Behind Laure Prouvost's Unexpected Turner Prize Win


Behind Laure Prouvost's Unexpected Turner Prize Win
Laure Prouvost, wearing a scarf made of tea towels embroidered with objects from her installation, was as surprised as everyone else at the award ceremony.

The shocking Turner Prize win of Laure Provost has led more than a few art-world insiders to ask how the French installation artist came out on top of some formidable homegrown British talent. We break down the win and what's up next for this hard-to-pin-down artist who upended all of this year's expectations. 

Like many others in the art world, you may have been scratching you head after hearing that the French-born Prouvost, 35, won this year’s Turner Prize, the prestigious £25,000 contemporary art prize for a British artist under 50. Prouvost's own commentary on herself and her work doesn't offer much help for the perplexed: "What is wrong with me?" “I’m very strange!” “Why are we here? What do I do? Words? I don't do words!” Such hesitant and enigmatic discourse fits with the aesthetic of the unpredictable artist. Looking at her website gives another clue to her subversive approach: a completely blank page only offers a tiny, hardly visible square of a beach scene. Click it, and then you’re taken to the real site. It’s a good introduction to Prouvost’s elliptical bent.

A still from the video component of Wansee, filmed at a cabin she constructed near
Coniston, where 
Kurt Schwitters once lived.

The title of her award-winning installation is meant to be a riff on “Want tea?” In the piece, the artist stages a table set for tea before a video that delves into a fictional relationship between the artist’s grandfather and Kurt Schwitters, as narrated by the artist herself. (In interviews, however, she claims their friendship was entirely real, though there is no evidence of this.) “Wantee” was in fact the nickname of Schwitters’s partner, Edith Thomas, since it was her common refrain. For the Turner Prize show, she expanded the size of the original installation, enlarging the table and adding more and more teacups and even more video footage. The zany, madcap style of the artist was clearly on display.

frieze installation
Placards Prouvost installed around the 2011 Frieze art fair in London.

While Prouvost is French, her British connections are undeniable. The artist studied at Goldsmiths and at the elite Central Saint Martins, and has lived and worked in London now for over ten years. Back in the day, she worked as the assistant to the late British conceptual artist John Latham. Her award-winning Wantee was commissioned and shown by Tate Britain for the “Schwitters in Britain” show earlier this year. In interviews, she’s often said she feels “half-British.” Nevertheless, the choice definitely exemplifies how the prize jury never shies from challenge and surprise.

Installation view of Prouvost’s Swallow at the Whitechapel Gallery.

In London and beyond, Prouvost has been hot for a couple of years. In 2011 she installed a variety of cryptic but vaguely confrontational placards around the Frieze Art Fair as part of its Projects program. And the same year she won the MaxMara Art Prize for Women, presented in conjunction with the Whitechapel Gallery, where she showed Swallow, a multi-channel video installation riffing on the theme of visiting the Mediterranean for artistic inspiration. In 2012 her film The Wanderer, based on another artist's translation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, was featured in the Institute of Contemporary Art's Artists' Film Club series. And earlier this year, at the Lyon Biennial, she showed two multichannel video installations that act as prologue and epilogue to The Wanderer. Coming up in January is another reinstallation of Wantee, this time at the Ruskin Museum in Cumbria, in the north of England and not far from Coniston, where Schwitters once lived and Prouvost created parts of her video.

A partial view of Before Before, one of two video installations by
Prouvost that appeared at this year’s Lyon Biennial.

The Guardian characterized the winner as “the rank outsider” among a prestigious group of artists up for the award. Prouvost was up against the likes of major players like performance impresario Tino Sehgal, painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and David Shrigley, the multitalented artist best known for wry cartoons. The little-known Prouvost didn’t quite have the hype of Sehgal just off his showings at the Venice Biennale and a blockbuster at Frieze New York, nor the ubiquity of Shrigley who has gained cache in the music and film worlds, nor the international prestige of Boakye. Prouvost even tried to bet on the winner the day of the awards, the Guardian reports, but was too late: Her pick was Tino Sehgal. 


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