The Turner Prize 2013 goes to….French artist, Laura Prouvost. She’s done it. The 35 year old film and installation artist was the first French woman to be nominated for the UK’s top visual arts award, the Turner Prize. As the winner, she collects a £25,000 cheque and her star, already in the ascendant, is now firmly fixed in the art world’s firmament.
It has already been a great year for Prouvost. Last November she was awarded the prestigious Max Mara Art Prize for women, resulting in a six month residency in Italy (divided between Rome and Tuscany), and a commission to create new work for an acclaimed show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End.
The centerpiece of the Max Mara show is a film, “Swallow”, an unapologetically beautiful and sexual response to the sensual and aesthetic pleasures of Italy and la dolce vita. “Swallow” began, she says, with an attempt to ‘translate’ the blissful ‘taste’ of the sun on her skin. It’s like an erotic dream, where the senses are jumbled; a breathy narrator (Prouvost herself) whispers to you, like a lover: “come closer”, “this blue is inside you”,“this image is undressing”, as shots of langourous young women bathing nude in a river are intercut with almost pornographic images of dripping soft fruits, surreal fish eating raspberries, a gushing waterfall, the eating of strawberries, a mouth opening and closing, and of course, the eponymous, migratory swallow. The piece knowingly subverts the history of the female nude, specifically the bathing nude, as represented by iconic French artists such as Renoir and Courbet.
Like her compatriot, the Parisian artist Sophie Calle, who was for a time a professional stripper, Prouvost owns her own nudity in “Swallow”. It is the woman who is pleasured; a woman’s touch and taste, that is celebrated; it is a kind of audio visual orgasm. “I wanted to do something really peaceful, even pleasurable for me to make”, Prouvost says. “I am playing with the idea of breathing the image in, getting some ecstasy of breathing the images, then cut. It’s very physical. I want it to be less mental and more physical.”
Lost in Translation
Prouvost was born in Lille in 1978. She moved to London when she was just 18, to begin her studies in film at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. She then went on to a BA at Goldsmiths and she says, “then I got stuck here, created friendships and relationships”. Never confident of her ability to articulate what she wanted to say in French, let alone English, she began to integrate text into her work: “Language is something I am constantly tackling. Coming to England definitely led to new levels of misunderstanding and miscommunication. You create your own vision of things and sometimes those visions push language further than the original meaning of words. I struggled with words as a child. I made art in order to find my own language and to articulate things in a way that maybe words could not. Weirdly a lot of my work today is full of actual words.” Misspellings, malapropisms, misassociations and double meanings (as in “Swallow”) crop up frequently, such as a sign reading, “IDEALY THIS SIGN WOULD TAKE YOU IN ITS ARMS”.
Prouvost’s Max Mara show at the Whitechapel earned her the Turner Prize nomination, together with her work “Wantee”, which was originally presented at Tate Britain as part of a show about Kurt Schwitters. Wantee was the nickname given by Schwitters to his girlfriend, Edith Thomas, as she was always popping into his studio to ask, ‘Want tea?’ Of, course, “wantee” could also denote a thing or person that is wanted, or wanting. Prouvost draws these different threads together in an installation that extends the narrative aspects of her work into full blown storytelling, presenting an invented family history. There’s a dark tea room full of misshapen, buttock like teapots, cups with mouths, and other odd artefacts allegedly made by her (imaginary) grandfather, a conceptual artist. You can sit and watch a film about him in that strange salon.
He was a close friend of Kurt Schwitters; his ‘last concept’ was a tunnel out of the building where he lived; he then vanished into thin air, leaving behind the detritus of a forgotten art career; objects that are love lorn, unwanted; useless art. In another, flesh coloured room, there’s another film, purportedly representing her grandmother’s dream. It is narcotic and absurd, featuring an aeroplane which pours tea from the sky, a motorbike and a disco. Again, there is the poignancy of frustrated wanting, for what Prouvost’s invented grandmother longs for, above all, is the unending love of her vanished husband.
The art of seduction
Prouvost’s work is often described as being seductive, and in many ways that is apt. There’s a lyricism to her imagery, her stories, and her voice, which lulls and envelops the viewer. There’s a dreamy slipperiness to the meanings she evokes. It would be wrong though, to suggest that all is soft and silky in her work, which is far from saccharine. There’s always a bite to it; the threat of loss.
Laure Prouvost’s persona is similarly nuanced: it has the effect of dappled sunlight. She is smiley and witty, her lilting French accent is impossibly charming, and yet there is an undertow of anxiety, something that is hard to pin down. She has invented her own artistic parentage, but the artist she most resembles, with her enigmas and fictions, is Sophie Calle, whose great theme, often explored in fictionalized contexts, is unrequited love. Both Prouvost and Calle are artists of the strip tease, tantalizing with glimpses of the naked truth, in amongst the tall tales. While seeming to reveal all, they in fact reveal very little of their true selves.
A new heroine for France
There were emotional scenes at the Turner Prize Awards Ceremony in Derry tonight. Through laughter and tears, Prouvost thanked British art lovers, saying « Thank you for adopting me, thank you for having a French one here…..I’ve been here so many years and I feel adopted totally now by the UK, thank you. « . She praised the other « amazing » artists nominated for the award: the painter, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the performance artist, Tino Sehgal, and the satirical artist, David Shrigley. She seemed genuinely astonished to find herself the winner (she was not the Bookies’ favourite), and said that she was not ‘prepared’. Her acceptance speech was charmingly shambolic, with an on stage appearance by her new born baby daughter, cradled in the arms of the Turner Prize presenter, the Oscar nominated Irish actress, Saoirse Ronan. It is hard to imagine a more amiable winner or winning moment. France, you have a new heroine.
The Turner Prize exhibition, which, this year, is being held in Derry~Londonderry, Ireland, runs until January 5th. Laure Prouvost is also currently showing work at the Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art, which also continues until January 5th. You can view an extract from her film, “Swallow” on the Whitechapel Gallery’s website: www.whitechapel.org.