You must stoop to access Laure Prouvost’s Antwerp studio. The Turner prize-winning artist’s doorway is only chest high, like the entrance to a Wendy house. I tell her I feel I’ve been forced to bow down and pay homage. A more usual reaction, she says, is that people feel as if they’ve been eaten.
Once in, you’re greeted by a monumental set of fibreglass breasts – pink, perky and disembodied – which occupy the centre of the floor. There are more breasts on a side table: spare components from the artist’s squirting fountain sculptures. These breasts are adapted from maritime floats. Buoy boobs: I imagine Prouvost, with her love of polyglot wordplay, would appreciate the pun.
Prouvost is not shy in matters of the body. Early proposals for her poster project for Art on the Underground – which rolls out across the network on Thursday – included drawings of welcoming breasts and sets of wobbly buttocks rubbing against one another. Prouvost – who was born in Lille, France, but lived in the UK for 18 years – hoped they might lure Britain back to the bosom of Europe.
“When they invited me, I actually wanted to take a stand and talk as a foreigner in London,” she says. “I just can’t imagine we’re not together. Europe is still so young, and it’s not so long ago that there were terrible wars. It’s a shame to not try to make it work.”
The project launches with a choral performance at Stratford station during the rush hour. Should you attend, Prouvost would be grateful if you’d bring a shovel. After the singing, the artist has suggested we nip around the corner and start digging a new tunnel over to the continent – “to reconnect again, and make sure Britain and Europe stay as one”.
“There’s the Eurostar, but maybe we need to find a little path that is a bit less controlled by the state, where we can go with our torch.”
Prouvost suggests that the notorious Mole Man of Hackney might help us out: William Lyttle excavated a warren of tunnels beneath his home. She is drawn to dogged, off-grid creative endeavours. At the current Venice Biennale, where she occupies the French pavilion, she presents a film in which a group of talented misfits travel from Paris to Venice by way of the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval – a fantastical stone palace constructed over 30 years from pebbles by a postman in the north of France.
Tunnelling is a Prouvost trademark. Wantee, a work for which she won the 2013 Turner prize, explores the home, teapots and tunnelling habits of her (fictional) grandparents. In the film, her “Grandad” – loosely inspired by German-born artist Kurt Schwitters – mysteriously disappears down a tunnel he has been digging to Africa.
Back in Venice, Prouvost has started burrowing through the cellar of her French pavilion in a playful attempt to connect to the British one next door. “Hopefully we’ll meet one day,” she tells me.
To say Prouvost has an immaculate poker face is an understatement: she approaches interviews as a very sincere form of performance art in which it is not made evident whether your conversation is taking place in reality or her more colourful fantasy world.
Discussing her interest in breasts, bottoms and inviting flesh, she describes how the extreme physicality of breastfeeding – “when you’ve got a little animal sucking you away” – had grounded her in the experience of being a creature. Then without missing a beat, she segues into a discussion of Grandad and his minimal art, and how Grandma “made a teapot for him with bums and boobs.” And we’re back out in the constructed world of Wantee again.
Like the best storytellers, Prouvost roots her fantasy world in lived experience. Her “Grandad” may be part Schwitters but he’s also part John Latham, the late London-based artist for whom she worked as an assistant. Like Latham, Grandad has lived through wartime and poverty, is a conceptual artist and a philosopher, and reuses his teabags. (In a cheeky, affectionate coda to a larger work made in tribute to Latham at the Serpentine in 2017, Prouvost placed used teabags out on radiators around the slick gallery.)
The irreverent gesture raised eyebrows, but was immediately evocative. We all know a teabag reuser – many of us indulge in such habits ourselves. “I mean, why not?” says Prouvost. “I reused when we were there and I assisted him. It tastes a bit of cardboard after a while, but when you live in the war I think everything’s different. He was aware of how much we consume, how we have no sense of anything. For me it has a much deeper meaning and of course a bit of humour for a time, but humour passed.”
Prouvost’s fleshier designs did not make the final cut for Art on the Underground. Instead, accompanied by her fictional Grandma, she has papered stations with hand-painted statements inviting commuters to pause for thought: “You are deeper than what you think”, “Oh stay with us the party has just begun”, “You’re going the wrong direction” and “Ideally these words would pause everything now”.
While she produces work in many physical forms – ceramics, paintings, blown glass and tapestries – language is Prouvost’s first material. In her videos she speaks in whispery, confessional tones. Earlier sculptural work features inanimate objects mounted on little plinths – a pat of butter, a cigarette – talking with Prouvost’s voice as the spotlight hits them. “You would turn me on if you put me in your mouth, you know” whispers the e-cigarette.
A long-running series of signs, painted in white on black panels, offer ambiguous and intimate statements about the space in which they’re hanging and the reader’s relationship to it: “This sign exists to make you see the wall better”, “Idealy this sign be spelt wright”, “This sign wishes to have been read just by you”.
A delightful recent book on her work takes the form of a glossary – or “Legsicon” as it is dubbed in Prouvost speak. Under “language” she writes: “Helps communication between humans but also misunderstanding.” Well, quite.
Prouvost moved to London aged 18 to study art at Central St Martin’s. Having moved to Flemish-speaking Antwerp five years ago, she finds herself once again between languages and national identities.
“I feel a bit foreign everywhere. Yes, France as well,” she admits. “It’s kind of nice. Of course sometimes you want to engage and have a connection with someone. It [affects] language as well. I think in France, when someone tells me to ‘fuck off’ in French, you really feel it, but when you’re a foreigner, you’re just: ‘Well, whatever.’ You take in things with less weight. You’re floating a bit.” As a non-native speaker, she says, “you have a distance to the word”.
Prouvost sees a parallel between her status as “an outsider who is part of it” and the act of travelling on the tube, deep below ground: not in the city, but somehow of the city. Sitting on the Jubilee line, we’re ideally placed to make a break for it, extending our subterranean journey under the Channel, over to the continent.
I wouldn’t put it past Prouvost to really start digging a tunnel to Europe. Beneath the sweet, playful demeanour she has a solid anti-authoritarian streak and is a determined excavator.
“I’ll show you the way,” she tells me, solemnly. “I hope you’re coming to help me.”