Abstract: This article seeks to reflect on the trinomial Space-Ritual-Experience in art installations. Using the installation “Deep Blue Surrounding you” by Laure Provoust as a case study, will be analysed the organic conception and architectural composition of the art installation as a way to promote a liminal space through sensorial extensions of the central artistic object, by exhorting the intradiegetic sensorial interpretation to unlikely neophytes. Key-Words: Art Installation, Liminal Space, Ritual, Multi-Sensoriality, Laure Provoust
Resumo: Este artigo procura refletir sobre o trinómio Espaço-Ritual-Experiência em instalações artísticas. Utilizando como caso de estudo a instalação “Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre” de Laure Provoust, será analisado a concepção orgânica e a composição arquitectónica da instalação de arte como forma de promoção de um espaço liminal através de extensões sensoriais do objeto artístico central, ao exortar à interpretação intradiegética sensorial a improváveis neófitos. Palavras-chave: Instalação de Arte, Espaço liminal, Ritual, Multissensorialidade, Laure Provoust
1. Laure Provoust: video and its possible sensory extensions
Video as the main means of artistic expression, but also drawing, tapestry, ceramics, photography, performance and, above all, language, increasingly mix fiction and reality in the work of Laure Provoust, the 2013 Turner Prize-winning artist, in close dependence on the devices she installs. The invitation of the French Ministry of Culture to exhibit at the 2019 Venice Biennale and the fact that the artist lives in London and Antwerp have led Laure Prouvost to question the terms: “national representation”, “generation” and “identity” Together with curator Martha Kirszenbaum, she conceived “Vois Ce Bleu Profond Te Fondre”: an escapist journey through the imaginary subconscious, motivated by a road movie that wanders from the Parisian suburbs to northern France, from the Palais du Facteur Cheval to the Mediterranean and finally to Venice. The surrealist and oneiric character that Provoust gives to this installation questions the idea of a globalized world, of connections and discrepancies in a society characterized by individualism and constant change.
Provoust literally reversed the architectural principles of the French pavilion in the Giardini in Venice, using as a metaphor and source of inspiration the organism of the octopus – a cephalopod without a skeleton, of extreme agility and dexterity, dividing its brain by its many tentacles – and created a new architectural spatial order. The main entrance was transformed into an exit and the basement into a main entrance. Everything surrounds the central art object: the octopus head, the central piece, the main room where the film of this journey is shown. Everything else is a sensorial extension of the film: various tentacles of an octopus, designed to draw all passersby into the central narrative of the work. Ilya Kababov has aptly described this very fact: “… the viewer is completely free, because the space that surrounds him and the installation itself are completely indifferent to what they contain. (…) it is as if to say that it (the space) exists…” (Kabakov 2014:9) in an organic symbiosis.
Perhaps the increasing success of these artistic proposals, which entice visitors to explore new realities and improbable experiences, is rooted in this illusion of grasping spaces – realities – and in the will to disconnect from the outside world. However, I think, as I try to show in this article, that the balance achieved between artistic practice and its audience owes much to the ergonomic harmony of the trinomial space-ritual-experience in the conception of immersive experiences as an effective basis of a border space.(1)
2. Analysis of the empirical experience in “Deep Blue Surrounding you”
The Journey into the Subconscious, Provoust lets the film, which is about 30 minutes long, unfold through the various people portrayed, with quick cuts, a fragmented narrative, and puns and expressions between languages (French and English). In search of a new ecosystem, he has recruited different talents (magician, rapper, dancer, flutist) from two generations. Perhaps these “tentacles” are projections of the future or intimate desires that correspond to the personality of the artist: they function like the fingers of a hand that feels, explores and discovers its environment: interdependent elements with relative autonomy within defined boundaries.
2.1 The cellar: a door separating the “sacred” space from the outside
The path shows a winding path leading through bushes and the outer side walls of the building to the small cellar door. The sight of the foundations of the building, the intense smell of dampness, the rather grotesque side of the noble architecture reveals, on the one hand, the fragility of the structure, on the other hand, it “purifies” the gaze of a simple visitor and transforms him into an attentive explorer. (Figure 01) The slit of natural light illuminating the staircase to the second floor suggests a perfect and pleasant escape.
