Laure Prouvost’s terse, mischievous shaggy-dog stories are well suited to Flat Time House, the South London home of the late John Latham. (In 2008, two years after the British Conceptual artist died, it was transformed into a public gallery and includes an archive devoted to him). Prouvost once worked as Latham’s assistant, and her newly commissioned video works bear the mark of someone both familiar and comfortable with a site that might have left many overburdened. During a short stay at the house in March, the artist shot five videos, using found objects from the house as a springboard for a series of surreal fantasies before installing them back among Latham’s furniture, books and art work. The results were playful interventions that seemed occasionally devotional but never reverential.
Latham was what you might call a biblioclast – his work included burnt, torn and chewed books – and Prouvost’s most perversely votive work here was I Need to Take Care of My Conceptual Grand Dad (all works 2010), a video in which the younger artist smears body lotion over the pages of a slim Latham monograph. While Prouvost stated in a recent interview that she owes much to Latham’s conceptual rigour (if not his anti-aesthetic stance), her works are clearly equally indebted to the twitching, twilight personas developed by video artists in the 1970s and ’80s, when Paul McCarthy and Michael Smith (in the USA), and Ian Bourn and Mick Hartney (in the UK) performed in front of the camera as ranting drunks or febrile losers. The aim of these earlier works was generally to subvert televisual authority but this is not the case here: Prouvost’s target is the audience’s (as well as her own) capacity to engage creatively with their environment.
Prouvost’s laconic, French-accented verbal aerobics served largely to direct the viewer towards the domestic-gallery environment. At just 40 seconds long, the briefest work was Look Behind the Picture, a video that instructs you to lift the corner of a found flea-market painting hung opposite the monitor. Behind this you found a mirror that reflected a watercolour image tacked to the back of the canvas, showing a few cheerful cartoon breasts and a round female backside. Provoust also dotted her own homely untitled abstract paintings on walls or propped up on shelves amongst Latham’s personal library of beefy, leather-bound tomes. These colourful impastos on board went almost unnoticed, however, beside her more assured video interventions. In How To, Prouvost takes us into the after hours of the gallery, where we see the artist zooming gaily around on an office chair, moving objects she shouldn’t and toasting a fishfinger on a heater before placing it amongst Latham’s books. George Michael takes this flight of fancy to a new level, telling a tall tail in which the pop singer turned up at the gallery, and ‘just cried and cried’, staying almost the whole day, curled up in a ball in the corner – the very same corner in which the viewer must stand in order to view the monitor on which the work is displayed.
Most strikingly, each video features close-up footage of Prouvost’s hands, gesticulating to emphasize spoken narrative or pointing beyond the edge of the frame, into the gallery itself. Most bizarre and brilliant of all, in In This Corner, the artist’s index finger searches the lens like a snout whilst the artist provides a vocal soundtrack of mammalian snuffling sounds; simultaneously, the voice-over tells a nonsensical story about a worm that ate some red household paint and a small pen (‘the kind you get in the lottery’) – as proof, there was a spillage of red paint on the gallery floor and a small blue pen a metre or so beyond it. Prouvost’s works have a quality that the film critic Manny Farber once labelled and praised as ‘termite art’ (eccentric, virtuoso films), as opposed to ‘white elephant’ movies (big budget, but over-hyped). Her work does what video art does best – tells loveable lies with plenty of rhyme and very little reason.