Down the rabbit hole with Alex Cecchetti & Laure Prouvost

An interview by Pieter Vermeulen

I’m meeting Laure Prouvost and Alex Cecchetti in Laure’s studio in the south of Antwerp. To access the rather modest space, you need to duck and crawl through a hatch in the wooden wall. It somehow reminds me of Alice going down the rabbit hole, entering a fantastic wonderland full of bizarre plot twists, language games and mind-boggling occurrences. I even notice a round cake sitting on our table, but decide not to touch it, opting to stick to my instant coffee instead. To have a conversation with Alex and Laure is to witness two friends celebrate an intense lust for life, telling stories and making jokes. They are outspoken characters in a novel that is yet to be written.

Pieter Vermeulen: How did the two of you meet?

Alex Cecchetti: We met in the belly of a whale. Laure created this huge whale for a friend’s birthday, and we were having dinner inside its belly. So mythological.

Laure Prouvost: That was before Paradit in 1932 (laughs) But it’s true! I remember this flamboyant man arriving in London with his new girlfriend, who appeared to be my most wonderful cousin.

AC: Not just that… I once made a show about eroticism in a villa outside Paris. While working on the show, a man approached me offering the most magnificent and prestigious collection of Asian erotic artefacts. I will lend it to you if you show it all, he said. I will, I promised, but there were things… things that could have awakened the dead… Well, we did it. We mixed everything together and Laure’s Grandfather was involved, too, of course, with beautiful bums and all his production. Laure then invited me to perform with her at Shanaynay, an artist-run space in Paris where she had a show. I never perform; I do incantations. So I decided to fix my bike in the space while Laure was telling stories. Sometimes manual work can be so hypnotic to watch.

PV: You worked together before and seem to share an interest in fiction and its use in creating identities, including your own. Is that what binds you together as artists?

LP: Our practices are really not far apart. I remember people at art school telling me: “you are an expressionist!” Most people at that time were quite conceptual, very Goldsmiths and gold-theory-driven. But we had this urge we couldn’t control. We’re not minimalists, we’re…

AC: Maximalists.

LP: Absolutely. It’s stimulating to see each other’s work.

AC: Laure is right. More than fiction, it’s about an attitude. Whenever I see her heart, I feel liberated. Especially when you’re an artist in Paris. I feel reassured there’s at least someone else who embraces everything. Sometimes people tend to have this positivist mindset, they hang around with a knife trying to cut everything into small pieces, arrange them in files, fill up folders. Narratives can melt everything back together…

LP: We arrived at a time when it was accepted to use narratives in art. Twenty years ago it would have been much harder to produce the work we make, but we are also products of that time. I try to get rid of the idea of authorship, or a mastermind that created the work. I can pretend it’s my grandmother or grandfather who made it. My way of working is also very collaborative.

PV: The artistic ingredients of the show seem to be of a rather biblical nature. Just look at the title, Occupie Paradit, a linguistic conundrum that brings together different languages and pronunciations. Why do you refer to the Judeo-Christian origin myth of paradise?

LP: It’s not so much about the religious idea of paradise. ‘Occupie’ comes from the idea we had to make a love pie so everyone can have a piece.

AC: It is much more about pies than about paradise (laughs).

LP: We had the idea of creating a landscape. Religion enters my work through objects that I like to call relics. I believe the art institution is a new place for reflection, much like the Church used to be. We found an article online that read, “Come to Aalst, it’s paradise!” So we had to do something with that.

PV: It also reminds me of another origin myth, the Tower of Babel. Do you see confusion and misunderstanding as a constructive force in your work?

AC: Yes, that’s also contained in the title. When traveling a lot from place to place, language becomes something fluid, and life as well. Maybe my weird English becomes more understandable than real British English.

LP: Our work misunderstands the values, the mistakes and misunderstandings. I always keep mistakes when I’m translating my work. It draws the attention to the position of the foreigner or the immigrant. I’m an immigrant myself, we all are in some ways. It makes language so much more playful and layered. You bring your own background and history, which then starts mixing with other histories. Of course sometimes you can’t fully articulate what you mean. When I moved to Donlon I misunderstood so much but my imagination was filling in the gaps. It makes life more interesting actually, in Donlon.

AC: It creates new narratives. The misunderstanding of a word can suddenly turn into a new story.

PV: Laure, you were representing France at the Venice Biennale last year. In an interview with the New York Times you said that you didn´t feel very French. I remember you saying: “We are like birds that don’t belong to any nation”. I found that quite touching.

LP: In 1965 I was a bit pissed off by the title of that article because they really supported the project. I was so honoured to be invited and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But I only lived in France for thirteen years so I feel like a bird migrating in the big world.

