“No matter how established you are, it never goes away,” says Laure Prouvost, about the self doubt that can still afflict a Turner prize winner, while walking to a pub in South London. The Brussels-based artist, here for group exhibition Speak at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, running March 2 to May 21, chats honestly in a relaxed manner, offering up her iPhone when my recorder runs out of battery.
The show we’re here to talk about — also featuring Douglas Gordon, Cally Spooner and Tania Bruguera — runs alongside a survey exhibition of John Latham (1921-2006) at Serpentine’s second gallery space, where these participating artists have been invited to make work in response to the conceptual artists’ practice and ideas. Language as a medium is described by the press release as “action, exchange and disruption,” while Prouvost’s experience as Latham’s assistant in the early 2000s provides “a rich and playful resource for her new work.”
That new work is presented in two contrasting pieces: the first, an unassuming gesture in ‘We will multiply’ (2017) where she places four used teabags on the gallery’s radiator; the second is a complete immersion into darkness and theatrics with sculptural installation ‘end is her story’ (2017). Occupying the middle of the space, the multi-sensory room is engulfing to the point where viewers run their hands along the wall so as not to trip over anything. The only light available arrives in bursts, landing upon objects dotted around the room. Placed on plinths, Prouvost breathes life into the static bits and pieces through narration and a synchronized lighting system. Materials ranging from fruit, foil, a computer screen, branches and butter, among many other domestic appropriations, become characters in the soft melodrama that whispers into your ears. Words begin to morph into one another, and sentences embark on long trails that you eventually get lost in. The experience is intimate, drawing us into the space of a mind, an attempt to translate a moment of previous curiosity.
Prouvost is most well-known for her narratives that mix fact and fiction through a variety of media, layering fragment-upon-fragment to create new meanings and explore alternative forms of communication. During our interview, the French-born artist speaks about her interest in these slippages, as well as the impact of moving to an English-speaking country and the effect it has, not only on how she speaks but also how she understands and views objects and people in the world. Talking about vulnerability, loss of control and enchantment, our conversation feels very similar to her work: it floats between topics and ideas. Generous and open, it meanders from discussions of insecurity to disappearance, spending time with moments we cannot articulate and the multiple ways of understanding a thing. Never staying too long in one place, Prouvost still maintains a coherence of thought that feels rooted in what she describes as “a space to explore belonging to life, rather than critiquing it.”
** With most of your works, there’s so many elements going on, but still has such a lightness to it. What are your start and end points, if any, and do you have a preconceived idea before you start or do you let it find you?
Laure Prouvost: It’s a mixture. I often have a camera on me and I might just record things, especially if I’m on holiday, or if I’m without the pressure of doing anything. I film a lot, in terms of footage. When I decide to work on a piece it’s usually quite organic but I have a feeling, or I know a direction I want to explore and I’m working towards it. If I know I need someone jumping on a bus, I go and find someone jumping on a bus, for example. Footage is really a gathering of material, a bit like cooking; you start and then you see how it’s coming along. The end and finish point are very blurry, and even the works, they sort of talk to each other, they all wink at each other. With John Latham, as well, there’s this event structure where things happen and this idea of start and finish is not that important. Usually they’re shown in a loop, as well, so you’re not really sure when it started and when it finished.
** Yeah, the structure really does feel like a gathering, and there are so many elements going on. Do you ever feel overwhelmed amongst all the loose strings and tangents, how to find a conversation between them all?
LP: No because I always forget what I have, I lose things. I’m not so precious about my material, I don’t get overwhelmed. I’m more worried about translating a message or the sensation. It’s all about translation and a kind of communication: ‘am I succeeding at it?’ I think when I feel pressures and deadlines, that’s when it’s finished and I rarely revisit something. I’m just too excited about the next thing. I quite like this disappearance into the world, where it finds its own way and I lose the control of it.
**I like the idea of loss of control and disappearance, a life of its own. In a way, your narration in ‘end is her story’ feels like you’re reading the piece into disappearance; it’s so long and continual, it almost feels speechless even though it’s full of words.
LP: Yeah, exactly. The repetition of life, of words, and the way they can be played with; ‘god oh dog of god o dog,’ how language has made us see certain things visually and how we can play with them. So this loop, this piece itself, is very about things that appear in your life and then go and then reappear and disappear. How you lose yourself in the piece and the piece also loses itself in society and then it belongs to the world. I’m not sure how you feel about it, everyone has their own emotion or connection or hatred to it, or whatever, but I love that idea. With film and cinema, it’s very controlling. You sit on a seat, you’re there, you use a lot of your senses, it cuts you off as much as possible but what I love is losing that control. I’m questioning that control, getting the audience to experience this composition but also when I show my work in China, I know it’s received differently than here. Or when my daughter says it’s too loud, or she wants to touch everything. I love that it exists like that, there are so many understandings of something.
** I think this way of approaching art (and life) is refreshing; this intuitive approach that is so much about exploring being in a body. This more inward direction feels refreshing, like a faith, following something deeper. As so much of contemporary art often accesses knowledge in a different direction, and with a much more critical, outwardly assuming position, did you ever feel the pressure to compromise this? Maybe we can go back to our previous conversation on self-doubt.
