Whitechapel Art Gallery

This voice is the sun touching your face… feel the sun in your mouth.”

Laure Prouvost’s exhibition Farfromwords at the Whitechapel Gallery explores the sensory and sensual possibilities of landscape. Her provocatively titled Swallow (2013) is a large-scale installation which presents the viewer with a hyper-real paradise. This is a place akin to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights where fish steal strawberries from young women who bathe and smoke naked and nymph-like at the base of a waterfall.

Filling the gallery with a total panorama of collaged painting, drawing and film, Swallow encircles and immerses the viewer within a make-shift amphitheatre. Images from the work’s interior surface slip between real, remembered and imagined aspects of landscape, and bring together disjointed images to confuse and delight the senses: marble plinths, enormous hands, palm trees and red wine. The installation incorporates a longer super-saturated video work cinematically displayed. This heightens the work’s jewel-like quality as it shines through the darkness of a smaller connecting room. Here the viewer encounters brilliant sunshine, oranges torn apart and the repeated motif of the open mouth. A fragmented narrative emerges that brings together references from classical antiquity with high-definition television monitors, painterly gestures and naked flesh, in an assemblage of time and place.

Much of Prouvost’s visual vocabulary, her use of film and her manipulation of the visitor’s experience echoes the work of Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. In particular, Rist’s mesmeric video installation Lobe of the Lung (2009), part of the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition Eyeball Massage, employs similarly high-contrast pastoral and bodily imagery in an immersive installation environment to seduce and engage the viewer, expertly tapping into pleasure senses, reveries and secret memories.

The dream-like Swallow directly acknowledges the viewer and absorbs them sensorially and emotionally. Its soundtrack incorporates birdsong, chirruping crickets, recurring female gasps and whispered instructions that provoke action and reaction: “You are naked… come closer … you can drink this image.” The deployment of language and imagery is at once intimate and playful, yet the overt sexual overtones are disconcerting. The use of video and sound provides Prouvost with elasticity to “control” the viewer (her own words). Extreme close-ups, and both slowed down and sped up editing processes emphasise a sense of dislocation and hallucination. These are themes explored in earlier videos such as The Wanderer (Betty Drunk) (2011) which addressed the bodily and psychological experiences of drunkenness.

Around the edge of Swallow’s structure fresh raspberries are invitingly balanced on upturned broken car mirrors. These can be eaten by the viewer, subverting expected rules of audience interaction. This is a generous exhibition, which demands to be explored and languished within. There are luscious tactile surfaces and complex references throughout the installation, and time spent with the work reveals further details and subtle shifts in meaning. Swallow is an intense experience, undercut with sex, humour and some notes of discord, providing both a seductive and uncomfortable experience. Prouvost transforms the passive viewer into a sensory organism, an amplified receptacle for sound, sight and taste.

©Anneka French 2013