Vocabulaire, Michèle Provost's current exhibition at the Maison des artistes, began with a bit of fieldwork. Combing the streets of Gatineau and Ottawa, the artist set out to collect French words from advertisements and signage, choosing a hundred or so that seemed to reflect some ambiguity, oddness, poetic resonance or personal association, isolating them from their original contexts and offering chance-encountered words like "formidable" and "frou-frou" up for individual consideration.
Imitating a forensic investigation or scientific survey, Provost photographed each of her linguistic "specimens," attaching the images to numbered, date-stamped filing cards. From there, she plotted each word where it was found on a pair of hand-embroidered maps. Aligned with the city grid, the words intersect from all directions, creating accidental poems that Provost gives form and structure though her meticulous stitching. The subtleties of any chance juxtaposition will be lost on those of us who don't speak French, but the maps are engaging objects in their own right. Even the process of searching out recognizable terms echoes Provost's own search and the broader idea of "orienting" oneself in the landscape and in language.
For this exhibition, Provost repeated the process in downtown Winnipeg and St. Boniface, collecting "portage," "promenade," "sortie," "sauvage" and dozens of other words -- including, delightfully, "dix," poached from a crudely named Exchange District bar (it's across the street from Whiskey Neuf, next door to Whiskey Douze). As methodical that process is in its early stages, it quickly grows. By itself, Provost's decision to embroider her maps introduces notions of tradition, labour and gender to the underlying exploration of language and place, and the tapestries are only the beginning.
In an accompanying work, the Winnipeg word-list becomes the basis for an outsized "magnetic poetry" set, which is sweet and reinforces the theme of free association and wordplay, while the photographs of the words in situ reappear on a series of pinback buttons, packaged and displayed as if for sale. The buttons introduce ideas about merchandising and consumer culture that Provost has explored extensively in other work, but those concerns feel a bit beside the point and forced here.
The Capital Region words are taken farther still, with Provost assigning her vocab list (written out longhand on a chalkboard in the gallery) to a group of over 50 collaborators, who contribute drawings and poems inspired by "danger," "aujourd'hui," etc., on sheets of ruled notebook paper.
In the most successful tangent, Provost searched Google with the Ottawa-Gatineau words, using the at times surprising image results as source material for a colouring book. Several pages reflect confusion between French and English, so that "manger" ("to eat") is represented by an image of Baby Jesus swaddled in hay, while others, like a banana illustrating "incitatif" ("incentive") underscore the slipperiness of meaning as words take on different and sometimes unfamiliar associations and contexts.
Each new iteration adds depth to Provost's project, though it comes at the expense of clarity. If her meandering approach is convoluted at times, however, this is largely by design, with each playful digression taking us further from her original sources, illustrating the fundamental evasiveness and fluidity of language. Vocabulaire skews twee in places, and not every decision is well accounted-for, but even in its unevenness, it demonstrates an engaged, creative, and above all else fun approach to moving about the world and words.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.