PYRAMIDE DU LOUVRE (PARIS)
GALERIE PERROTIN (PARIS)
Published in ArtReview Asia (London), vol. 3 no. 1, Spring 2015, p. 102.
Seemingly an adept of the occult arts, Laurent Grasso deploys a wealth of imagination to trigger our sense of the mystical and open up the possibility of hidden knowledge, hidden wonders, beyond the realms of empiricism or rationalism and at the crossroads between astronomy, religion and divination. Magic happens at the far edges of comprehension, the better to defy it, and Grasso noted during a conference held at Galerie Perrotin that string theory inspired him to believe in the existence of multiple uncharted dimensions to the universe (in addition to the four we know). He conjures them at the outset of Soleil Double, his first solo show in the gallery, introducing us to the hypothesis of Nemesis – an undetected star supposedly orbiting the sun and disturbing comets – with two large brushed-brass discs hanging on the wall. Neophytes should be warned that the exhibition, which revolves around two new films (Soleil Double and Soleil Noir, both 2014), also immerses the viewer in an eclectic display of over 50 objects: neon pieces, sculptures, paintings, photographs, old books and antiquities. Whether the artist made them, borrowed them, purchased them or had them fabricated, you won’t know. No wall text informs their nature and provenance, so that your interpretation remains unbiased, the rite of passage all your own. The initiation takes you on a journey throughout no less than eight showrooms over the gallery’s two floors.
Back to fathoming the potentiality of new dimensions: the 11-minute film Soleil Double is a pompous crescendo of light beams upon the deserted Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – an icon of Fascist architecture in Rome – at dawn. While long static shots present different points of view over the grandiose coliseum and its arches and statues, double shadows emerge here and there and a growing sense of unsettling strangeness keeps us in suspense until the very end: the rise of two stars, which, rather than bringing more light to the surrealistic scene, somehow makes the shadiness twice as great. But this eerie duality is only the first of numerous uncanny perspectives to unfold, as the 18 accompanying paintings of Studies into the Past (circa 2009–) suggest.
This series, strategically undated, revisits the oil-on-oak techniques and pictorial style of fifteenth and sixteenth century Flemish and Italian painters. One of them depicts a parhelion in the sky above a medieval town. This is an actual atmospheric phenomenon, also known as ‘sundogs’, which causes two golden halos, looking like the sun, to form on opposite sides of the solar star: talk about our naked eyes challenging our belief! Or to quote an aphorism of Michel Foucault, to whom the artist often refers, ‘visibility is a trap’. The other paintings focus on more or less plausible disasters and miracles: earthquakes, deluges, blood and fire rains, passages of comets, (double) solar eclipses, ash falls and volcanic eruptions, hinting at the apocalypse or the unknown, like promises of new, unimaginable, horizons.
This brings us to the second film, as surrealistic as the first, yet immeasurably more sublime: the 11-minute Soleil Noir, shot partly with a drone in Stromboli, over the greyish slopes and incandescent ash bursts of its active volcano, and in the ruins of Pompeii, with a wandering dog as the sole guide and an unrelenting, haunting, electronic lament as the soundtrack. The sun only shows briefly at the very end, in an accelerated shot that makes it appear to be crashing rather than setting right below the volcano’s crater. A quick meteor shower follows and the image slowly fades to total darkness. This ‘black sun’ brings us back to Nemesis, which is actually said in the scientific literature to be a black dwarf star, meaning that it emits no light. In other words, you can’t see it, but does it mean that it doesn’t exist? After all, if anything feels definite amid Grasso’s obscurantism, it’s that truth is stranger than fiction.
PALAIS DE TOKYO (PARIS)
Published in ArtReview (London), vol. 67 no. 1, January-February 2015, p. 147.
“Buscar algo que no se ve…” (“Looking for something that can’t be seen…”), eighty-year-old actor and playwright Alejandro Sieveking mutters, in voiceover, at the beginning of Enrique Ramírez’s 15-minute video triptych, Los durmientes (all works 2014). Onscreen, in a single long take, the elder slowly walks his way down to a beach in Quintero, Chile, carrying a dead fish on his palms, as if about to return it to the sea. The title of the piece, which is also that of the exhibition, relates to the particularly gruesome circumstances of the murders of over 500 political opponents to General Pinochet following his 1973 military coup d’état. All of them, after being tortured by the Chilean secret police, were attached to lengths of railway track and thrown into the Pacific Ocean from helicopters, so that their remains would not resurface and their disappearances leave no trace. That is until the body of Marta Ugarte, a member of the Chilean Communist Party, washed up on a beach in Los Molles (Playa La Ballena) in 1976, and later in 2004, following the testimony of retired military officials on trial, a couple of railroad ties were found offshore in Quintero, giving more (yet so very little) evidence of the unspeakable atrocity that occurred during the dictatorship era.
In this exhibition, Ramírez – who grew up under Pinochet’s military regime – doesn’t investigate the death flights per se but offers a heartrending visual allegory of the trauma his nation has suffered ever since. For the lack of incriminating clues and the memory ‘loss’ of the perpetrators and witnesses have ensured that most crimes committed at the time remain unchallenged to this day, leaving the effort and duty of remembrance open like a permanent wound. In the 11-minute video loop Bell UH-1D Iroquois, the artist subtly addresses the deadlock that justice faces in regards to those ‘missing’ – the Iroquois being a helicopter that, unlike the Puma models operated by the Chilean death squads, is specifically used for medical evacuations. Only here, with no site to check and no body to be found, no rescue can be attempted: the chopper slowly takes off, turns around itself three times and lands right back where it was, endlessly. Next to this, Latitudes, a series of 30 engraved sheets of black glass, each A4 size, presents imaginary mappings of the locations (marked by white dots) where the victims disappeared. With no geographical indications except the north arrow, the compositions are captioned with quotations from newspapers and the 1991 report of the Chilean National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, which, it states, ‘arrived at a moral conviction that the so-called “disappearance” is not a disappearance at all’.
Echoing the introductory wall text of the show, which reads, ‘The sea is Chile’s true graveyard’, the two-minute video Pacífico is a silent, static shot above the ocean. Recorded at 60 frames per second, the result is petrifying: powerful waves unrelentingly kneading the surface render the dark waters distressingly gloomy and impenetrable. Back to the long shot of Sieveking walking down the beach in Quintero, the middle panel of the video triptych Los durmientes: once he reaches the sea, he momentarily disappears behind a stranded fishing boat to give way to a younger man (played by actor Jorge Becker) carrying a body bag in place of the former’s dead fish. In the meantime, a helicopter takes off on the left panel and flies over the ocean, while the right panel shows an ephemeral sea graveyard, floating crosses tossed by the tide. With no disruption, Becker keeps going along the shore, his steps only paced by his poetic voiceover: “Fabrica la vida… el silencio… el miedo… la búsqueda…” (“Fabricate life… silence… fear… quest…”), in other words the very paradox that paralyses Chilean society with regard to uncovering its tragic history. Finally he enters the ocean, where the old man waits for him. As they exchange dead fish and body bag in a final, poignant embrace, the camera is brutally thrown from the helicopter of the left panel into the deep waters and the image turns black. Ni olvido, ni perdón.