by Jackie Grassmann
This text turned out to be all about love. First of all, to the editor of dis/claim, Leonie, my dearest friend for years. Secondly, for the work of Laure Prouvost. When I heard she was going to have an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien, it all seemed like a match made in heaven: writing about one of my favourite artists in my best friend’s magazine. However, seeing the exhibition turned out to be an ambiguous experience. It left me curious to think more about what love in an art context means, and how far that love reaches, namely what’s represented in the work and what are the actual conditions of production.
“Wisdom should be sung”
– Sophie Podolski (my favourite artist grandma)
Despite a seemingly ever-growing grammar of grandiosity in exhibition texts, rarely does that praise (or condemnation) correlate with an art work’s power to actually affect. A work’s power to move something, let alone me, happens much less than these proclamatory texts tend to indicate: The effect is small, while the words are big. So what do I feel when an artwork really moves me? What happens in my body, in my mind, how does my way of speaking, my behaviour, my gestures change? What, in short, does an effective artwork actually do to me? What lingers? The more I try and describe “it”, the more it dissolves. If an artwork really does something with me, the insight, excitement, and bliss felt, I can’t help but place somewhere close to the act of falling in love. And it can’t be just me: the words “I looooove this work” surface regularly when people describe their encounters with art. Love, despite being a big word itself, however, is not really part of the jargon of criticality. It seems an unspoken rule that stating “I love X” in a text is not a sufficient reason, nor a profound argument. But what if I dare to take the love feelings seriously? Where does it lead me? First it allows me to describe my position towards an artwork as a dynamic affective relationship that changes over time. It usually starts with a crush, comes with a bunch of problems, and ends in love or separation or both, just to repeat itself again. Secondly it might offer a category beyond critique, lend itself as a value that has the potential to transcend the logic of economy, even though not standing outside of it. What I am saying is that “Where is the love?” might not be such a stupid question to follow.
Laure Prouvost is an artist I first encounter in a seminar about the year 2009 (not further specified), on the occasion of its ten-year jubilee. I stumbled upon Laure’s nine-minute video, Monologue, from the same year. I was fascinated by her use of language, and ability to combine word and image into something which seemed like an effortless landscape of thought-feelings without needing to name things all too directly, never failing a subtle humour. The simple clip of a gesticulating torso, some absurd flash-imagery accompanied by a voice over and mismatching subtitles, was unpretentious, yet managed to say something fundamental about life. I could’ve eaten that video. Which is to say: I was hooked, or, fell in love. After seeing her contribution to the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019 Deep See Blue Surrounding You / Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre I was smitten by the ideas and ideals of community and collaboration that could be derived from it, by the softness and persuasiveness of the tales of being together and our (missing) relation to the environment.
When I heard about Laure’s new exhibition at the Kunsthalle Wien in June and the possibility of an interview I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The exhibition evolves around the figure of the grandmother. In this case she stands as a placeholder for generations of women and their (often rendered invisible) impact on the world, all the political fights they have fought, all the care they have given away unpaid and underacknowledged over the centuries. Choosing the grandma as an abstract, yet popular figure allows for inclusivity. After all, everyone can relate to a grandmother, because everyone has, or has had one, because everyone, can attempt to be one.
The language maniac that I am, the title alone was already full of promise: Ohmmm age Oma je ohomma mama. An intractable mix-and-match between different words in different languages with different meanings in different combinations, which all hide behind the collapse into sonority: Homage, Oma, Je (French for I), Oh, Oma, mama, Omama, age, ohm (like in Yoga). The show circles around the figure of the grandma, yet when we speak the title out loud, we are rather put in the position of infants than grandmothers. A desired effect as the transmission between generations is exactly at stake here. This work “was a collaboration with the past”, Laure lets me know right at the beginning of our conversation, organised on the occasion of the opening of her show.
