Laure Prouvost serves an all-consuming sensual platter.

By John Newton

Laure Prouvost’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is billed as being two-part ‘immersive’ piece. This is certainly apparent; as you enter the space there is a large curved wall that seems to protect the inner video installation Swallow. The outer wall is covered in Shwitters-esque collage. It’s probably worth noting here that Prouvost has made a piece which is currently featured in Tate Britain’s Shwitters in Britain exhibition. In a similar way to her piece there, physical structure seems to an important part of the work.

It becomes clear as the piece slowly unfurls itself that this fortification is a practical necessity but is itself artistically superfluous. The physical separation from the outer-world into this purely sensual realm is one which is executed through the subtle and nuanced cinematic craftsmanship of the central piece, with the structure providing merely the machinery that houses this all-consuming oesophagus. Inescapably this seems to be the static corpus that houses the more vital and capricious inner-working of the main piece, which centres on fragments of video that variously depict nude bathers, birds, squashed fruits and wayward clouds.

Swallow, begins with and is punctuated by, the heavy breathing of a disembodied mouth. This is the heartbeat of the work. Alone in the dark in the opening seconds, there is nothing but the breathing of the mouth on the screen and inevitability your own, quite probably shallower faster breaths reflecting it. This serves as a lynchpin for the rest of the piece. Prouvost is obviously acutely aware of her audience and the piece repeatedly and knowingly reaches out to the viewer.

Another more obvious manifestation of this is through Prouvost’s narration. She addressed us directly, and there are many subtle changes in tone and intonation which lead us through the piece. Similarly with the relentless breathing, this attains an ambiguity which is paramount to achieving the total consumption of the viewer. The voice vacillates between very stark direct statements, “The water is naked”, to childishly oblique whimsy, describing a lost cloud falling from the skies and the empty pile of clothes left by a disappearing man.

These dexterously administered changes in tone occur around the central trope of nude women bathing in a waterfall. This at times static image apes classical scenes such as Titian’s portrayal of Diana bathing with her Nymphs.

Again Prouvost’s central aim seems to be to convey the sensuality depicted in palpable terms to the viewer, imploring us to “feel the sunshine in your mouth”. This is a work thats currency is the purveying of sensation. Food is a recurrent theme as is swallowing generally. It is difficult not to draw some parallel to the Freudian concept of Oral Gratification which Prouvost seems to have identified as the most basic sensual denominator and by exploiting this, aims to lead us through the entire sensual palette – tasting everything along the way from the piece’s nascent breaths onwards through the flowers and the fruit of life and experience.

Prouvost achieves this through a number of subtle techniques. She uses this oral prediction to let us into the piece through vivid images of torn fruit and the glistening of sunlight on cool waters before distorting and refracting our expectations of it. Fresh raspberries are messily trampled onto rocks; cut fruit suckles at a naked human breast, butterflies swarm around luridly coloured trainers. It is easy to draw parallels with the work of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, whose mantra “we are juicy creatures” seems to strike a particular resonance with Prouvost’s sensual joyousness. Prouvost seems to be aware of how deftly she has executed her sensual structures and is confident enough to then subvert and pick over them.

The boundaries of the idyllic are pressed as the images evolve from the essential and relatively abstract into the clichéd and pastiche. This is most clearly embodied through several long languorous shots of ice-cream. This starts very much in the idyllic idealised mode before descending into a more Mr Whippy-ish seaside picture-postcard image. Having created a sequestered paradise Prouvost delicately and mischievously takes us on holiday. Once again Prouvost shows not only the desire but the ability to reach out to the viewer to lead us through the artistic spectrum, from what seems sublime to something we can directly relate to, spanning the arcane to the ironic.

This, while seeming to be achieved relatively effortlessly, shows the real craft in Provoust’s work. Video installations would seem to be the easiest form of art to execute but are surely one of the most difficult to get right. Provoust handles her materials with a masterfully dexterity, never overplaying her hand or leaving the viewer behind. The nudity is never gratuitous, the whimsy never contrived. This is achieved through the many faceted interwoven layers in the work. The breathing and the narration work together to push the work forwards and to embellish and contextualise the images of screen.

This leaves plenty of room for artistic counter-point – the narration is not synonymous with authority and occasionally collides joyfully with the apparent meaning of the images. Similarly the breathing while continuous is not consistent. It variously nips at the air in ecstasy or gulps it in extremis. This work is precocious and alert. Shimmering and refracted, it washes over the audience with texture and symbolism but remains rooted in the expertly executed formal constructions.

Prouvost successfully spins a complete web – sinuous and glistening – woven from the fibres of life. Once you are arrested in it she seizes her chance and swallows you whole. So, as the piece ends, sitting in the darkness your senses ring with the echoes of the colours and textures you yourself have just imbibed.

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/max-mara-art-prize-for-women-laure-prouvost

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