2.2 Entrance hall: temporary location: Transition to the “main room”
As you walk up the stairs, the pristine white of the walls, illuminated by natural light, is a symbol of a conscious place. Contrast this with the enameled floor with a bluish shimmer, where various scraps (cigarettes, cell phones, eggshells, a hand, …) and various small sculptures made of Murano glass (birds, snakes, …) are embedded in the translucent surface. In the corner of the room, a small opening gives a view into the next room and arouses curiosity (Figure 02).
In short, this space creates an introduction to the central theme of the work and introduces the visitor to an initiatory environment. However, it must be said that this interpretation is still extradiegetic: although there is a reflection on the meta-theme of “global equilibrium” / “fluid modernity” (Zygmunt Bauman), the interpretation of the reality presented is only objective: factual. Nevertheless, there is a call for reflection and a parallel between the environment and the state of being human.
2.3 The room and the main object
When you enter the central room, you must remove all the curtains with your bare hands, as if they were the dry, velvety entrails of a shell. (Figure 03) The arduous exit from the elusive haptic tunnel is rewarded with a composition inspired by the “bottom of the sea”: the translucent darkness of the light wire and fabric structure covers the entire space, allowing you to see – and feel – the architecture of the pavilion as if the structure were submerged in water or a large enclosure. A screen (about 6 x 4.5 m) in the center of the room shows the film produced by Provoust. The flickering light and melancholic atmosphere announce the entrance into the subconscious. The architectural composition of the installation obeys the relevance of the narrative: several dark sand constructions, reminiscent of a rock, form the basis for car seats or beach chairs. The irregularities of the carpet, painted extensively with sand textures, emphasize the impermanence of this new environment. (Figure 04)
The color of the film dominates the tone of the room: blue stripes glow on the ceiling when the camera is underwater. The actors “come” off the screen and appear in place for a few minutes. The constant appearance of images related to the sea and viscosity sometimes reminds us of smells. So we notice that the installation space is related to the different themes described in the film. Everything seems to revolve around what is presented and represented: who we are and where we are going as individuals on a planetary scale. According to Provoust, “There’s also the idea of merging and mixing more or less strong visions that have more to do with sensations.” (L’Institut Français 2019:10) This concerted perception of stimuli is rooted in the direct interpretation of space and the work, and is therefore intradiegetic: the discoverer is the protagonist of the story.
2.4 Complementary rooms
The two possible exits from the main room lead the visitors to the secondary rooms. In these there are small installations that refer to scenes that are part of the exhibited film. Because of their similarity, it is inevitable to resort to the short-term memory promoted by Provoust. The symbolism they carry reinforces the central theme: balance represented by the gymnast’s trapeze; inertia by an office with a desk, cell phone, ashtray, and television; optical illusion by a fountain titled “The End of the Dream,” in which three fish spitting out water in different ways are visible only through flashing lights. (Figure 05 and 06)
After the numerous experiences, the explorer finds himself once again in a test of trust: at the end of the small dark corridor, the natural light that draws the outline of a door – as if it were Plato’s cave – confirms the decision to leave. Once outside, one is rewarded with the cool mist in which the journey began (Figure 07)
Interwoven through numerous points of contact in a fragmented harmony of different narratives, the installation acquires a unique site-specific condition. In the artwork, this unique condition in turn refers to its parasitic value within a ritual that, according to Walter Benjamin, was released for the first time in the history of the world of reproducibility. Benjamin (2003:51) Benjamin referred to the earliest works that appeared in the service of a ritual: first the magical and then the religious. For him, the “…unique and untenable value of the ‘authentic’ work of art always has its basis in ritual.” (Benjamin 2003:49) The creation of this ritual value enhances the uniqueness of the work, creates an “aura,” and rewards the installation of a symbolic value through the induced formalities that are unconsciously codified by the space and the predisposition of the objects, an intrinsic quality of a ritual.