Stepping into the exhibition feels a lot like entering your own subconscious, stumbling around in the dark (the only light source being a wandering light installation distributing sparse spots of glow), following fragmented narratives, whispers, songs of the past, and from time to time running up against palpable objects and, occasionally, people. This world-making was at its most exemplary at the opening performance, where various performers activated the objects in the room with quick flashes of light, while somebody suddenly steps out of the dark infront of you offering you to devour a few berries straight from their hands, or kindly asking you whether they could brush your hair. The whole room is packed with people and became one big bustling entity of actions and voices, quite like a restless mind that won’t obey the call for peace and quiet. Delicate objects are hanging from the ceiling on super thin thread, reminiscent of mobiles. The hybrid objects are pairs of organic matter and human remains, like a lighter growing a feather, or strand sandals made of glass with a glass spider crawling on top of it. The narrative here is one of the Anthropocene. The objects indicate an era in which any nature-culture divide has dissolved (if there ever was one): where everything has grown together into one hybrid matter. This creates its own form of beauty as the objects show, but behind the beauty lurks a monstrosity, reminiscent of littered landscapes or microplastic in fish. The question is not (anymore), however, whether we want that world, but rather how we act in it now that we have it.
The central pieces of the exhibition are two halves of a grid cage furnished with cushions in front of screens that show three video pieces. Two of the videos feature a group of women climbing together through a mountainscape. At one point they stop, standing in the steep rocks calling the word grandma in different languages. Later they dwell in a cave with a beautiful view over the coastal line and here, while warming their fingers on their iPhone lights, they share whispered stories about their own grandmothers. Occasionally we see historical photos blended in of real (famous and maybe unknown) women, all of whom seem to have been born in the first half of the twentieth century. At a different point we see the group of women holding hands and swirling around in a circle, naming various surnames of other women, reminiscing upon what they accomplished, for example “Rosa stood up for equal rights for all”, or “Kathy invented one’s history”. What is the heritage of these women, and what is the point of intersection with one’s own? The figures and stories start seeping into the stories one bears oneself, blending and piercing through reality (or Laure’s version of it). I was overwhelmed by the softness and kindness in the room, the focus on the sweet recounting of memorie. It felt quite different to a lot of openings, where cautious eyes and cold, superficial greetings are common currency.
It is exactly at this moment of feeling that familiar warmth and love towards Laure’s work when I notice a mean sting in my liver area. I am abruptly overcome by anger the more my personal history gains presence. That is to say, I start thinking not of a grandmother but my grandmother, of whom I have rather few ‘sweet memories’. My grandma never cooked, helped, gifted, nor cared too much. She left my mum with a bunch of debt right before the birth of my sister, ran off abroad due to a fraud she committed and was in the most part noticeable in her absence. She created mostly chaos and caused a lot of pain. All of this is folded into her own traumas, of course; the harsh treatment she received herself — a woman born in 1945, pregnant at 18, without a father in sight, let alone the presumed ‘marriage’. A child’s voice, audible from the video work Shadows Does, captures my attention: “Grandma, did you know, that the planet is hotter than before?”. Yes grandma, I want to answer, but aren’t you part of causing this? Isn’t the so-called last generation furious with you (even if they’re definitely more so with grandpa)? And what about the other atrocities committed in the twentieth century? Especially in Germany and Austria we’re all too familiar with the question “and what did your grandparents do?”. As I stand in the dark of the exhibition, I am not sure where to put this abyss. In all this love for our foremothers I lose my own, and start asking myself, why isn’t that abyss uncovered and what to do with all this affirmation in which I can’t find my own experience represented?
My love is cracked and fissured. I wonder: Have I been Laured in?
But then I start asking myself, what would I know that I didn’t already, if I permit these critical impulses to lead my reception of the work? What would I actually uncover if I’d suggest that not all grandmas are nice, that women are still discriminated against, that, especially the last three generations, fucked up the planet, that a huge part of the German (and Austrian) civilians were involved or at least complicit with the Nazi regime? I am not suggesting that these aren’t important things to unpack, to scrutinize and make visible in order to combat. Rather, I want to find out what is gained by suspending this ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’? What is gained if the notion of love, tribute, and celebration is put in the foreground? And further, is this just a representation of the just mentioned quality, or can these qualities be found through all layers of the work, all the way down to the production?
I want to know what is behind the work, how it’s made and how it’s meant. It’s with these questions in mind I meet Laure for an interview, in the offices of Kunsthalle. Laure is joined by her team member Dóra Benyó, a young, outspoken woman, an artist herself and working for Laure in her studio in Brussels, but is living between The Hague, Brussels and Budapest. Dóra is there because I requested if Laure could be joined by team members. I wanted to capture, not just Laure’s voice, but those of as many people as possible to get an encompassing impression of how Laure’s projects are conceived, constructed, and executed. I chat with Dóra as we are waiting for Laure who’s got lost in the maze of the Museumsquartier. For this commissioned work by the Kunsthalle Wien Dóra did research on grandmothers and women she also oversaw setting up the exhibition in Vienna all by herself, as Laure only came right before the opening. Quite a lot of responsibly, I am amazed to discover. I get the impression that work is taken very seriously in the studio, and that Laure does have the last say, but it also seems to be taken seriously how a show is always a collective effort and how important everyone’s role and responsibility is in its realisation.
