Perched atop the new National Museum in Norway is the Light Hall, an iridescent marble box enclosing an open, cavernous space. Used for various group and themed exhibitions, it will also become home to The Fredriksen Family Commissions, a series of five biennial projects in which international artists are invited to create a work or installation – Laure Prouvost is the first.
The whole place was a construction site when the Brussels-based French artist made her first site visit. ‘There were pipes coming out everywhere and I was like, could we let nature take over, stop building, and let birds come in?’ she says, recalling a kernel of an idea that developed over later visits. Flying north from Belgium, looking down upon the clouds, thinking about migration and a bird’s-eye vantage of earth, the artist began to conceive of the Light Hall as a man-made cloud levitating above Oslo, and set about creating an ethereal and experiential world within.
Upon ascending a staircase to the peak of the museum, a narrow passage with a rising and dropping floor acts as a threshold into Prouvost’s new realm. An enormous video wall divides the Light Hall in two, this first side is what the artist calls the valley – ‘the valley of humans, of production, consuming, and consumerism, but also belonging together with nature’. Snaking pipes entwine architecture and artifice, seemingly leaking oil across the terrazzo floor into pools trapping detritus of consumerism and nature. However, within this gloomy environment, there are hints of how we humans might float away from earthly despair and into the clouds.
An intricate tapestry hangs down, decorated with facts about migrating birds such as TERNS FLY 5700KM IN 7 DAYS WITHOUT ANY PAUSE and MOST BIRDS TRAVEL ALONE. Prouvost says it was woven by her ‘Grand Ma’ (a recurring character in her artwork) and cousins in Flanders, and that while it’s limply hanging now, ‘it's really to be carried out by a plane or a big bird to go up and fly off from the museum’. Another tapestry forms an enclosed, dark, cosy space in which the artist’s reassuring voiceover invites us to ‘stay forever if you want, lay down, feel free to nest’.
The looping film projected onto the dividing wall has a recurring and haunting song Prouvost wrote with Ghent musician Tsar B, sung by Singing Molenbeek, a children’s choir the artist has become involved with, whom she says ‘are from a deprived area of Belgium and all come from different migrating backgrounds’. Grand Ma – an ever-present in the installation – also features in the film, flying through the sky naked, grinning and weightless.
We are told by Prouvost that Grand Ma dangles on a rope from her husband’s plane every Sunday: ‘She gets naked, jumps, and feels the elements, the sky, connects with levitation, and becomes something else.’ Like this story, we are never quite sure what is real or fake in Prouvost’s creations, and her world is richer for it.
Architectural trompe l'oeil gives the impression of holes cut deep into the floor under raised bridges and eked behind the screen; voices from the pipes recall dreams of flotation; a rotating sculpture appears to levitate above a chunk of Norwegian rock; and upturned hanging wicker baskets reveal themselves to be VR headsets that offer an uncanny replication of the space, but with naked female sirens gently encouraging the viewer to join them in levitation and ascend to another realm.
A grotto-like tunnel leads from the valley, narrowing as it curves around the vast projection wall, squeezing the body before exuding it into that other realm. Here the space is a contrast, iridescent Nordic light penetrating the marble walls, and instead of oil slicks the floor is coated in wisping mists. This is a brighter, more optimistic world, to which Boschian glass birds – crafted in Murano by Berengo Studio – have also migrated, as have enormous rocks (both real ones from Norwegian valleys and fabricated simulacra) which float with empyrean weightlessness. In the film, Grand Ma is again joyously flying through the air, but this time viewers have joined her exuberant ascent.
A central soft mound of a pattern replicating the terrazzo floor invites us to dwell under twisting chandeliers of consumerist rubbish, as if it had been sucked into a vortex from the valley floor and even it, the worst of plastic waste, could transform into something of delicate beauty. Here there is time to recline, to sink into the cloud and slowly contemplate Prouvost’s delightful provocation to our earthly situations. She has created a landscape – and skyscape – of care and welcome, awash with maternal attention and dedication to craftswomanship – elements which she describes as introducing herstory into history.
Prouvost and her collaborators – human and nonhuman, and whether singing, crafting, or flying – have created a space of fewer frontiers, above the Anthropocene but a place from which to look down through the clouds and imagine a better way, with a lighter touch, more magic, and fewer hierarchies.
‘Laure Prouvost. Above Front Tears Oui Float’ runs until 12 February 2023 at the National Museum of Norway. nasjonalmuseet.no
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Will Jennings is a writer, educator and artist based in London and is a regular contributor to Wallpaper*. Will is interested in how arts and architectures intersect and is editor of online arts and architecture writing platform recessed.space and director of the charity Hypha Studios, as well as a member of the Association of International Art Critics.
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