I meet French artist Laure Prouvost on a hot summer day at her studio in London Fields. She asks me, ‘Do you want tea?’ and we both laugh. Her film installation Wantee (2013) was first displayed as part of ‘Schwitters in Britain’ at Tate Britain last year, and won Prouvost the Turner Prize. It’s a fictional narrative in which Prouvost’s grandfather is imagined as a friend of Kurt Schwitters, who dug a tunnel to Africa as part of a Conceptual art project and disappeared. ‘Wantee?’ is the refrain of her grandmother, who has been left behind. The work is typical of Prouvost’s approach: immersive environments that include fragmented, intensely sensual films.
Prouvost serves me tea in a delicate white cup, decorated with a red lipsticked mouth, which was made for Wantee. We talk for an hour and a half, and it is one of the most enjoyable interviews that I have ever done.
Zoe Pilger How did you become an artist?
Laure Prouvost I was really bad at everything else, I guess. It happened quite early on. I left my French school at the age of 13 and went to one in Belgium, which had a good art class. I was quite frustrated by the French system. I was not very academic; I was much more into making stuff. I couldn’t articulate my ideas with words very well. As a child, art was a place where I felt I could be more articulate.
ZP Your use of verbal and written language is very strong in your films.
LP Yes, language is something I struggle with. My English is still quite poor, but it was really bad when I first arrived in London. And so I devised my own language and misunderstood things and created new visions. I might have thought that the brother is the uncle and mixed up everything. I love that there’s a freedom for new connections. You create your own system by breaking the old ones.
ZP In your film OWT (2007), the American curator Michael Connor reflects on art theory while a wildly mistranslated text of his speech is subtitled. Mistranslation plays an important part in your work.
LP It’s nice because it takes you in a totally different direction! But misunderstanding can also create tensions. owt is very much about that. In my first video, I talked in French and had it mistranslated into English, so unless you understood both languages you wouldn’t know that the subtitles were wrong. I’m also interested in how the written word is considered more valuable than the way we hear things. When it’s written, it’s like it’s a fact.
ZP I particularly like the part where Connor is talking about Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura as a function of distance in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production’ (1936), and you mistranslate ‘aura’ as ‘aural’.
LP With art, I’m always interested in the subtitles. You realize people are reading the subtitles more than listening to the words, and the words are much more theoretical and quite grand in some ways, whereas the subtitles are like a little love story going wrong. I’m definitely interested in the power of words. I have so much trouble with them! I mean, Zoe: you’re a writer yet you’re creating images constantly. I think it’s great because the images you make only exist in the imagination of the reader. Each one creates his or her own vision.
ZP Benjamin’s idea of the aura also seems relevant to much of your work. There is often a powerful sense of something or someone lost, like the granddad in Wantee. He is held at a distance and remembered. I thought the grandma’s desperate search for him was very moving. It seems philosophical as well as intimate.
LP I’ve been thinking so much about fiction and reality but there’s a deeper thread that runs through my films. There’s a sense of becoming lost in language and interpretation, of how we all have grandparents yet misunderstand history. I guess we all take what we want and then the rest is forgotten. What interests me is this idea of control, how artists want to control their identities.
In Wantee the granddad is lost, so the grandma is more or less taking over. It’s also about many other things as well – the grandma’s situation in relation to the idea of a ‘master’ artist, which was so prominent in the past, but which is changing, slowly. It’s taking time. But it’s also about losing control of the work. When you’re dead, you can’t direct how it will be perceived, and I quite like that idea! You can hint at things but, in the end, it’s going to be taken up by society or forgotten totally or perhaps it will be rediscovered one day.
And the same goes for writing, too. It will belong to its time. I know I’m never going to fully grasp life in my art. It’s never as good as having the sun on your face. Even if you film someone with the sun on their face it feels as if you’ve lost something. But you can hint at the smell of lemons in a film with an image of a lemon being cut. The brain is capable of connecting elements quite quickly, especially with video.
ZP That’s very strong in Swallow (2013), which was commissioned by the Max Mara Art Prize for Women and shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. It was shot during a six-month residency in Italy and combines sumptuous film imagery of nature with collage. The sensations in it are powerfully conveyed and it’s very erotic.