But then what is a ritual? In what way does it work? In search of a definition of ritual that would support this speculation, we would have to cite a number of authors who have dealt and are still dealing with the term and its definitions. It follows that the meaning of the term “ritual” is evolving in parallel and adapting to the civilization of the present, already in the post-digital age.
in 1909 Arnold Van Gennep published Les Rites de Passage, a study of the analytical framework of what is meant by “ritual” This book (2) refers to the dichotomy between the “sacred” and the “profane” and suggests that a “ritual” should “accompany a transition from one situation to another, or from one cosmic or social world to another.” (1960:10): a transition between these two worlds. To better understand the meaning of ritual, it is worthwhile to look at four other essays – “Essays on the ritual of social relations” (1962) – , published jointly by Gluckman, Forts, Forde, and Turner, which make clear the consensus on the notion of rites of passage. Later, following the studies of Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown, Gluckman, among others, examined changes in social relations, retaining rites of passage as the analytical basis for explaining a ritual. Although none of the authors used the implicit dichotomy between “sacred” and “profane” as the basis for their investigations, a consensus remained: There is a transition between social relationships: Individual social relationships change before and after a ritual (Lan 2018:2-3). Victor Turner later outlined a dialectic about this developmental cycle in his book Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure (Turner 1969) as “an attempt to understand something of the total social process of interaction and interdependence, and of the sometimes fruitful pauses between ordered events from which independent thought emerges” (Turner 1974:6). In other words, to understand this consensus: the legitimate sense of authority that rituals provide when they structure and organize the positions and moral, perhaps ethical, values of individuals in a society. The form they take “is defined by the position they take on a matter that is foreign to them; but the structure has no definite content: it is the content itself, captured in a logical organization conceived with the property of the real” (Lévis-Strauss 1993:121).
Thus, starting from the assumption that rituals promote a transitive space in which there is the possibility of changing the moral values and the positions of individuals in a society, and that their structure functions independently of the content, since it is itself content, we follow the path already taken by the “giants” (3), and in this way we return to the depths of Provoust’s “The deep blue that surrounds you”, which is essentially the motivation for this tour.
4. The ritual place and the surplus product
Analyzing the structural aspect of Provoust’s installation, one can see the influence of the space on the visitors both in the architecture of the space and in the narrative: an art installation built like a temple; a ritual place. One could even say that there is a threefold strategy of connection with the visitors:
a) The narrative generated in the video evokes multiple levels of connection between the physical space and the space represented in the installation: objects, performances and multiple spaces;
b) The architectural arrangement of the spaces, for its part, prepares the perception of the visitors by creating intra- and extradiegetic sensory parallels with the empathic intention of subjective interpretation: they become protagonists of the same narrative;
c) The presence of a path that, although not convincingly delineated, tries to be as organic as possible, reveals a rather rigid structure that facilitates the free enjoyment and interpretation of all the elements on display.
Such strategies create an interesting paradox: if everything in the installation is focused on this one actor – the visitor – the focus is also on the film produced there, which exerts an attraction on the various elements exhibited in the space and coexists in harmony with the newcomer, later called the discoverer.
In this way, immersion in this constructed space is made possible by appealing to the awakening of social and historical-cultural memory. Ilya Kabakov wrote in an empirical reflection on this moment:
“A pronounced sensitivity, the activation of subjective personal associations, and a deep memory throughout the time spent in the installation favor the occurrence of this additional sensation in the viewer. While working on my first installations, I realized that this emerging ‘surplus product’ inevitably gives the whole installation a specific look and the idea of a ritual place” (Kabakov 2014:157).