Dóra tells me openly about the struggle that it is to balance your own practice and working as an artist assistant. How you must be able to flip the switch. She appreciates both roles, and finds herself walking the line quite well. Moreover, she enjoys the community the studio offers with 3 fixed and according to project up to 12 people working there. They have a good connection amongst each other, as the people are mostly recruited out of Laure’s or Dóra’s or other studio members circles. They have daily lunches together at a community kitchen close by the studio in Molenbeek...
Mid-sentence Laure arrives. The greeting is warm and welcoming and slightly all over the place. We are confused how much cheek kisses we ought to exchange. We laugh about the intense social awkwardness this confusion can cause and how different greeting customs are according to place and culture.
I introduce myself, and briefly mention my research about collective art making, writing and publishing, about the relation between art and community. Laure nods, biting into one of the Oma Kipferl, that were kindly provided for us. She tells me she was occupied with similar questions when she did the exhibition in Venice. “I was asking myself, how can we connect, create a community, even when we don’t have the same histories, the same backgrounds?” In the exhibition I had kept wondering to what extent the gatherings and videos are scripted or whether they are of a documentary nature, as the small leaflet for the exhibition suggests. There is a script Dóra und Laure let me know, but a loose one. Dóra adds that it is Laure who comes in with a concept, but from that point on everyone can bring their own suggestions and ideas to the table. “It want to be completely transparent,” Laure emphasizes. “When we do a project, everyone must know the whole thing, its institutional structure, what’s possible, the budget. Nothing should be hidden.”
Laure’s and Dóra’s strong desire to have everyone fully involved is palpable. This involves spending time together, even beyond the work (or this exactly is the work). “On the hike [the journey they went on as a group to film the video], every night we spent in a huge house we rented for all. It is about really being together. Even here in Vienna, we didn’t want a hotel, but we all stay in one big apartment.”, says Laure. “True”, Dóra laughs out loud, “We’re like a band!” This makes sense to me. I never thought of an artist studio very much functioning like a band on tour. Laure stresses how important it is to her to experience each other in all sorts of states and moods, and to realize “that sometimes I am annoying and sometimes you are annoying”, and this is part of it. In the end it is about being sensitive to everyone’s emotions. In the emphatic gestures and the enthusiasm Dóra and Laure spread seems to lie a fierce search for a way of connecting differently than what our paradigms of neoliberal, nuclear relationships have to offer, not just for the cameras, but most and for all, for the people on site.
Laure and her team are a designer of settings. In this case, it was a journey to the mountains in the South of France in search for stories about grandmothers and maybe something like a more human past (and future). The trickiest bit in such a collective setting she lets me know, is the balance between control and lack of control. “It is more like, let’s take a moment in place and in time and let’s see who would like to join. I am not curating the people in the sense that I think this person must join because they are so intelligent, etc., it is also chance. A few of the women I didn’t know, and we learned about each other and shared a moment together. This is what fascinates me.”
They know how delicate these group situations can be and aim to provide a space or situation where everyone is in a place where they can “sense slowly” and connect to an “energy that can be passed on from the past to the future”, as well as relate productively to nature in order to “not just consume it for your own good”. Laure admits that this indeed has a spiritual component. Dóra took a central role in this trip and is now gasping for air: “It was like therapy somehow. Like the Santiago Compostela thing. To go and have a healing experience. We walked a lot and talked about our grandparents. We did have a mission to fulfill, but it was really intimate as well.”
What the tools are for such a gathering, for this kind of journey, for that way of connecting, Laure and Dóra both struggle to find the precise words. Maybe that is, because some things are beyond words, especially when it comes to relations. I space out for a moment, fixated on Laure’s mouth. It is quite remarkable how Laure is speaking: trying to put experiences, feelings and phenomena into words, a searching for words, even making up some in the act, at times almost inaudible, always willing to fall back onto syllables and into the basics of sounds in order to scratch together different fragments, that could form a portal to understand otherwise. If the job of a philosopher is to give precision to terms and concepts, then she is de-philosophizing, dissolving them, dancing around them, toying with them, not less committed than the scholar to reach the core of their meaning.
