I had the pleasure of viewing French installation artist Laure Prouvost’s exhibition Ring, Sing and Drink for Trespassing in Paris back in August 2018, when the city was at its hottest. The Palais de Tokyo gave a friend and me respite from the heat in its expansive rooms, as well as offering us a singular encounter with Prouvost’s work. The artist’s work always stole the show in whichever venue I had seen it previously, but this was the first time I’d encountered a solo exhibition. At the Palais, We Will Feed You (2018), a fountain with large pink breasts spouting water shared the atrium space with a lone palm tree. An abundance of unpotted plants were situated throughout the exhibition—a reminder of the natural world outside of the gallery walls, perhaps. Digital, standalone placards stationed around the room flashed cryptic messages like “YOU KNOW MOST PEOPLE WHEN THEY COME” for one moment and “THEY DON’T EVEN LOOK AT ME” in the next. To be wholly immersed in the celebrated artist’s oeuvre (Prouvost won the Turner Prize in 2013) is a bit like being a character in a piece of science fiction. There are isolated moments that one can relate to in an otherwise strange realm, and those are the moments to which you try to remain tethered when the others—bizarre and uncanny—cause you to question your current reality. This is Prouvost’s special gift. She had me watching videos of vegetables, based on a dream she had about these vegetables, and these videos captivated me. An addendum to the special gift: she finds the marvelous in the otherwise unremarkable, and brings it into clear view through her videos, installations, and sculptures.
What I remember most about Prouvost’s work is her playful preoccupation with language—its elements, forms, and structure. She examines how we use language and how we understand what we see. Her works are semiotic marvels that test our comprehension, simultaneously managing to mean many things, and nothing at all.
OCTOPUS feminine, noun
Many materialities, can be very beautiful.
Has many legs,
can grab anything.
Feels through its leg (brain in the leg).
Can throw ink,
for cooking and writing.
Humans enjoy eating it.
One of the oldest.
Transparent. Grey-brown. Very powerful.
Brain on the plate.
In its environment.
Above is one of the entries from Prouvost’s 2019 book, Legsicon. Though structured alphabetically, this may be the only point of comparison Prouvost’s book has with a traditional dictionary. Part chapbook, part artist’s journal, part catalog essay, Legsicon is a beautiful and unique compendium of a singular artist’s praxis and philosophy. The image that accompanies the OCTOPUS entry is a watercolor sketch of the animal, each tentacle grasping a different object: a wrench, a glass of water, a cigarette. It is also the cover image of the book, which was published by Book Works and M HKA as an accompaniment to Prouvost’s exhibition AM-BIG-YOU-US-LEGSICON held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp that same year. This very enjoyable, unorthodox monograph surveys the artist’s entire body of work as evidenced by the exhibition, and focuses on objects and ideas that appear to hold a particular fascination for her, recurring as they have over the course of her practice. The artist begins by addressing her readers with an obscure epistolary introduction “ideally here we would guide you through the words…” as if to warn that although we are on this linguistic journey together, it is you, the reader, who must make up your own mind about what you are reading. Be steadfast in your commitment to pondering these words, be curious. She continues, “In this Legsicon we will be digging deeper and deeper into the subconscious. It is the only way to push away the dusty memories of the past. This Legsicon wants to put light on a selection of words and try to translate them through other people’s eyes and legs.” It’s unnecessary to read the book from cover-to-cover; rather it can be opened to any entry, and read in any order. Its structure suggests that Prouvost would prefer it to be perused in this way.
Legsicon contains 36 entries, beginning with ARTIST and ending with YOU. LOVE is included, as is GRANDAD, GRANDMA, LANGUAGE, PERFORMANCE, RASPBERRIES, SIGN, SUBCONSCIOUS, TRANSFORMATION, and a personal favorite, VEGETABLES. The use of all caps for these headings feels less like shouting and more like emphasis, as in “you shouldn’t miss this/pay attention.” Though anger does not emerge in her writing, urgency does. Each entry has a brief introductory, poetic definition, followed by a response by another writer. The pages that follow each entry are visual representations of the object, thought, or idea. Themes of nature, psychoanalysis, family, collectivity all figure predominantly—while we are individuals with individual experiences, we cannot exist outside of the many interrelated relationships we have to others and the environment. The late Agnès Varda wrote the passage for VEGETABLES: “I have this in common with her; I like representations of nature and vegetables….Those that are rejected by farmers, because they are off-size, too small, too large or deformed, are of particular interest to me….I photographed and filmed them, I even made a great installation triptych, and it is this testimony that I bring to the catalogue of Laure whose oeuvre has all kinds of ramifications. She works like a garden.” Prouvost carefully tends to this garden, cultivating knowledge that she then readily shares with her viewers. Her Legsicon is a gift to them– a reference that they can turn to whenever they need it.
As I write this, our global community faces an unprecedented health crisis that will affect all facets of our lives. Economies will face drastic repercussions, as will ways of learning and socializing, perhaps permanently. Some have hope that their lives will return exactly as before the COVID-19 pandemic, while others are certain this is not possible. Life has been irrevocably changed, and all we can do is attempt to move forward with empathy and compassion. Visionaries, like Prouvost, can help us to imagine different futures for ourselves. Her way of describing the world is unique; these descriptions form the basis of a new mind sight that can be communicated to her viewers. She once stated, “as an artist, I often like to lose control, just allude to certain things, so that everyone can form their own interpretation. The spectators should find in themselves a sense of their own environment and use their imaginations. I play with the idea of being whisked away to places which you maybe can’t come back from.” We need her prescience now more than ever.
LEGSICON by Laure Prouvost is available from Bookworks. 384 pp. £26.00.
Lauren Palmer is an art writer and critic based in Brooklyn, NY. Her interests meet at the intersection of art, culture, literature, and philosophy.