Slippages and the peculiarities of language; its problems and potential
‘Full concentration is now requested. Questions will be asked at the end.’ And so begins OWT (2007), a film that Laure Prouvost made shortly before she went to Goldsmiths College in London. The piece opens in a darkened room, with American curator Michael Connor reflecting on the differing approaches to cinema and artists’ film. As in many of Prouvost’s films, a whimsical, subtitled narrative plays out at the bottom of the screen, its content flirtatiously corresponding with what is said. As Connor notes: ‘Filmmakers seem quite happy with the idea of a language of cinema, whilst artists seem to rebel against the idea of any language at all.’
Language – in its broadest sense – permeates the video, sound, installation and performance work of Prouvost, yet she doesn’t so much as rebel against it as bend, unpick or re-form text and spoken narratives in any way she can. OWT, 2007, Film still In many of her films the French artist’s voice – softly accented but blunted by 12 years of living in London – provides the voice-over. Images, from rough footage shot on a handheld camera to single-colour screens, bustle in and out of sync with text, which sometimes appears as subtitles or emblazoned across a black screen in chunky font. These narratives veer from the controlling – ‘If you don’t collaborate they will ask you to leave,’ she curtly explains in It, Heat, Hit (2010), a self-described ‘3D film without the 3D’ that was shown at Tate Britain last year – to the confessional: ‘Sometimes I don’t know where I am,’ Prouvost says in The Artist (2010), a film about her (entirely fictional) late grandfather who we are informed was a conceptual artist. It’s a safe bet that the character is an homage of sorts to the late John Latham, who Prouvost used to assist: in 2010 she showed a series of text-based works at Flat Time House, the artist’s former home and studio in South London. A renowned biblioclast, Latham would no doubt have approved of Prouvost’s love-hate relationship with the peculiarities of language.
The process of translation is an ongoing concern here, whether that be from French to English, text to image, or film to sculpture. Words that are fluently spoken are charmingly misspelt when they appear on screen (‘exhistensialist’, ‘take a sit’), in keeping with Prouvost’s pronunciation; she has said that as a French artist coming to London she became attuned to language’s problems, but also to its opportunities. Prouvost’s most recent project – the first two parts of which will be shown this month at Spike Island in Bristol and the International Project Space in Birmingham – pushes translation to extremes. Titled The Wanderer, the six-part film is an adaptation of British artist Rory Macbeth’s eponymous novel, written in 2009, itself a mistranslation of The Metamorphosis (1915). Macbeth translated, or interpreted, Franz Kafka’s novella with no knowledge of German and without a dictionary. Prouvost told me that her film has veered so far from Macbeth’s book that it is barely recognizable (not that his version was ever that comprehensible) – a fitting fate for Kafka’s story of alienation. Earlier in the year, before shooting, Prouvost constructed what was described as a prologue to the film at MOT International in London. The wonderfully titled show, ‘before, before. before it was, the title sequence, spinning before next, a squid’, comprised a sound piece that followed a drunken Jenny, Prouvost’s invented heroine, searching for Kafka’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, while a series of eight roughly assembled mini-sets with accompanying storyboards were crammed into the gallery. Props and references to the narrative spilled out; beer cans littered the floor; a sign reading ‘a splash of ink here’ sat next to a jar, with a black splattering on the wall behind it. The cacophonous scene reminded me of John Bock’s earlier sprawling installations that similarly pushed different media to feed off and disrupt one another.
Prouvost’s riotously assembled narratives and disorientating modes of display are rife with semantic and semiotic games, which are forever off-setting word, image and meaning. This is sometimes childishly straightforward: in Monolog (2009) she whispers ‘you are embarrassed’ before the screen turns bright red; in Burrow Me (2009), a red traffic light lingers on screen – after a few long seconds it flicks to green and on we go. These often brash, humorous face-offs between text and image are a contemporary foil to the structuralist film of the 1960s and ’70s – for example, her flickering, strobe effects or the directness of the didactic address to the viewer recall the techniques of Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits. Linguistics was also a common preoccupation in these artists’ work, yet their filmic language was characterized by visual asceticism. Prouvost’s, by contrast, is a mischievous pick-and-mix of ironic art-speak (in The Artist, pointing to a scribble on a page, the narrator tells us, ‘It’s a conceptual piece.’), pop music and make-believe. Yet, much like classic structuralist film, Prouvost is keen to expose the mechanical components and basic limitations of the medium. In Deeper (2010), a waist-to-shoulder shot of the artist (the films never show her face), Prouvost laments: ‘I wish the screen could go a little bit deeper.’ Such a simple plea to break film’s formal constraints explains her propensity to draw on other media to try and get what she’s after. Working out what that is and how you put it into words is at the crux of Prouvost’s practice.
Laure Prouvost lives and works in London, UK. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘before, before. before it was, the title sequence, spinning before next, a squid’ at MOT International, London, 2011, and ‘All These Things Think Link’ at Flat Time House, London, 2010. This year she has been nominated for the MaxMara Art Prize for Women and The Jarman Award and was the principal prize winner at the 57th Oberhausen Film Festival. This month she has solo exhibitions at the International Project Space, Birmingham, UK, and Spike Island, Bristol, UK and is included in Frieze Projects, Frieze Art Fair, London.
First published in Issue 142