On a hot day in Antwerp I climbed to the top of an imposing block; the heat rose with me. At the fourth floor, I was led past two enormous pink papier-mâché boobs, recently returned from an exhibition in Milan, and, ducking, moved through a blackened mocked-up film installation. Past these gauntlets, fittingly situating this visitor firmly within her body, I finally reached the inner sanctum of Laure Prouvost’s studio. On the floor lies an intricately woven tapestry, perhaps formerly an artwork, now a paint and resin encrusted rug. The walls testify to Prouvost’s incredibly busy schedule, with exhibitions marked up at institutions and galleries worldwide. The winner of a Turner Prize, in high demand on both the art and film circuit, what is it that makes her vision, and the experience of her work, so appealing to contemporary audiences?
For my part, her work has always beguiled in its humour, fascinated in its literary use of language, and captivated in its theatricality. Entering an artwork by Laure Prouvost is to enter a strangely warped and heightened version of reality. Here language disobeys, becoming conversely slippery and concrete. Objects leave the confines of their objecthood to speak animatedly, or maybe tell a joke. Pixelated images display their own artifice but manage to simultaneously seduce and repel, triggering bodily responses, memories and recognitions. Prouvost’s installations and sound works thus form affective interfaces with a defamiliarized reality, synthesizing sound, image, and sensation to build moments through which the viewer has to reassess her surroundings, thus privileging bodily experience over the analytical mind. Inverting the inherent hierarchy of mind–body dualism, Prouvost employs seduction as a key tool for pulling in her viewers, and for tacitly transforming their role from that of spectator to protagonist.
Natasha Hoare: Communication and translation are core to many of your works. Through installation, sound and film, you build experimental, and often theatrical, interfaces that seek to implement all the tools of language and image to find new routes to the viewer. Within this seduction is an eminent methodology. Why is it so primary to your work?
Laure Prouvost: My works are seductive in the way they pretend you’re the only one they want to talk to. You’re the only important thing on the planet, and that’s going to be the level of exchange with you. It is through ideas of the embodiment of an artwork, in the same way as we are embodied. It becomes something that happens without me being very conscious of it, and often creates a situation where the viewer becomes the protagonist, either numb or involved, in an installation. Of course it’s play, there are just pixels trying to do that, as a tool to get your attention, and also involve you within the piece. You are in the brain of the pixels for a little bit, which triggers resonance, a kind of glamour and seduction as well – it’s shiny and attractive.
At the same time, it’s slippery, in the same way as language and emotions can be slippery. In my videos, the use of the voice makes it quite easy to play on emotions. I always see it as tromp-l’oeil, the film as a fake window, where it is trying to trigger the idea of something. If the brain is at work, then the idea might even be more vivid than the actual thing. It can be compared to a fight between life and art. Art is mostly drawing on memories that are aroused through emotion and smell. So the narrator’s voice wants to create a moment of comfort, cosiness, or heat. At the same time, it raises questions about the work: how does that make us feel sweaty, how do we trick our brain?
It brings about a vulnerability, asks you to let go of all your security and the things that you keep around yourself by way of protection.
Natasha: So seduction is a register or mode of address that opens us up as viewers to the work.
Laure: Yes, voice and seduction is a method to let you come into the work. It brings about a vulnerability, asks you to let go of all your security and the things that you keep around yourself by way of protection. The work tries to break down a little bit of that. That’s what film and literature do constantly, situating your voice in the fiction so that you become a main character. I’ve used that trope in many ways; a lot of the time it might just be through subtitles: the viewer uses their own voice to articulate them, so they become the protagonist. You’re almost the one who seduces yourself.
Natasha: It’s a gateway drug, a first stage in drawing you in, and once the viewer is part of your logic, you can start doing different things with them. You also want commitment from your viewer; when working in sound and film which are durational, capturing your audience is vital to building narratives.
Laure: A film demands attention from so many senses; seduction is one among many tools for me to use, alongside the visual, sound, and movement. As a viewer, you’re usually so numb. Film can be such a controlling medium on the body, and I like mentioning this directly in the work. There’s a line between where you have control, and how simultaneously the piece doesn’t belong to the artist any more; it has a life of its own. It travels with you after you leave and at the same time, it’s very much attached to a frame.
Natasha: When you talk about your work you mention the decisions informing it being made both consciously and unconsciously. Having watched you work I can see that it’s a very instinctive process, both in the construction and tempering of the installations, films and sound works, and in the way that you are manipulating, or working with the viewer.
Laure: This additional layer of con-sciousness comes in especially through sound, which is less perceptible. The image stays strong, but sound and voice enter the body in a way that the image doesn’t. Sound has its own particularity; we memorize images much easier than sounds, and for me personally sounds often conjure smells for example and are much more evocative than image.