In this sense, the holistic interpretation of this new composition-this surplus product-transcends the meaning of space and creates a place of sacredness and ritual. Provoust also takes up this idea in some of his works: the paradigm of the social routine of every Sunday, once for churches, now (4) for museums. It would be blasphemous to think that all installations built in galleries and museums could serve the same purpose or even achieve the same goals as churches. Of course not, and I would even call such an analogy impertinent. However, there are interesting parallels that should be noted when considering social habits and customs. For example, the arrangement of elements by methods and devices resembles (on a subconscious level) what Kabakov calls a ritual place: “These elements ‘sacralize’ the premises for some incomprehensible reason.” (Kabakov 2014:162) One can conclude that this “incomprehensible reason” is due to the various influences-short-term memories-that Provoust disseminates in physical space. Intuitively interpreted between and within the route through the subjective experience of each visitor, they exercise the power at the unconscious level of these new explorers to create a new mental space within the physical space, as if the interior (the cave) of the octopus “represents the reference point of orientation for the spatial structure of the sacred place” (Turner 1974:36) It thus appears as a space constructed by this surplus product, at the edge (Van Gennep) of the everyday, at the threshold (5) (Turner) of the real, and at the limit of the visible.
5. Liminal space and unlikely neophytes
One by one, hand in hand, during the exploration process, the visitors, accepting Provoust’s proposals for immersion, gradually detach themselves from everyday life and absorb new narratives, new areas of reflection through the elements on display. In a complex reality full of stimuli, reaction time shortens, the focus of attention unconsciously shifts from predictable daily routines to grasping a new reality with new stimuli: a mentally reconstructed space. The sum of mental and physical space thus leads to an emotional and empathic projection of a new world: with its own time and space. With the doors closed to outside influences, these new explorers feel ready for initiation into the artwork. This will to explore invites the bodies to remain closed, as if they were, to use a phrase from the film, “an insect in a flower,” like neophytes.
This undefined space on the thin line between fiction and reality corresponds roughly to what Victor Turner calls “liminal space”
“Liminality is the transition between “status” and cultural conditions that have been cognitively defined and logically articulated. Liminal passages and “liminal” (people in passage) are neither here nor there, they are an intermediate stage. Such stages and people can be very creative in their liberation from structural controls, or they can be seen as dangerous from the standpoint of maintaining law and order” (Turner 1974:5).
Confronted with the most tangible face of the architecture of these institutions, Kabakov concludes:
“Here there are qualities and signs that confirm this similarity: the closedness; the separation from the world; the distribution of the premises that very precisely direct the attention and the movement of a person who enters them; the organization of light; the guidance on the stations, the cessation of the passing of time.” (Kabakov 2014:161)
From the coexistence of synergies between physical and mental space, it can be deduced that there are two open systems – a biological and a mechanical – body and installation in dynamic equilibrium. In this sense, one recognizes the need to stabilize internal conditions through adjustments made by regulatory mechanisms independent of external environmental conditions: a homeostatic system defined by the biopolitics of the body. (Foucault) By triggering this response through identification and memory, the work itself has a practical use of ritual value: “…to see the figure of the ancestor is to strengthen the supernatural capacity of the beholder…” (Benjamin 2003:51).
6. Conclusions: Space-Ritual-Experience: the elaborate narrative in space that the artist creates through the path, natural and artificial lighting, and the implementation of short-term memories of possible subjective identification, acts as a sensory extension of various kinds. This phenomenon, therefore, promotes the intermodal perception of the environment and favors the intradiegetic interpretation of the central theme of the work, creating an inciatic environment and promoting the mental construction of a border space where the multiple external stimuli transform the unlikely and occasional visitors into neophytes. A transitory space where there is the possibility of changing moral values. The effectiveness of immersive art installations thus depends on the ergonomic and operational optimization of the trinomial space-ritual experience. They promote profound changes in viewing habits (Berger) and even distort the interpretation of the space-time dimension itself, becoming a ritual site of contemplation and possible reorientation.
(1) Noun derived from the Latin word limen. It means, in psychology, a threshold below which a stimulus is not perceived or 1 is not distinguished from another.
(2) The Rites of Passage
(3) Arnold Van Gennep, Claude Lévis-Strauss e Victor Turner
(4) In If it was (2015), a work presented at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Laure Provoust speculates on this theme in the video shot for the installation. Her proposal was clear: not only did she want to reveal what was under the floor in the large entrance room of this gallery, but she also creatively and with a certain serenity explored the necessary more indirect and less figuratively interpretable layers that relate to the institution of “museum”, using this term as a metaphor.
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