The French artist Laure Prouvost, based in London and Antwerp, is known for her wacky videos and installations. Take Wantee, about the life of her fictitious grandfather, a conceptual artist said to be a close friend of Kurt Schwitters and who allegedly disappears one day while digging a tunnel that links his studio to Africa. As if the video in itself was not crazy enough, Prouvost added an installation to complement it, consisting of, amongst other things, a long table with pottery and teacups sculpted in the shape of bottoms alongside plenty of other awkward items, all beckoning visitors to attend this bizarre tea table. Much to her own surprise, the piece was not only shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2013 but even won it. In The Wanderer, a feature film in seven sequences, Prouvost adapted a motion picture very loosely based on a translation from German into English of a novel by Kafka made by her artist friend Rory Macbeth.

This was not just your average translation, however, as the friend does not speak a word of German and did not use a dictionary, hence exercising his poetic license to the full. Continuing this game of layering and miscommunication, Prouvost decided to put the sequences of her film into a series of immersive installations. She has presented these in various venues in the world from Toronto to London, and now also in Milan and Rotterdam. “My work is about translation and miscommunication”, she says, with a rather strong French accent. “I went into art because I felt I was inarticulate and unable to use words. I thought that this way I could fully express myself. But then I realised I use a lot of text in my work and I talk non-stop. I love playing with language and I use it as a tool for the imagination. Being a foreigner in London, I’m an outsider who doesn’t speak the ‘right’ English, which creates miscommunication.” With her personal story as a backdrop, it was no surprise that Prouvost was intrigued by Macbeth’s mistranslation of Kafka. “As his translation was already quite surrealistic, I decided to take it a step further by adding another mistranslation. I placed the main characters in everyday life, sometimes using lines from his book.”

the wet wet wanderer, 2017 Para | Fictions series Witte de With, Rotterdam
In Prouvost’s world, Kafka’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, has become an alcoholic writer who writes his texts using a real squid and – surprisingly enough – makes a living working in an African hair salon. “It is all about the clash of cultures and about misunderstandings”, Prouvost informs. The artist shot the entire film three or four years ago over a course of a couple of months. “It consists of seven sequences. For each of these, I followed another concept and used another location. You have the Wet sequence, the Drunk sequence, and the Time sequence. For the Drunk sequence, it is not only the people who appear drunk but also the shaky camera.

In Witte de With, I am showing the Wet sequence, which was filmed in a pub in Dalston (London) where it was constantly raining, and the characters sitting inside are soaked. When Witte de With commissioned me to make an exhibition, I decided to use this sequence, as I had never put it into an installation before. I thought it might be great to do a very wet show in this current situation where everything is falling apart. And Trump is not really helping. In it, the carpet is full of water and there is water dripping from the windows. It’s raining inside instead of outside, which creates a semi-apocalyptic landscape. It’s not the most joyous installation but there’s a lot of humour. It’s quite a sad show, in a way, as if the room is crying and saying: What have we done to the world?”

GMD - Grand Dad's Visitor Center, 2016 Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan Courtesy of Laure Prouvost and Pirelli Photo: Agostino Osio
When entering the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art, you see that the walls in the main room have been blackened and dirtied. A bit further along there is a kind of container that functions as a bar. It’s a shiny blue bar with metal stools and it features, in neon, ‘Citizens of God, men are truly stuck’, a line taken from Macbeth’s translation. Inside, black vodka is pouring out of fountains, adding to the dark atmosphere. “As the bar is visible from the street, I’m playing a bit with the Witte de Withstraat, with all its bars and cafes”, Prouvost explains. “It’s a kind of bar where there could be prostitutes hanging around. The audience is invited to drink and join in. There is also a fish tank in the space, through which you can view the film. Objects are connected to the narrative and function like relics. When you’re at the bar, you look at those objects like they are artworks. And then you realise that you’re almost part of it yourself, like an actor.”

The Wet sequence was one of the few that Prouvost hadn’t yet tackled. “I’ve made installations of almost all of the sequences by now. God First Hairdresser / Gossip Sequence was first shown in Toronto and is also included in my exhibition in Milan. While you watch the film, you can get your hair cut. For the Drunk sequence – shown at the International Project Space (IPS) and Art Exchange in England – the screen was almost falling down onto the audience. The Time sequence Again, A Time Machine consisted of a series of labyrinths and was presented at Spike Island in Bristol.” As the Golf/ Authority Sequence still hasn’t been turned into an installation, there is more to look out for. Who knows what will next spurt forth from Prouvost’s wild imagination.

The Wanderer, 2013 God First: Hairdresser / Gossip Sequence Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2016 Photo: Agostino Osio
Courtesy of Laure Prouvost and carlier | gebauer, Berlin
THE WET WET WANDERER, Witte de With, Rotterdam, The Netherlands Until 02 April 2017

GDM – GRAND DAD’S VISITOR CENTER, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy, Until 09 April 2017

This article appeared in DAM61. Order your personal copy.
the wet wet wanderer, 2017 Para | Fixtions series Witte de With, Rotterdam