Natasha: Sound is more penetrative and bodily in its effect. There’s less filtering than with image, to which our response is more analytic. With film of course you can combine the two.
Laure: One day I’ll make a silent film! But for the moment I can’t help using a full palette of sound; I want emotional triggers. It’s such an important tool for, but it’s always responsive to, the image, a second layer or translation almost. When working on it, it’s hard to really feel what’s going on; at that point I need distance, and to show it to someone outside of the process.
Natasha: Do you revisit or revise works after they’ve been shown?
Laure: Rarely; just because my brain has usually moved on to something else. But it helps to have a bit of distance; to work on something, give myself two weeks away from it, and then commence work again. The sound itself takes its cue from the body; how we perceive sound. It’s generated by recording on a microphone, sometimes in the studio, or else outside on the street, then I rework it. Our brains are constantly engaged with all the sounds around us, just like ours are here now. I could record all these cars that are passing us on the recording device, but simply playing it back becomes problematic. The artwork needs to play on what we hear after our brain has edited the sonic world around us to reflect the process we are all constantly engaged in, namely making a trompe-l’oeil of reality.
Natasha: I think the traffic has intensified since we’ve been sitting here.
Laure: It’s just because we’re listening to it. Again, it’s this conscious.
Natasha: I was thinking about the role of seduction and the erotic, and that it’s not just an aesthetic decision for you, that it might have political context. I came across the writing of Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher, writing in the sixties and seventies. A lot of his ideas got picked up by counter-cultural movements at the time. He wrote about Eros and the sensual as being a vital oppositional mode, in antipathy to repression in society. As such he goes against Freud who thought that repression was necessary for civilization. Marcuse saw that we need a society that’s ‘based on a fundamentally different experience of being. A fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and a fundamentally different set of existential relations.’ I was wondering whether you see sensuality and the body as having the potential to lead us to different forms of knowledge and behaviour, and whether that stands against something inherently rational in contemporary society?
Laure: Absolutely. It’s happening more and more in my work that uses body parts. Or just in the form of a very physical voice. It’s a knowledge that’s pure. For example the piece Swallow is very bodily; it’s between suffocation and breathing, the idea of pleasure. My granddad, who used to be a painter, would say, ‘that’s beauty, that’s woman.’ There is a kind of liberation, just pure love of the body. He had it. He loved women’s bodies, fat or any other. I find intellectualizing the body problematic. The body is as important as everything else, and not separate, or ‘this animalistic thing that humans do’. The quote that you read is exactly right. The body can trigger things that we don’t understand. However, I am aware that my use of the naked body is also provocative, intentionally so, and I’m questioning why is it a provocation? Even I’m shy of showing it, especially if it’s my family seeing the work. Then the use of nudity became feminist and more a part of my work. I see the naked body as a political tool now, which I never felt before. Trying to understand it, play with it, that image of the body and the representation of the woman’s body as having a romantic value, but at the same time having a knife edge, a clash of culture and representation. Recently, I had a show in Istanbul, and was making male stick sculptures who flirt with you to make you comfortable in the museum. I also wanted there to be women figures, and in the context of Istanbul that was definitely a political issue. The situation was complex as it was taking place within a Muslim culture. In the end I was allowed to display four men and four women. It was a difficult set of circumstances for me to navigate. I’m not showing boobs, rather a representation of boobs: the ‘idea’ of something. But, even this symbolic gesture was a problem. It was really then that I realized my work is Western.
Natasha: This cross-cultural element of bodily representation is interesting; what’s tolerated in what context, and what’s not. It’s not confined to an East vs West dichotomy. Even in the 2016 Turner Prize, Anthea Hamilton’s Lichen! Libido! Chastity! (which featured an enormous pair of buttocks) was all anyone could talk about, and launched that ongoing populist conversation, ‘What is contemporary art?’ So nudity, within a Western context, still has a strong impact.
Laure: It’s still here. The ‘What is art’ debate will always be raging. It was the same when I showed tea bags as part of an installation We Will Multiply (2017) at the Serpentine; it provoked all manner of commentary. Imagine! It’s so funny, it’s all representation and connection and yet people take it so literally.
Natasha: It’s dangerous territory, the body and its representation, isn’t it? Seduction through depictions of the body is so much a part of the strategies of advertising particularly. Do you think you’re presenting a fleshy counter narrative?
Laure: Hopefully it’s our body with all the dirt, smell and texture, a kind of anti-airbrushing. It’s also showing fragility, a loving vulnerability that’s part of an exchange. For me, art is best when it’s vulnerable, and leaves space for an exchange with the viewer.
