It was almost inevitable for French conceptual artist Laure Prouvost to explore the intricate nature of language in her art. Having moved to London after high school to study design and the arts, she speaks both English and French fluently; yet, as she explained at the opening of her Walker exhibition “They Are Waiting For You” in Oct. of last year, she feels like she cannot fully express herself in either of those languages. Navigating between two worlds, two ways of thinking, she was well positioned to investigate their limitations and to propose an alternative. In “They Are Waiting For You,” an enthralling, multilayered performance commissioned by the Walker to wrap up the exhibition of the same name, Prouvost crafts a new form of speech, one that is incongruous, humorous and ultimately revealing.
Imagine a clementine. A round, orange ball, gritty to the touch, with a particular feel and a distinctive smell. Already, the clementine is much more than just a clementine; it has an array of characteristics that define it. For Prouvost, each clementine — or chair, or puddle, or tree — is unique, and reducing an object to its name, a convention born out of linguistic convenience, is restrictive. Such was the central idea of Prouvost’s “They Are Waiting For You” exhibition.
For the world premiere performance that closed the exhibition, shown on Feb. 9-10 at the McGuire Theater, the artist decided to push the idea a bit further. Is the name “clementine” not comprehensive enough? Let’s change it, says Prouvot. What if a clementine was “love?” What if a cup was “mother” and a knife “illusion?” During the first third of the performance, we distinguish on the stage a person passing objects in front of a camera, and saying the “new” names out loud. Whatever the camera films is transcribed live onto a giant curtain on the front of the stage. It all feels like a peculiar school lesson, a communication class in a post-language world.
A fun and provocative lesson, akin to the time your sixth grade teacher revealed negative numbers were actually a thing. A lesson ultimately meaningless, for many of the new word associations would change during the show, further implying the incompleteness of language. As the performance progresses, the aforementioned objects — a clementine, a cup, even a dead fish — are set about on metal and wooden sticks, creating strange, homemade sculptures. Off-stage, a drummer soundtracks the sequence with arrhythmic percussive elements. The lesson has moved outside the classroom, and entered the boundless landscape of Prouvost’s imagination. This section — and by extension, the show as a whole — is a glimpse into the artist’s experience, memories and life.
The aesthetic language of Prouvost is decidedly unique. Still, not satisfied with only crossing over the boundaries of language, Prouvost manages to go way beyond those of conventional art performance in incredibly creative ways. At the beginning of the show, lights dim and brighten a number of times, ever tricking the audience into thinking the show’s about to start. Then, halfway through the performance, everything goes dark; only Prouvost’s voice can be heard, asking patrons to close their eyes and taking them through a meditative journey. At that point the stage doesn’t even matter, as the performance takes place in your head.
Prouvost plays with patron’s expectations, regularly ending in laughter and “oohs” of amazement. “They Are Waiting For You” is a labyrinthine multimedia experience, one that breaks away from norms not for originality’s sake but to offer a compelling take on fiction and reality, and to ultimately comment on communication. The result is at times fascinating, and at times too esoteric to be engaging. Yet, the closing sequence, akin to a lucid dream, is brilliant.
A blue laser beam illuminates two “slices” of smoke-machine clouds, creating a sea and a sky. Over the “sea” hovers a fish, held hesitantly by a silhouette slightly visible among the mist. (The hesitant movement of the fish-holding arm sparked great laughter in the audience.) A choir-driven indie ballad begins to play, repeating over and over the words “they are waiting for you.” At the end, lights go out and clementines are gently tossed about for patrons to walk and pick up; Prouvost’s own way of thanking them — clementines represent love.
While the performance is superficially apolitical, it is intertwined with the individual’s experience of their world; as such, it seems adequate to see in it a political parallel. In a time of misinformation, miscommunication and mistrust, Prouvost’s idiosyncratic visual language is perhaps ironically the only form of communication that makes sense.