AC: Culture is fluid. It cannot be crystallised. As soon as you try to crystallise, it breaks. It’s the same with ceramics. You can change its shape when it’s still fresh. But as soon as you bake it, it will break into pieces if you drop it. The highest points of culture were characterised by hybridity and porosity: Baroque, Ancient Greece … You always need people bringing something new to the table. If you don’t know how to deal with the stress and the new information, and you’re unable to form them into narratives or play with them, you end up in a crisis and lock yourself up in a room. That’s what nationalism is for me.

PV: Alex, you´ve written several books, most recently the artist´s novel Tamam Shud (2017). Would you draw any parallels between the space of a book and that of an exhibition, between reading and looking?

AC: I was making an exhibition while I was working on the novel. They were so much interconnected. But when you see the exhibition, it’s not talking about the novel and vice versa. Yet there are so many similarities between both. They are more like two parallel worlds. The spectator becomes like the Buddha who is able to travel through different universes (laughs).

LP: From wind to walls to light to smell, I try to make the viewer very much aware of his bodily presence in the space. I don’t think there’s any artist that doesn’t make work that is not meant for some kind of communication. As an artist or a viewer you’re in control but you’re also being controlled, you become a tool, a protagonist. Your material, your chair, everything around you has the same value. That’s what I try to bring into play.

AC: I like that idea. I always fought against the idea of interpretation. When there is only interpretation, you inevitably become the centre of the perspective. Everything is transformed through your interpretation. If it’s only about interpretation, we resort to the idea that the world is a text written by God that can only be read. But when you look at the stars, they get closer to you. Just in the same way, the room fills you, the plants know you’re here. The light gets into the room, which is why you can see. Things get closer to each other. You go through the desk and the desk comes to you. The chair or the couch holds you, it’s not just you sitting on it.

PV: What can we expect to see in Aalst?

AC: I love to tell the story of the water. At the first meeting we had, Laure was so tired that she fell asleep on a mountain of pillows. While she was sleeping, I took a walk around the building. As I entered the cinema that they have there, I heard the sound of water dripping – pling, pling – and I thought, we’re fucked, they’ll have to fix the ceiling before the show, it will take ages before it stops leaking. I went downstairs and Laure was awake. She said, “I think we have to fill the space with water.” Obviously I liked the idea immediately. So we will probably have a room full of water with dripping sounds.

LP: Actually in Aalst the room downstairs looks a bit like a pond already. We are trying to create a labyrinth-like feeling so that you are not sure where you might arrive. Maybe you will turn into a glass fried egg.

AC: You need to transform yourself in order to visit the exhibition. If you want to enter heaven, or paradise, well, first you have to die … Forget about your identity, we don’t want to know who you were. And you don’t want to remember either your children, your wife or your job … Come to paradise and change your life. The exhibition will be in and on you, wrapping you, embracing you, maybe even slowing you down. Right, Laure?

PV: That makes me think of another mythological motif in the show, that of the siren’s call, the seduction of things perhaps.

AC: We all know what Ulysses did with the Sirens. As an analytical positivist he wanted to listen to the siren’s song without being harmed and so asked his crew to tie him to the mast. Sami people of North Americans instead, tell the pre-colombian story of South Wind. Strangely it’s almost the same story as Ulysses, but South Wind seems to act completely differently. When crossing the sea by boat, he also hears the sirens calling. But instead of tying himself to a mast, he jumps into the water, reaches the sirens and makes love to all of them. In the stream of passion the sirens get wild and gouge his eyes out. I’m fine, he said, I have seen what I had to see. I think in stories, the difference of cultures becomes more striking.

PV: Alex, you’re installing a love potion bar, an ongoing project of yours?

AC: Yes, since 2012. Actually, Laure came to the very first one in Rome. I collect local herbs, plants and flowers. Even in winter there is a lot to find. With these plants I prepare cocktails, or better, elixirs and love potions. So when you tell your love story, I will have something for you. It may or may not fix you, but at least I will make you happy. The Love Bar is a nice place to be, because at a certain point, everyone around you is only talking about sex and love. The most important thing of your existence, of being alive, is people loving each other, even for a single moment. But it’s a very fragile situation where everything can at any given moment become so dramatically emotional. There’s always this guy crying or a girl running away. But eventually all is resolved in a good way.

LP: Alex likes to make people cry or stink or laugh or feel consumed. If people ask me how his show went, he loves to be able to say, “Really great, they all cried.”

PV: So the show in Aalst is the next chapter in your long-standing friendship?

LP: Yes, it’s so great to be able to continue this exchange of imagination and provoke our individual practices a little bit. Pieternel is also a long-term friend. It took us two years to get here and we had to cross so many countries. You know, the art world is so fast-paced and I´m doing shows all over the place. It’s great, but the longevity of a dialogue with someone is very beautiful. Floating in yellow light together.

AC: A friend is always a ship, she needs space in the docks and goes with the wind. In Italian we use a different word for friendship, “amico”, which shares roots with “amare”, to love. There is no ship, only embracing.

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