Mathilde Roman (2022). Swimming with Laure Prouvost / Nager avec Laure Prouvost. Paris: Manuella Editions. Bilingual EN/FR. <https://www.manuella-editions.fr/produit/laure-prouvost/?lang=en>
Mathilde Roman’s Swimming with Laure Prouvost is of interest for this talented art critic and curator’s read on Prouvost’s celebrated oeuvre, but even more so as an exemplar of experimental art criticism and as a meditation on creative practice and motherhood. In this short and engaging book, Roman lyrically explores Prouvost’s work through the lens of their evolving friendship over the past decade. Through well-placed details and some additional conjecture, we ascertain that the 40-something pair of creative practitioners share similar leisure interests (swimming, cycling, viewing art), nationality (both are French, though Prouvost lives and works in Brussels), and family lives (both have partners and two young children, and Prouvost recently gave birth to her third). The book highlights episodes from the summer of 2021, when for three months both families lived in Nice and shared weekends together at Roman’s rustic country house, Les Ferres, on the mountainous outskirts of town. Prouvost, whose Deep See Blue Surrounding You featured prominently at the Venice Biennale in 2019, refers to these months as Deep Nice, an amiable wordplay that I’ve appropriated for this article’s title.
Roman’s book takes as its organizational and temporal metaphor Roman and Prouvost’s many restorative and generative swims off the warm beaches of the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera). Tellingly, we learn that they enjoyed the area’s expansive beauty that blurs the boundaries between the warm blue sea and the sky above, while also cohabitating with crowds and the waste floating on the water’s surface. The book’s narrative episodes embrace unvarnished everyday life. Roman’s writing style approximates a stream of consciousness, a perfect extension of the swimming metaphor, inviting us to float along with them in a sensory, embodied reading experience. Stroke by stroke, we see through Roman’s eyes how her friendship and collaboration with Prouvost has progressed alongside their creative practices and quotidian mothering responsibilities. Expounds Roman, “everything was aligned—our pleasure of sea-swimming, our yearning to stretch time, our need to spend time with our families—and we entered into a powerful, porous replenishing bubble, which has now rekindled my energy for writing.” (42)
This deeply subjective and vulnerable book marks a change in Roman’s critical style; while previously she tended not to develop close personal relationships with the artists she writes about, Swimming with Laure Prouvost exemplifies her turn to what she calls collaborative writing: opening herself fully to Prouvost’s creative process, and to critique as relation. (Note that Roman’s previous book, Habiter l’exposition – L’artiste et la scénographie (Manuella Press, 2020), inaugurated her approach to collaborative criticism.) Roman’s approach is in part inspired by the late Italian feminist writer and art critic Carla Lonzi, particularly the way in which she re-imagined the role and identity of the art critic by foregrounding the creative subjectivity of the artists she interviewed in her 1969 book, Autorittrato (Self-Portrait). Channeling Lonzi and other experimental art critics, Roman muses that everything that happened during her time shared with Prouvost took on a new flavor inspired by the artist’s company as well as by Roman’s ruminations about the artist’s past and ongoing production. “We live a present punctured by works and stories from the past and the future,” muses Roman. (55)
Roman’s book informally argues that the lives and written histories of contemporary female artists should avoid strict divisions between artistic and domestic lives, acknowledging the necessarily hybrid and multitasking conditions of the artist-mother/mother-artist. This is not in any way to imply that artists haven’t already integrated women’s work and motherhood into their artistic practices. (Roman cites many pertinent art historical examples (Allison Knowles, Lucy Lippard, Yayoi Kusama, Pipilotti Rist, and so on) beyond her own makeshift artists’ residency en famille with Prouvost at Les Ferres.) Rather, it is to argue that artists like Prouvost (and writers like Roman) deserve an art criticism that recognizes the intricate and immersive dance of each individual creative practitioner-mother. More than once, Roman riffs on Prouvost’s fascination with octopi, theorizing the consummate mother-maker-multitasker. While this could be interpreted negatively as a privileged identity position complicit with the social and political status quo—akin to “having it all,” being an international art celebrity with two or more kids in tow—I think that interpretation eclipses our ability to appreciate the larger point. Roman’s central argument, as I understand it, is that these always entwined and relational subject positions shouldn’t be ignored in art criticism. Far from being unconscious, Roman’s position is a carefully-crafted, workable, and (dare I say?) inspired appreciation of “what is.” The book emphasizes wellbeing through fluidity: letting things flow, together. (Pun intended.)
Bodies, sensations, and intentional awareness of both are front and central. In this way, the book is a sort of extended love letter to art and to her friendship with Prouvost, although the latter cannot easily be separated from the former. Roman writes, “[after a swim] sitting at my desk, my hair still wet and the senses awakened by this shared intensity, I let myself be guided by the desire to journey through her work with my emotions, carried by a new friendship that finds its place in a collaborative approach to critical writing.” (44) The author invites us to speculate about what it might feel like to be inside Prouvost’s installations, traveling through memory and projecting their evocative themes on to everyday occurrences at Les Ferres. Floating alongside Prouvost, imagining the artist’s soon-to-be born baby, she further wonders what it might feel like to be inside Prouvost. Roman concludes: “We are inside the world-- not in front of the world--just like Deep See Blue Surrounding You placed us in the belly of an octopus or a whale. We are inside porous, crossed bodies.” (56) It perhaps goes without saying that that swimming alongside a pregnant woman in fish-filled waters and sharing a home with them is about as intimate of a look at our watery origins as a species and as infants as one can get.
Swimming with Laure Prouvost’s many themes and sub-themes reads a bit like a treasure hunt, with fascinating crumbs dropped here and there, intentionally refusing mastery and closure. Taking a comment of Roman on Prouvost out of context, this process also could be described as “opening doors and leaving us on the threshold.” (53) One minor shortcoming of this creative approach is that the book relies a bit too much on previous knowledge of Prouvost’s work. The twelve illustrations help but it would be nice to have had links to video and other content to understand the works in a bit more detail. I also would have been curious to learn if Roman understands the place of motherhood and sensation in artistic development to be confined to strictly biological notions of motherhood; while the text hints at a more capacious understanding, it is not made fully explicit. Overall, however, I found this book to offer many promising avenues for future art writing and collaborative practice, especially for its model of experimental criticism and collaborative writing, and for its proposition that we understand creative activity as a form of oceanic feeling and awareness.
I finished Swimming with Laure Prouvost a bit reluctantly; it felt, appropriately enough, like leaving the beach after a languid day at the seaside. It occurs to me that collaborative writing effortlessly translates into collaborative reading. We are invited to feel the book’s energies, letting them wash over us, emerging transformed. With that in mind, it seems only right to allow Roman’s reflections on the wonders of creation, procreation, and collaborative practice to have the final word. “I'm settling down to write after a motionless summer at Les Ferres, soothed by the light floating of leaves in the wind, the dance of butterflies in the lavender, the buzz of insects, my eyes attracted just like theirs by heavy bunches of grapes, bursting figs, mental hallucinations that plunge me once again into Laure Prouvost’s videos where I mix images of rubbing skin, breasts, bodies, where I perceive outbursts and sounds.” (62)
Kate Mondloch is Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Oregon, where she holds a joint appointment as faculty in residence in the Clark Honors College. She is the author of Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and A Capsule Aesthetic: Feminist Materialisms in New Media Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). She is currently working on a new book about body-mind awareness and contemporary art.