LP No-one has dared talk about the erotic side of it before. It’s never been mentioned! It’s funny when it’s so clearly part of it. I think it was very much about how to translate that sensation of sun or sensation of swallowing or walking. Our sensory memory is so much a part of us. Sound, too, I love. It’s interesting because an image is taken as an authority in some ways. It’s rare to close your eyes to listen. It’s almost as if you can’t control your viewing experience.
ZP The sound of the mouth exhaling and inhaling really regulates the rhythm of the film.
LP Yes, it’s quite horrible.
ZP I think it’s amazing. Why horrible?
LP It’s like a propaganda of the senses! I’m very interested in that. I think video is an amazing tool; I love it. I want to use it more and more, because it has this power. It’s really good at amplifying human sensation.
ZP I like the idea of a propaganda of the senses. Swallow is definitely a seduction – like the shot of the fish eating the raspberry. For some reason, I found that very erotic.
LP It’s a little bit slimy as well. But, yes, it’s also beautiful. The setting by the river is seductive. I really wanted to play on that cliché, on the desire of beauty. My granddad liked the different shapes of women – a nice bum – but what does that mean? How sexual was it?
ZP I thought it was very unusual to see pleasure portrayed like that – as affirmation. Often, there’s a counterpoint of pain. Perhaps it’s a particularly British thing: we still have a Victorian attitude to pleasure.
LP Yes, that’s true. This is pure …
ZP You’ve said before that you’re playing with anxiety in your films.
LP There’s always some sort of anxiety. About breathing, for example. But Swallow is definitely playing on pleasure and a pure letting go. It all depends on how much you’re being carried by that. A lot of my work is quite aggressive, as well. Some videos are about the struggle of articulating a sensation of, say, metal in your mouth. I wanted to make a film my mum might like. But then I realized it was super sexual and …
ZP She might like that.
LP She might, but I’m not sure. I wanted something immediate, like a waterfall next to a busy road. You know, it’s made up. It’s a film. It’s propaganda. It’s not the real sun; there’s some sun, but it comes from a different place. Where I shot Swallow is actually quite unpleasant. The water was freezing!
ZP If your films are a kind of propaganda, and propaganda is designed to persuade people to do something that they might not otherwise do, what are you trying to make people do?
LP I’m not going to make the world a better place. But I’m also not going to get people to give me all their money! Perhaps I should think of that in the next film. We find it quite hard to totally engage with our senses. In the past, we were so much more physical, working the earth, planting carrots or whatever. I love the smell of crushed tomatoes in a busy market. Seeing a wonderful show is, of course, very powerful as well, but I’m interested in memories, how we connect to our childhood smells. I’m actually slightly old-fashioned. I think my videos are dirty, yes. Even if we spend time on our computers, we’re still a heavy body walking across a floor who has to put one foot in front of another, and we’re a bit sweaty. I’m interested in talking as much about our sweat as our computers.
ZP Even though Wantee is fragmented, it has a coherent narrative and you get a real sense of emotion, which is unlike a lot of contemporary art.
LP There’s still an expectation that art should take us somewhere profound. And, of course, it can; but, for me, it’s a questioning of the way we do things; the why and how, even if there’s no answer. I guess you do the same thing when you write?
ZP Yes, and there’s a great freedom in that.
LP You can certainly express things creatively that you might never talk about. You think: ‘I would never do that,’ and ‘The art world is going to hate me if I say that.’ It’s so great to have characters to play with because they give you a lot of freedom.
ZP My novel, Eat My Heart Out, is written from the point of view of a 23-year-old woman called Ann-Marie, who is wild and very angry. I’ve described her in interviews as my alter ego, doing the things in life that I would never do.
LP Yes, you can really let go and give voice to these things that you didn’t even know you had inside you, which emerge at a particular moment. When I start filming, it’s very much in the moment and then, of course, I edit. I imagine it’s very similar to editing a book. It’s a nice way to work. I made people up from quite early on.
ZP As in creating fictional characters?
LP Yes. When I was 18, I had to write an essay about an artist and so I made one up and the teacher didn’t realize.
ZP Who was the artist?
LP He was called Michael Dig. Later, I made a video about a fictional artist, Eva 43 Years Old (2005). It was a single shot, just pure narrative, my voice. Words can create so much crazy imagery!
ZP That’s what I think is so effective in your films. Your work has been described as whimsical, but it’s much more existential than that.
