It is often difficult to write anything incisive after visiting the Venice Biennale because it’s hard to separate out the condensed moments of overstimulation; the pieces and the pavilions merge together. It’s hard not to be distracted by the spiraling horror of Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra for example (which I won’t go into in order to avoid adding inches to the platitudinous coverage, and also because it lies way out of the scope of this article) or by the bombastic spectacularisation of politics woven through the 100+ exhibitions. However this clump of confused vignettes that one is left with is somehow mirrored in the compositional structure of Laure Prouvost’s newly produced film ‘Deep See Blue Surrounding You’ (2019) showing at the French Pavilion (the latter however, far less likely to induce a slump into a nihilistic hole).
A frenetic filmed odyssey from the utopian Tours Nuages tower blocks of Nanterre in the Parisian suburbs, via the vast expanse of the Marseillais coastline and ending in the grubby canals of Venice, ‘Deep See Blue Surrounding You’ comprises frantic scenes that last just seconds, cutting back to raspberries under rocks, horse hooves on orange peel, performers spewing lettuce, the plump frisson of eyeballs and bum cheeks, and the various jellies of assorted sea creatures. “A journey to the subconscious,” whispers Prouvost at the start of the film. A large tapestry on the other side of the pavilion condenses and ossifies the video into one strange stretched-out frieze. The composition of the video is laid bare, sharp cuts and contrasts serve to show an interpersonal, intergenerational fluidity overlaid by moments of disconnection and disintegration in a globalised world and the reconstruction that takes place through gaps in comprehension.
The film draws up a compendium of cities which maps a trajectory of both personal and national significance, punctuated by utopic architectures, from Émile Aillaut’s Tours Nuages to the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval: a grandiose Ideal Palace built by hand by the postman Ferdinand Cheval over the course of 33 years in rural France. It seems pretty unambiguous that Prouvost is, in some ways, seeking to render her own Ideal Palace at the French Pavilion. Staged within an immersive world, modelled on the imagined insides of an octopus, where the spongy floor lurches you forward with its undulating instability, the act of navigating this space is fun in a destabilising way. A crappy Atlantis welcomes visitors with cheap garden chairs adorned with sand, thrones with saddles slung over sandcastles and cigarette butts trapped in resin; the video spills out into the space, filling up Prouvost’s palace.
There are also clues to the artist’s broader practice, which has long been punctuated with paintings, signs or subtitled videos of aphorisms that begin with the word, ‘Ideally…’ “IDEALLY HERE THE ROOF WOULD BE OPEN TO THE SKY” reads one. “Trying to compensate for the inadequacy of the world by ameliorating reality with the help of imagination or hope is another key element of Laure Prouvost’s work,” writes curator of the pavilion Martha Kirszenbaum.
These linguistic turns and tricks are present elsewhere in both the film and pavilion, possessing other malleable uses such as supporting the artist’s seemingly unflagging desire to render things strange through translation, humour assonance, allegory, fabrication and untruths. Often the film’s French and English subtitles don’t quite match up; they speak different languages and tell faintly different narratives. Rather than an elitist joke for a bilingual audience, it seems as if the artist is instead hovering above questions of comprehension and miscomprehension in a globalised world operating through universaliseded yet messy codes of communication. The film is also conducted in Italian, Arabic and Dutch.
In an interview in 2017, Prouvost told me that even if her work doesn’t seem political on the surface, the imagination is in itself political. These language games allow for critique to be masked with uncanny humour, to scratch away at the surface and render certain subjects strange or uncomfortable. By incisively poking fun at the status quo, we start to realise the absurdity of things we often take as given.