into histories in general.

Your exhibition at at the HangarBicocca, “GDM – Grand Dad’s Visitor Center”, reflects this. It draws upon a story you’ve referenced – a “family history” – about your grandfather in several works, including your 2013 Turner-winning installation “Wantee”, and your 2015 exhibition “Burrow” among others. He was, you claim, an artist and contemporary of Kurt Schwitters, who disappeared down a hole he’d dug under the hut he lived in. You’ve never said who he was, but perhaps that’s part of your strategy.

The show is an extension of previous works. I started collecting money to make a visitor centre for my grandfather. It was my grandmother’s idea. She really wanted to do it in the hope of him coming back, so he could see how much everybody loves him and that he was the best artist. Essentially, a big ego museum.

[It also] plays a lot with the idea of the amateur, [and with] the idea of the outsider. Perhaps you know Facteur Cheval, who made the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval temple in France? It was inspired by a similar desire to create and leave something on the planet. I make art for this reason as well. I am motivated by thinking about what art is depending on who sees it. I am interested in the different emotions that it triggers.

The show seems to focus on the visitor’s role, too.

Yeah, totally. There are no walls and none of it is finished, so you have to finish the walls in your head. But a lot of my work in general, like any artwork, cannot exist without someone looking. I hope to engage visitors as contributors in order to re-imagine the space, so this opens up a lot of direct exchange.

In a way this makes your work quite vulnerable, a theme that’s also manifest in your 2015 film, “Into All That Is Here”. It’s a video that deconstructs basic human experiences through a combination of noise, imagery, and words.

I was trying to translate emotion, [as well as] the subconscious of my grandfather. I wanted to explore ideas of pleasure and anxiety. There was a lot of metamorphosis in this piece. Suddenly you are digging into this hole, and then assuming the view of an insect in a cocoon that comes out and wants to swallow everything it sees, and then slowly dies, consumed by consuming. It’s a comment on humanity and the way we consume images.

“Film sort of competes with life. However, the sweat of my hand will never be the same in a show” – Laure Prouvost

Laure Prouvost, Behind the lobby doors, the pepper is in the right eye, 2016,
Behind the lobby doors, the pepper is in the right eye, 2016, Installation View, Kunstmuseum Luzern

The specificity of your exhibitions also seems important. For instance, variations of your show at the Kunstmuseum Luzern, “And She Will Say: Hi Her, Ailleurs, to Higher Grounds…”, were also staged in Dijon and Frankfurt, but with slightly different ideas.

[The exhibition] is more like a narrative between three institutions. The theme was very much about ‘escaping’ in an abstract sense – [an] idea of having to let go of something and start something else. It was first [shown] in Dijon at Le Consortium, entitled “Dropped Here and Then, to Live, Leave it All Behind”. Then at the MMK in Frankfurt, [it was] called, “All behind, We’ll Go Deeper, Deep Down and She Will Say”, [where it went] really deep into the earth, sort of boiling over like a volcano. The exhibition design was slowly sliding up a path, taking you higher. In the end, you are kind of free from it all.

From the playful titles, to your grandfather’s fanciful background story, words are central to these works. Indeed, the idea that language frames our experiences – and visa versa – seems to be your central preoccupation.

I think you are right. It is close to some kind of poetry, but I am not trying to articulate and say, “This is what it is.” It is more like one possibility, one vision of one experience. I think that this is also the case with film. Film sort of competes with life. However, the sweat of my hand will never be the same in a show. How do you present so many elements in life? But film can also enhance. You can compress time, like a can of emotions. That is quite fascinating, but it doesn’t always work.

Laure Prouvost, Shovels, seit 2015, Ausstellungsansicht Kunstmuseum Luzern
Shovels, since 2015, installation view, Kunstmuseum Luzern

GDM – Grand Dad’s Visitor Center“, at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan, until 9 April 2017

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