LP: Self-doubt is so important, but also vulnerability. Not just doubt, I mean doubt is just a way you work, it’s a way of being creative. You almost have to be worried if it’s going somewhere, that’s natural, it’s the only way. But vulnerability and sharing and fragility, I think it’s a fine line when you share something you are shy of, or you don’t know something, or you feel inadequate, or you can’t use the words. Film in general, it’s all about empathy, and for me if I can’t create something, I create empathy through vulnerability, it’s wonderful. When I teach, I often say ‘make a fool of yourself, make yourself vulnerable.’ We all have these moments, we just hide them, or we don’t know enough and there are things we can know and learn but we can’t know everything and maybe sharing those insecurities is the most touching, and then you start to relate. For me, it’s quite easy because I use a lot of characters, so I can be like, ‘oh no, I didn’t say it, she said it!’ But I used them to say things that are wrong, or to say the inappropriate, which have been useful for my practice, just to develop it. But in general, to feel uncomfortable, yes, to feel uncomfortable to show something; I often feel uncomfortable and I don’t want to be in the room but I know it has an effect, and I know that when you start sharing, you start having a dialogue.
** There’s a softness in all this, and in the way the work whispers and almost asks to be ignored, yet theatrically begs for our attention. In relation to the use of ‘her’ in the title, I couldn’t help but think of gender in one way or another.
LP: I used to be an assistant of John Latham, so I thought I’d do a little piece about my time, not especially about him, but more this idea of memories and flashes, but I wanted also a feminine, not feminist, but feminine point of view, quite domestic. John talked a lot about bodies and he had an amazing way of [pauses]. Back then it was a very male-dominated art world, and still is to some extent but then it was very [pauses], women around were often secretaries and with amazing brains who did amazing things. But still, I felt it was something to talk about a lot. I wanted it to be a feminine, soft piece that’s almost a bit romanticized, a bit melancholic.
** What’s your relationship to enchantment and also disenchantment. The work feels childlike while being far from innocent.
LP: It’s really naive and then some weird stuff comes out, I love the naive. Naivety you can get really shit, strong things coming out, but it also makes you creative, it invents meanings. When I moved to London, the idea of language as English, I misunderstood so much. I started to understand a new meaning to things, I would create new visions of things and understandings of who I was. I kept mixing people up, I had no idea who was what. I think through that [pauses] I think I play with this naive-nessa bit. I really love this song I put a spell on you, reminds me of what you can do to hold someone’s energy or attention for a little bit.
** Can this be a political place?
LP: People say my work isn’t political, but I think it’s political in the sense that it’s so not political, you know? It’s about things that we don’t know how to articulate. John’s work is really about the universe and humanities, and I feel, for me, I’m about ‘us.’ I’m much more bothered about anxiety, or feelings, or the exchange between life and art.
For me, at the moment, it’s not so much this critique of life but belonging to life, so I can push a bit of feeling I had. I think if you can do that, it’s great, but I don’t often manage. I really love, at the moment, playing more and more with this distance between art and life. I want the two to be more one. At Serpentine, the heaters with tea bags became an issue. The press picked up and were like ‘is this art?’ It’s funny this domestic entering the galleries, it’s like, ‘why are you showing that?’ It’s like the beginning of the history of art, but it’s funny because it has this idea that it should be divided: this is art, this is not art. It’s nice to have this to play with.
** Some of the most inspirational stuff to me is non-defined art found in the corners of anywhere, from Vlogs and Tumblr accounts to a conversation with my grandma.
LP: Yeah, misunderstanding art as well, you feel you’re misunderstanding it. I quite like this moment of exchange between someone who’s never been to an art exhibition and someone who’s been to a lot, and how can you discuss this, and at least play with it a little bit.
** Do you have someone in your head when you’re making your work?
LP: Often it’s very personal people. One of my works I wanted for my mum. I thought I want something sweet, softer, and it ended up being quite sexual [laughs] but I still had her in my head that I’m going to do something beautiful. It might be like that, sometimes it’s more the situation of where I’m going to show it. If I do something with Haus der Kunst then I’m going to speak about that from a certain point of view in a museum, what’s meant to be art and has such a big history. Then the work has this kind of direct relationship with that.
** How do feel about putting your work in spaces like that, big museums and galleries? Like the delicate task of transferring life to art, what happens to it once it becomes an exhibition, do you feel it’s still itself?
LP: It’s always a competition with life. It’s never going to smell the smell of that thing but it’s a translation, so you try to enhance or zoom. I also like that it gets the time to be looked at again. You film something and someone takes the time to look at this thing again and together as an audience, it gives a kind of preciousness to the nothingness, which can also be magic. You film little flowers and it makes you more connected to it, even if it’s just a pixel it has a power. It is the position of both. I do like showing in the situation where you bring life there, or life goes out there. It’s between the two. It’s not just one way. It’s not totally bad. The exhibition spaces are also magic moments of focus.**