Do you remember how you felt the last time you were really drunk? Present but not really there? Free but trapped? Elated but miserable? Excited, but moving in slow motion? Hearing words, but they make little sense? In a familiar place, but completely lost? Betty, the protagonist in Laure Prouvost’s film series The Wanderer (Betty Drunk) (2011), which forms the central element of her exhibition at International Project Space in Birmingham, is intoxicated. She embodies all these paradoxes as she staggers around a dark bar, long shiny black hair falling over large red lips, wearing a purplish-black floral dress, neckline scooped low. The camera cuts in and out as lights flash, darkness descends, beer sloshes and people mingle and dance. As Journey’s hit ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ fuzzily plays in the background, the film moves into a small empty pub, at whose bar Betty is slumped. She slurs to the old man next to her ‘I like you, you have a nice face’. The camera swoops, dives and twists around, as if drunk itself, flashing from one image to another: arms outstretched Betty spins; wanders the streets; stares at a kebab on the floor; pukes. The film is projected on a large wooden screen which is tilted to loom over the viewer, so that Betty also becomes part of the installation. As she stares at the camera and pushes against the screen, shouting, ‘Oh God, this screen’s falling, keep the screen from falling!’
This work is the second act in an ongoing, six-part series of Prouvost’s that will eventually form a feature-length film. This series is inspired by a text by artist Rory Macbeth, The Wanderer by Franz Kafka (2010), which he wrote by ‘translating’ Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915) without a working knowledge of German, a dictionary or the Internet. As such, Macbeth’s ‘translation’ bears little resemblance to Kafka’s original tale, in which the protagonist Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach, who is then ostracised by his family. Instead Macbeth narrates the haphazard story of Gregor, a man on a journey (both literally and psychologically), wandering ‘from Morgens to Traumen’, (words used here as place names that in reality translate as ‘morning’ and ‘dreaming’) during the war, in which Betty – a character new to Macbeth’s version – appears as his fallen heroine. Prouvost’s interpretation of Macbeth’s work is an emotive romp through the lives and minds of the pair. In part one of the project, The Wanderer (The Storage) (2011), Gregor, now in human form, is depicted in an anxiety ridden scene set in a dark, messy storage container. While part two, Betty Drunk, sees him exiting a building while hugging a man in green surgeons scrubs and walking down a series of dark streets, eventually coming across Betty, lying in the road. Yet Kafka’s investigation of alienation, loneliness and the misunderstanding between cockroach Gregor and his family (in particular the disconnection between interior psyche and feeling, and exterior appearance and behaviour, and, how this relates to others’ perception and reaction) also underlie Macbeth’s interpretation and Prouvost’s dramatisation. As in all three, the characters are trapped in repetitive situations that feel as if they can only end in tragedy.
The film The Wanderer (The Storage) formed the fulcrum to Prouvost’s installation at Spike Island in Bristol (as part of Again, A Time Machine, a series of commissions curated by Book Works). The work was a complex presentation of installation, sculpture and video, which took the viewer on a journey through a series of plywood spaces and corridors designed by Prouvost. The first corridor lead to a dead end with a monitor on a plinth, which read, ‘You are going in the wrong direction’, followed by a large, bright green circle and the image of a lamp accompanied by a clicking sound. Fast-paced directions and phrases appeared interspersed with symbols and images, such as the back of a boy’s head or a girl’s face covered in hair. Walking back down the main corridor led to a second space in which two mirrors faced one another, creating an eternal image, followed by a third space into which was projected a red triangle of light.
Slickly designed and built, the installation evoked the language of post-Minimalist works by the likes of Robert Morris and Dan Graham from the 1970s, where installation and sculpture were constructed (often from elemental materials) to have a direct relationship to the audience. Their works created theatre set-like spaces that framed or controlled the viewers’ behavior or movement, thus laying stress on the their phenomenological response to the experience. Such an emphasis on shaping the audience’s experience seems relevant in the context of the relationships Prouvost forms between film, object and space – both within the fictions she creates and the ‘reality’ of the gallery space – as if the gallery space were a stage on which the object and viewer become part of the action within the film. However, Prouvost also ‘speaks’ to her viewers in the first person through directions on screen and through her characters’ speech, as they slip in and out of their own fictions, sometimes talking directly to the audience or referring to the space.
The final rooms at Spike Island were very different in appearance from the first: the insulation in the backs of the walls and the cabling to the lights were visible and a stack of junk – including a fan, bin bag, yellow knitted blanket, grey plastic bowl and an old radio that featured later in the film – was piled in the corner. A monitor flashed on, revealing a sweaty-faced man (Gregor) with a brown raincoat over his head shouting, ‘I want to smoke indoors, I want to drink all day’. The main film was projected in the final space of the installation. Disturbing and schizophrenic in its edit, this film is a fractured, compressed trip through Macbeth’s version of Gregor’s mind. Prouvost rapidly cuts back and forth between Gregor’s actions in the container and flash-backs to exterior scenes that appear in Macbeth’s text, such as Betty lying hurt by a lake. The container acts a metaphor for the claustrophobia of his brain, also akin to that felt by Kafka’s Gregor, as he jumps back and forth between past and present – desperate to escape himself, but also clearly searching for something.
Prouvost’s installations create an extended set for them, and by fracturing the fourth wall she provokes the viewer into having a physical relationship with the fiction presented on screen. This sensory interpellation has the effect of inviting the viewer into the characters’ psychological space, heightening the sense of anxiety that pervades the space. Their statements also draw attention to their state of ‘being’ within both a script and constructed environment, thus deconstructing the illusion of the fiction on film. Betty states, ‘But still I feel like I am just an image. You can’t touch me can you? I am just a fucking image!’. Language is used as both an affective tool and as a structural framework, interspersed with the fast-paced, rhythmic, strobe-like – and ultimately disorientating – editing style. Prouvost’s ongoing investigation of translation and (mis) interpretation lies at the core of this: Kafka via Chinese whispers.
Prouvost’s work has been readily discussed in terms of her ‘charming’ French-English misspellings, creating ‘whimsical’1 films that are ‘lovable lies’.2 But I wonder whether the same work would receive these cutesy descriptions if it were made by a man. Her work has also been assessed in relation to the history of Structuralist film-making and her use of semantics and semiotics, via language and objects. But, as relevant as this is, it only skims the surface of the direction it is taking in the Wanderer series. Here she demonstrates a complex approach to performance, film, sculpture and installation, one that lies heavy under the weight of art and film history, but manages to shoulder this with a lightness of touch and sense of humour, as Prouvost forms her own unique language. However, casting Kafka and the rest aside, this could, quite simply, be described as the start of an epic (and probably tragic) love story. As Gregor, trapped in his cluttered brain, has flashbacks of Betty, and Betty, intoxicated and on the verge of a breakdown, calls out for ‘Gregor’ repeatedly – both frightened and confused, each longs for the other.