The French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is a stately Beaux-Arts temple with red marble columns. But visitors this year will find its front door shut.
Instead, they’ll have to enter through a doorway at the back, then walk through a dirt-filled basement, up a set of rickety wood stairs and into a room where broken eggshells, cigarette butts, old cellphones and other detritus poke out of a floor of clear blue resin.
In the next room, where car seats and garden chairs seem to melt into sand, they’ll watch a nearly half-hour video of a dreamlike road trip from the suburbs of Paris to Venice, by car, horse and boat, featuring a naked bicyclist, a brass marching band and a magician who levitates furniture.
This installation, “Deep See Blue Surrounding You,” is the work of the artist Laure Prouvost, who, for several reasons, is an unlikely choice to represent France in the world’s most prestigious international art showcase. For one thing, as she herself admits, her French isn’t very good.
“I speak French, but like a child,” she said during a recent interview at her studio in Antwerp, Belgium. She left France from her hometown, near Lille, to study as a teenager, she said, and has never moved back.
Since then, Ms. Prouvost, who was awarded the Turner Prize in Britain in 2013, has established her career in Britain and Belgium. She’s had major solo shows in Beijing, Munich, New York, London and Antwerp, but only one major solo exhibition in France, at the Palais de Tokyo, last year.
And yet she has done France proud at the Biennale. The pavilion has been widely praised as one of this year’s most impressive, and was the talk of the preview week earlier this month, when critics and collectors descended on Venice. Many were surprised when the Golden Lion, the Biennale’s top honor, went to Lithuania, not France.
Ms. Prouvost’s Antwerp studio is on the top floor of a former coffee factory in the city’s fashionable art district, Het Zuid. There, a couple of weeks after the Venice vernissage, a piece of paper that read “They Are Waiting For You” was tacked next to a hole in a wall, just high enough for a child to fit through. We crouched down and passed through it into an office, where we sat for tea on the couch, next to a giant pair of papier-mâché. breasts.
Ms. Prouvost’s work extends past the gallery and into her life, where she continues her personal brand of performance art — at least when journalists are in the room. She mentioned that she was 13 when she left France, to study in Belgium — but hadn’t she said elsewhere that this happened when she was 17, and that she left to attend Central St. Martins, the art school in London?
“I was 52,” she said, deadpan. “But now I’m feeling great because I went to Los Angeles and got my boobs done.”
We both laughed — that answer didn’t jive with reality. For instance, she’s only 41.
What was she working on at the moment?
“I’m trying to arrange for my grandma to arrive at the pavilion,” she said. “She wants to come by helicopter. She loves hanging upside-down naked. She will attach herself using ropes and blast Elton John. She couldn’t come to the opening, because she doesn’t like to be so public, but we will do it at a moment when there’s no one around.”
Ms. Prouvost is known for conducting interviews in this manner, blending fact and fiction, often to comedic effect. It reflects the way she makes her art, using some elements from the real world, but combined with lots of whimsy and Lewis Carroll-style Jabberwocky.
“Wantee” the installation that won her the Turner Prize, is a film about her fictionalized grandfather, a famous conceptual artist who disappeared one day down a tunnel he dug under his house.
This may be a nod to her “conceptual grandfather,” the British artist John Latham, for whom she worked as a studio assistant early in her career, said Ossian Ward, the content director at Lisson Gallery in London, which has represented Ms. Prouvost since 2017.
“She spent a lot of time in his studio and was embedded in his interesting theoretical world, which was about time and cosmic events,” Mr. Ward said. “If you listen to his ideas, there’s a lot of language slippage, and almost punning, which comes into Laure’s work a lot,” he added. But Ms. Prouvost, he said, “has a more humorous bent.”
Her work often consists of large-scale immersive installations incorporating video, and signage that is sometimes instructional (“Please sit here to drown your sorrow”) and sometimes Dada (“Ideally, This Sign Would Take You In Its Arms”). There’s also a lot of tapestry, octopuses and disembodied breasts.
“The audience becomes very complicit in the environment she creates,” said Hana Noorali, a representative of Lisson Gallery. She added that Ms. Prouvost was often “inverting architectures, in some cases literally, to create a more surreal environment.”
Ms. Prouvost will often “change the way you enter a space and then re-enact that in a video work, so what you’re watching is actually a reflection of what you’ve already experienced,” Ms. Noorali said.
The video that is central to her Venice installation pulls together many of the elements she has explored in previous works. On her peripatetic journey, she brings with her several voyagers, including a priest from Burkina Faso, a retired French nursery-school teacher and a Gabonese-French dancer. She also encounters other people along the way, like the French filmmaker Agnès Varda, who died earlier this year at age 90. The travelers’ lines are spoken in French, English, Italian, Arabic and Dutch.
In one part of the film, they visit the Palais Idéal, a fantastical stone palace created over 33 years as a labor of love by a letter carrier in rural France. Later, they swim in the Mediterranean Sea at Marseille, where they contemplate the lives lost in those waters — refugees and migrants trying to make their way to Europe. From there, they swim to the canals of Venice, and ultimately arrive at the French pavilion.
“The whole idea was a kind of subconscious road trip of who we are,” Ms. Prouvost said. She wanted to “look at the ideas of representation and France,” she added.
The characters who populate her film also pop up as performers in the pavilion: One arrives out of the blue to present an impromptu magic show for visitors, for instance. Most of them could be considered outsiders, or outsider artists, because they’ve had no formal training. Her attention to these figures, and her incorporation of their worlds into her own, is where the subtle social commentary of her art starts to emerge.
“Her politics exist in her fiction, in her surrealism and in her narration,” said Martha Kirszenbaum, who curated Ms. Prouvost’s Venice show. (Ms. Kirszenbaum is an outsider, too, the artist pointed out: a French daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who has mostly worked in New York and Los Angeles.)
“She’s more interested in the society around her, but sociopolitical issues are under-layers to her work,” Ms. Kirszenbaum said. “The idea of utopia is very important to this project,” she added, speaking of the Biennale installation. “It’s like a utopian possibility of how we could maybe live together.”
She added that Ms. Prouvost’s vision was “to bring together an intergenerational and interracial group of people who could travel together and have a moment of life together.”
“It’s a trip that represents a global utopia,” Ms. Kirszenbaum said. “It’s Laure’s utopia and it’s my utopia.”
“She’s from Lille, which is in the very north of France, right by the border of Belgium,” he said. “That part of France has a lot of links to the Low Countries: the Netherlands and Belgium. It’s only really now that she’s become recognized in France, but I see her as an international artist.”
Ms. Prouvost said that part of the mythmaking in her art is about “trying to reject a past or the weight of history by making or reinventing it.” She said she was the first generation of her family that actually moved away from France. “The great thing about movement is that we question our system or the way we do things.”
After spending six months preparing her work for the Biennale in France, some of her friends have told her that her French has improved, she said, and she feels a little more French now.
“I am honored that they trusted me to do something,” she said. “They took a risk and I think it’s always nice to see your country taking some risks. I am from where I am, but at the end, in the video, I say: ‘We are like birds that don’t belong to any nation.’”