Laurent Grasso, On Air, 2009 Film 35 mm sur DVD Pro HD, couelur, son, 17 min 30 sec, en boucle Courtesy Galerie chez Valentin, Paris & Sean Kelly Gallery, New York © Laurent Grasso / ADAGP, Paris, 201
(Paris.) There have already been some good exhibitions in Paris this year, but the first real highlight is Laurent Grasso's Uraniborg at Jeu de Paume.
The show consists of five parts, or installations, each of them dominated by a film lending its title to the section. Each time we are led into the experience through a corridor, via holes in the walls we may see some artefacts and even catch a glimpse of the respective film - on the reverse of the screen, not being able to distinguish what it really shows, where even the subtitles appear in mirror writing (a first hint to interpretation: on the other side a new vision is waiting.)
Now on two aspects I do not agree with the official statements on Jeu de Paume's website or in the exhibition hand-out: this scenography indeed is great, but no "labyrinth" at all - the separate installations all follow simple geometrical patterns, there is only one possible course and no chance to get lost - look out for floor plans of legendary Dada exhibition at Centre Pompidou in 2005/6: this was a labyrinth.
Secondly, and more important, the works' pretended timeless ("intemporel") character - right on the contrary, Grasso is a child of his time, and he serves needs, that are inevitably linked to present society.
I. We start the visit in Bomarzo, Italy; a private park also known as the "Garden of Monsters". Built around 1550 by Vicino Orsini on Etruscan burial grounds, it assembles a variety of bizarre stone sculptures: chimeras, Asian dragons, etc., some of them guarding the entrances not to Hades, but dark caves at least. In 20th century the park has been rediscovered by artists who loved the place's atmosphere, Duchamp and Dali came seeking for inspiration. The film shows blurred images, shot on Super 8 (and transferred on DVD), that seem to imitate the human eye and mind, flickering and only seeing extracts of reality, focusing them in arbitrary selectiveness. The commentary traces the place's history and assumed mysteries in rather unconnected statements. All of this is Grasso's artistic choice; on the same location you could film a scientific documentary or a happy-go-lucky comedy, but he deliberately presents it as a place of legends.
The installation is completed by - authentic or replicated - 16th century sculptures, Bernard Palissy had created for Parisian Tuileries park, and a pseudo-historical painting of a swarm of birds occupying a landscape like biblical locusts, evoking not only Botticelli and Uccelo as explained by the curators, but to the same degree Hitchcock and Aristophanes.
Already in this first section you may feel a certain wistfulness, the idea that we need mysteries, but have lost them to rationality, disenchantment by enlightenment (--> Max Weber) comes lurking round the corner.
II In Silencio: We continue to find the paradox of clerical astronomers. Photographs show catholic priests in observatories, eagerly trying not to change but to prove the mental status quo. The exact opposite of modern science as the observations had to be conformed to pre-existing theories, where since critical rationalism the goal has to be (non-)falsification. On the other hand... aimless observation is rare in both cases, the thesis equally pre-exists the experiment. Galileo Galilei, personification of the paradigm shift, is referenced in a neon work that copies one of his scientific drawings.
On the screen we see the sky over Rome and it takes a while to distinguish birds in strange apparitions that are floating through the air. The artist has enforced all colours and speeded up the images, these swarms could be everything from ashes to spirits.
Nature is painting signs and symbols into the sky that we cannot understand anymore, as did the seers of ancient times. The mysteries are still there but we do not notice them without the help of an artist, since the sky is no longer inexplicable and has lost its fascination, the gods once residing there having been replaced by planes. Suddenly the swarms gather like black smoke around a church tower whilst a second video shows the masses attending pope John Paul II's burial, presented on an old fashioned tube TV next to neon stars on the wall.
III Our journey then takes us further north to Uraniborg, a 16th century Danish observatory, and in this part the melancholy for what we have lost becomes manifest. Francesco Fontana's 1608 book on the moon's surface, that he had examined through one of the world's first telescopes recalls the beginnings of modern science but Grasso's works cannot be read in just one way as promoting the contemporary vision of the world. There is ambivalence, gaining a new world always comes with the loss of a previous one, and maybe it is not that decisive in which one a life is lived.
Certainly we have to thank Galileo, Fontana, Bruno et al., and to respect their sacrifices, but even the most intellectual man may be familiar with the nostalgic feeling that rationality took something important from us (the intellectual's longing for irrationality that you find for example in Arno Schmidt's novels).
We watch images of the galaxy, listen to a single phrase: "In the future we'll find out what really happened" (or is it "happens"?). This may be true, this may be false, but ask a philosopher of your choice about those terms, "reality", "truth", ... not two "realists" can agree what reality is, what we may know or say about it (in-joke: "snow is white"). And even if we agreed on a common definition, to what purpose - what does this mean, to "find out what really happened", and what is waiting beyond? Grasso unmasks man's eternal hubris and leads it ad absurdum.
And he is a romantic in common sense definition, he does not trust the serious searchers of truth, he plays with nostalgia about the magical view on the world that we have unlearned - the lost mythologies may have been less "exact", but eventually more human. A beautiful image shows a beam of light connecting the sun to an ocean, it can be described as a metaphor, you may easily recognise Michelangelo's Adam, the connection of sun and see like the touching fingers of Christian god and man.
Or you may analyse light rays (waves, particles, quanta?) launching the physical/chemical processes that have been the starting point of life on earth. There is fact and there is interpretation oscillating between feeling/art/poetry and intelligence/rationality/knowledge. The fact always stays the same, no matter what you call it, how you describe it.
The history of man has circled around different thought models, around the urge to know (presumed there is a "will to knowledge" that can be distinguished from the "will to power"). But the world itself is still the same, only our perception has changed, our interpretation.
This impression is reinforced when the images abruptly change to show a historical Memento Mori painting whose intention was to demonstrate how the limits of human existence prove all wisdom to be vanity - the abyss Camus later defined as "absurdity".
IV On air: A message broadcasted floating on air like this falcon on whose back a camera has been attached. We look over his shoulders, we see with his eyes, and we cannot recognise the world. The falconer brought him up on a mountain carrying a mask over his eyes; the bird moves his head around, trying to find a way out of the darkness, suddenly the mask falls and he seems just overwhelmed. The beak opens wide, he is panting, a deep shock when he re-realises his position in the world, all points of reference have changed - and still after some readjustment he is going to fly like he always did. This is humanity on the edge of a new age. Galileo repositioned us, taking away the mask, but after the first shock we just adapt and continue our path under the conditions of a new worldview. And the world is the same, our flight is the same, the mask itself is only recognised - or created - in rear view; at least in Western thought there may not be yes and no at the same time.
V Finally Silent Movie: A bay in Spain, a military manoeuvre ground. Of course this is about surveillance, about a state of siege, but it also leads us back to where we started - this exhibition and in a further sense. The rocks and ruins we see look just like Bomarzo's stone garden, whereas a 15th century book on military tactics and a model of the Horn Antenna, used to "prove" the big bang, tell that we have not changed, things have not changed since the beginning of time. Only our views that may be more or less "artistic", scientific, religious, ... have, but in the end it is all but words. Something is, and much can be said about it. But truth, changes in time, a teleological conception of science? Why not relax a bit, don't take it all to serious. A bit of humbleness might be helpful, in this technical world we should remember how all western thought history is said to be only a footnote to Plato who anticipated it all, so let us just join in: "I know, that I know nothing."
Laurent Grasso: Uraniborg, Jeu de Paume, 1 place de la Concorde 75008 Paris, France. From May 22-September 23, 2012