After giving it some more thought, Dóra concludes (they both really take their time to think, a quite pleasant trait, in contrast to my giddiness), “what’s at the core really is to truly share. The idea that anyone is doing anything alone is just not true. We need each other, to get to this point of the show e.g. that is presented here. The precept that the artist does everything themselves that I was thought in art school is getting old. You work with people, and it is most important with who you work.”
And who you work with really doesn’t stop with the people. Laure ponders on what kind of collaborations are involved in art making. “Even a painting is collaborative. It has to collaborate with the world, with the knowledge of our discussion, and with the works of art that have been made. One could say it’s a collaboration with material. It is collaboration between... actually everything is constant collaboration! Everything. In this project it is of course very visible and very physical. Here it is definitely not one voice, it’s not my voice, it is an exchange with Dóra, with all the woman we gathered, with the editor, the sound person, the team who painted the walls. Everything has a value. This needs to be recognized. It is an attempt to translate value onto everything. I don’t know if we managed to do that, we can’t do everything. But you can bring your awareness and the weight of your body into the space. The way you sit next to someone and how. Your movement, the dance we do together.”
Yes – how do I sit here? Definitely with less of my initial suspicion, I note. It seems to be true that the “paranoid consensus” that seems to be in place (at least within me), with its belief in exposure and unveiling, tends to supersede other ways of knowing and other objects of knowledge. As if the only thing that is keeping us from true change for the better is people knowing about the hidden forms of violence and suppression we must endure. There is no better example than the climate catastrophe, that makes clear how little this ‘knowledge’ effects politics and peoples’ behaviour at times. Why then, the suspicion against approaches that are ameliorative and/or pleasurable? Naturally this can’t be a free pass for adopting a wilful naivety. Much is gained, however, by artists or exhibitions that attempt to manifest a way of doing art, that is not based on exclusion, competition, and single geniuses on pedestals. And yes, that requires self-reflection, and some knowledge, but mostly maybe comes down to a concept of love and its power of connecting, the power to “keep the doors open,” as the child enchants in the video. Given the fact that most art events leave us empty and with a feeling of the absence of relation, Laure’s and Dóra’s hospitality, present in this room but also shining through the work at Kunsthalle, is quite irresistible.
Something that does emphasize the celebrating of community doesn’t mean it underestimates the complexity of the we it represents. It maybe only means it doesn’t necessarily say so in the video or the text, but is a practice – a practice at work. “I know that in the end it is my name that is written somewhere”, Laure acknowledges. “All of this runs in a bigger economy, which is that of the art market. So, if I want to realize work, and pay others I need to participate in this market.” Laure seems under no illusion that the people participating in her work are employees (besides maybe being friends as well) and have their own business to attend to. But while this is important (“you help me and I hopefully help you with the money to also carry your own practice.”) there still seems to be something reaching a deeper substance than just an economic exchange. “The idea of family is really important to me. We are still going somewhere, and we are questioning our ways of doing. It is a constant effort. To never settle for a way.”
To once more return to the beginning; what an artwork does to us and where does it leave us? Maybe in this case with a feeling of connection. Perhaps this doesn’t reveal to us what is there that shouldn’t be, but tries to implement a world we actually want to live in. The world we get laured in to is one of relation, appreciation, and gathering. We do need moments in time where we take a pause and thank or foremothers, the matrilineage that brought us here, but even more importantly we need to connect through our iPhones, insecurities, and demystified ideals, not in the hope of a future as good as the past, but for a way better one.
Of course, this is only one role a body of work can take on. But it is an important one. One that does appeal to very different epistemologies, a wisdom, that is rather sung and whispered. If Laure’s world is one of connection, empathy, and repair, that’s a world I want to be part of. Laure me in, gladly!
Relying on the topos of love comes with a risk. After all, so much damage was and is done in the name of love. Nevertheless, like Laure, who sets out ‘to reappropriate’ the past, it might be worth reappropriating love, as a core concept of the human. And oh boy, do we need a portion of love in this (art) world. This is not to dismiss the conflicts in relation to our (artistic) grandmothers, or any generation, nor amongst each other, rather, when there is no relation to begin with, how can we relink, reappropriate, reconnect? Maybe love is a good place to start. After all love also makes for the best critique.
P.S: I booked a flight to Spain to see my grandma I haven’t seen in two years. After all she’s the maddest bitch I know. Quite lovable, I find.