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Laure Prouvost, Spam Aesthetics and Landscapes of Desire

New Museum, New York February 12 to April 13, 2014

“I wish this video was going deeper… as if you be in the work, in deeply in,” says Laure Prouvost in Deeper (2010) as she presses her hands repeatedly toward the camera. The same expressive voice, and desire to meld media with the fullness of embodied experience, moves through the artist’s new exhibition “For Forgetting,” currently on view at the New Museum in New York.

For her first solo presentation at a North American museum, the France-born, UK-based 2013 Turner Prize recipient (who  showed at Toronto artist-run centre Gallery TPW less than 12 months ago) has put together a most fitting offering for the Big Apple and the land of plenty. Prouvost has fun with, and makes fun of, a central condition of modern life—namely, that we want it all. The coupling of Western individualism with a century of consumer promise has created a Freudian grab bag of wish fulfillment that offers to meet our every desire, whether for wealth, success, happiness, pleasure, health, love or innumerable other substitutes to fill our needy identities.

Prouvost’s multi-media installation reconstructs this world. A semi-circular panoramic mural coated with layers of whimsical drawings and paintings, overlaid with collaged media images and found objects, create a dizzying exchange between levels of mediation—the fake, the less fake, the more fake and the desires that lie beneath. It is a world of emphatic Internet appeals, pyramid promises, lottery wins, dating sites and medicinal solutions. A cascade of printed email scams from (ostensible) African bankers to a “unique recipient” are superimposed, trompe l’oeil fashion, onto drawings of the same. A dazzling, red-lipped smile scooped from the Internet, fast-food bags emptied of instant gratification, knock-off designer bags from Chinatown: all clamor for our attention.

Windows and doors cut into the mural open onto rooms with video monitors and props, offering deeper layers of simulation. One short, humourous video frames a plastic lighter. The words “You are so powerful” appear on the screen. Then a voice asserts, “With this lighter you can light this building.” A pointed finger magically produces a flame on top of distant buildings. “You can light these fruits.” The finger ignites a little flame over a bowl of oranges.

Recurring throughout the installation is a priest, whose hand-painted paper mask reflects a flimsy façade, and equally flimsy promises. In one video, the priest delivers an infomercial as medieval chant: “These little medicines they are for you. You will feel immediately better. Medicines now! Medicines now!”

At the centre of the mural is a black-curtained theatre featuring How to Make Money Religiously (2014). Prouvost’s voice introduces the film: “If you do everything we tell you to do, this film will make you richer. A lot richer.” Narrative structure is reconfigured through quicksilver splicing of moving and still images, sound, spoken word and text, creating a non-linear immediacy. Through the narrator’s direct address, the viewer becomes main character, then is whisked off on a wild ride: a Nigerian uncle bequeaths you his luxurious beachfront house, a suitcase of cash is yours if you follow dangerous directions. You race through adventure-film tropes accompanied by tense, fast music—moving through dark, wet streets, meeting mysterious go-betweens in the south and speeding off in a motor boat.

Then, the pleasure is all yours. A voice sings: “I am happy, I am happy,” as a tongue licks the keyboard. The king of China invites you to the Mediterranean, bikinied yachters call to you, sunlit breezes caress the softest hair under a man’s arm, and “you love the smell,” you’re told. You are enveloped in pink and white flowers, and a woman stuffs some in her mouth. The warm voice softens over seductive imagery: “Everything is yours… You are so powerful… This beach is yours now… You own every little bit of sand touching your body… You’re so rich now… You own the stars… You can even grab the stars in the palm of your hands.” A hand moving across the screen plucks little images that tumble from a starry sky. The film closes with an invitation to stay: “Multiple viewings are recommended.”

The social striving presented by Prouvost is not limited to the foolish masses, but afflicts all—even those in art world. Throughout the installation are signs of famous works by male art stars: Jeff Koons’s Cracked Egg (Blue) and a Georges Braque still life are pictured, and vegetation recycled from the museum’s previous Chris Burden exhibition serve as props. The priest appears again, foretelling art deals: “You’ll be drawn by this piece of art, and you will buy it straight away, institutional critic. This artwork will touch you so strongly, sweeping across the artworld at present.” Despite their sophistication, radical artists—and their critics—share these structures of desire.

Prouvost’s voice resonates long after experiencing “For Forgetting.” The artist exploits her straying syntax and misspelling, made charming in the clash of French and English, as illustrative of what she calls “misgetting”—the slippage in the translation of languages and media. By replicating mass media communication strategies, Prouvost shows how, through forgetting and “misgetting,” we mistake the fake for the real.

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