LP People like to think I’m this little child who makes things up but, I agree, my work is much more anxious and existential. When I was 13, I had a massive existential crisis – who are we, and why? It was anxiety combined with a love of existence. I don’t totally get the word ‘whimsical’, but I imagine it’s sort of flowery and dreamy, no? Is that what it means?
ZP Yes, exactly.
LP I like how children tell stories because they forget the whole picture and work from a detail. I think that’s a great way to tell a story.
ZP Can you describe your working process?
LP I have a general idea to start with: for example, I want to make something about friendship with my granddad and I’m going to use the living room or a shed. So I spend three or four days in the shed and there’s a lot of crap and a lot of good that comes out of it. And then I need to start editing. I like contradictions; like combining the taste of metal with an image of soft cotton. I like to play two media against each other. That often grows as I’m editing. I have an idea – but it’s the combination of sensations, of sounds and clichés.
ZP I’m very interested in the themes of law and authority in your work.
LP I’m not very brave in real life. I’m still quite conformist in some ways. I play with the system; I question it. But if I was really outside it, it would be less interesting, because I’d be too different to start with. I grew up in a small world where everyone had to be extremely normal. But in London, there is quite a lot of freedom to create your own rules. When I was growing up, I struggled with the idea of what is normal, and I was really unhappy because I felt I was not allowed to be something other than the norm.
ZP Often, it seems that work by women – whether visual art or fiction – is presumed to be ‘merely’ personal or memoiristic, whereas work by men is considered to be about ideas.
LP It’s so true. It’s something I’d never engaged with before the Max Mara Art Prize; I was just doing my work and didn’t position myself as a woman; I didn’t care. But the world is this organizing thing, so you get categorized as a woman artist and people have ideas about what you might do. But it really frustrated me at the beginning. I really felt like: ‘Who cares? I could be a man!’ Our generation is super-lucky in some ways in terms of what’s been done for us before; everything is possible for a woman now. I can make and I can do. I like talking about it, but I don’t want to be strict or political. I think you can say things so much more with humour, by teasing each other.
ZP With charm as well?
LP Yes, I think you can, sort of. You can ask more questions. The grandma character in Wantee and Grandma’s Dream (2013) is complex. I think she’s not sure what she really wants, but she does want to be loved by her husband. She’s definitely interested in the idea of freedom but she’s not an intellectual. What do you think of that character?
ZP I thought she was very realistic and believable. She seems to yearn for both very normal things, such as love, and also less normal things, such as an aeroplane that can pour tea out of the sky. And she wishes that people would understand the importance of an artist’s wife to his life and work.
LP Yes, I think that’s the point. Because I didn’t want to create an ideal woman telling us how women should live. It’s more about her problems. Her life is not yours or mine. I don’t think it’s patronizing.
ZP I didn’t think it was patronizing at all. I’m also interested in the role that miracles play in your work.
LP I don’t know whether men have created all these religious miracles to control society or to propose a solution to our existence via religion. Perhaps women have the tendency to want to believe in miracles. I don’t know.
ZP The miracles that you create seem anarchic.
LP I grew up surrounded by religion. It’s something that I rebel against but, at the same time, I’m sort of taken by it. I’m interested in combining the very normal with a kind of miracle, like a vegetable falling from the sky.
ZP Or the woman in Swallow who finds the raspberries under the rock.
LP Yes, it’s true.
ZP What are you working on at the moment?
LP I’m doing quite a few things. My exhibition ‘Visitor Centre’ at the Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris carries on the Wantee story. If we ever find the lost grandfather, we will have an exhibition space ready for him, built by the grandma. It’s a really spiky modern building, like a provincial theme park. It’s about my grandma being in control of his work.
Zoe Pilger is a writer and art critic. Pilger won the 2011 Frieze Writer’s Prize, and was awarded a 2015 Somerset Maugham Award for her novel Eat My Heart Out.
In 2011, Laure Prouvost was awarded the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in conjunction with the Whitechapel Gallery, London, uk, where she will have a solo exhibition, from 20 March to 7 April, which tours to Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, Italy, in May. She currently has a new commission included in ‘Schwitters in Britain’ at Tate Britain, London (until 12 May). In 2012, she had solo shows at mot International, London; and Treasurer’s House and The Hepworth Wakefield, UK. Her feature-length film, The Wanderer (2012), for which she received a flamin award, premiered at the Rio Cinema, London, in 2012, and has since been screened at the ICA, London.
First published in Issue 166