Natasha: You mentioned feminist readings of the work. It was an interesting moment, ten or so years ago, in the UK and the US, when a new wave of feminism arrived that was very attached to raunch culture: the use of the female body within pole-dancing and the production of eroticized modes of display and representation. For me that always felt like women continually reconstituting themselves to the male gaze. It was never escaping that trap. Were you thinking of these discussions when making the work?
Laure: It was interesting what happened at that moment in feminist thought, but to be honest I don’t do anything consciously. Of course, I’m looking at the history of art, the society of the gaze, the male gaze, and beauty. In my work the male gaze, and perception of beauty, deconstructs itself and suddenly opens up. For instance, in the work Swallow you go inside the body of the woman, in amongst the very smell of her.
Natasha: A strong male–female relationship articulated in many of your works is that between you and your ‘conceptual grandfather’, artist John Latham, who you were assistant to at one time.
Laure: Yes. There’s also my ‘grandma’, who is a frustrated version of the grandfather figure. Grandma is always hidden behind the man. That’s definitely a huge subject to put into words. All these artists from last century, the books are always about their art, and never about their life; what made them and their practices. This separation is hugely problematic. Where are the women? The mothers? Every story, every figure, who contributes, and supports; an artist’s life should be represented in their story. Indeed they are as important as the final piece. I think it’s necessary to slap back against history a little bit – not gently, it’s got to be actively pushed back against with force.
Everything’s wet and sticky and dirty…
Natasha: Your recent work, the wet wet wanderer (2017), centred on a doomed love story of Gregor, a writer, and Betty. Where did these characters come from, and what drew you to such a tragic love story?
Laure: It’s real love! It’s playful! This work is about the translation of actual words into new words. Rory Macbeth, a friend of mine, tried to translate a Kafka text from German to English without knowing German. He basically guessed the words to make this narrative. I took up the text from him and translated it into a full-length film, working with a Joyce-like text that was very hard to follow narratively. There were two characters who kept coming back, so in the end it was very much around their relationship and love story. The sequence that the work centres on is about the melting of the body as well as the melting of humanity. How through the heat of today, the whole planet is melting slowly? And so the characters are melting as much as the words they say. Everything’s wet and sticky and dirty.
Natasha: The story ends violently?
Laure: Yes it does. Though it’s the death of a character, Betty, rather than a person. It never was physical, or about blood. There’s a whole sequence before the wet sequence, where she’s totally drunk; her language is dying, slowing in drunkenness. For the show at Witte de With, the two characters became light projections. They meet and reminisce in the exhibition space, but are just a shirt, or a plastic bag. The objects become as physical as their bodies.
Natasha: The wetness was all about bodily affect? When you walked into the space it was wet on the floor and the windows – and injected with vodka.
Laure: All that comes back to the body. You’re wet, your body is located in the space. You let go of your brain to connect more with the body. It’s phase one of pure body consciousness. We need to try to break from the brain a little bit, and we often need help. If the body controls the mind, I find it’s much more fascinating.
Natasha: In your film Into All That is Here (2015) nature was an erotic presence in the work.
Laure: The work is always made up of a lot of narrative layers. The first centres on my conceptual grandfather being lost in these tunnels. Here, I was talking about his subconscious; he’s digging down in the tunnels to go get somewhere deeper, to understand things that he doesn’t yet. It’s the idea of senses, of liberation from culture, or an alternative idea of culture. But also being really lost inside the darkness of your mind. So it’s very much looking at the subconscious of the artist, or her desires, and then there is a moment when you reach liberation; whether it’s sex, or a society free from war. It was also playing on the idea of a cocoon, slowly building its body, and then birth. It’s the birth of the insect, and also the desire to take as much as possible from life, or indeed of not being able to, and how we deal with that. Finally the image itself is consumed and dies; the insect consumes everything and then exhausts itself.
Natasha: If It Was speculates on a model for an alternative museum. In it there is a joyful room that’s solely about breasts and milk. How can the maternal body be rescued from its role as a form of labour, and liberated in its sensuality? Do you see institutions as masculine, and if so does this piece stage a form of institutional critique?
Laure: I think of the woman’s body as a generous thing; in its feeding, in everything it does. It’s to be admired, or played with. It’s both sides of your question I think. The work tries to not see the woman’s body as a tool, but as an amazing, playful adaptable thing that’s constantly changing for each situation. Having this present in the institution is a feminist gesture, and also revels in the joy of disrupting prudishness around breast-feeding. Why should this be hidden? It should be glamorized! I think our society is one in which images are so available, and at the same time extremely controlled. When it comes to women and narrative, I want to really bridge the two. When I was younger I thought, ‘I’m an artist, I don’t care which gender I am’; the more I age, the more I love my gender. I want to talk about it, share it, and make it more powerful than ever, in its fragility and force.