Like the artist who witnesses fantastic scenes while peeking through keyholes along a corridor in Jean Cocteau’s film The Blood of a Poet (1930), visitors entering the dusky hallway at the outset of Laurent Grasso’s show find themselves questioning the nature and partiality of their vision. The latter is designedly blurred throughout the whole exhibition – titled after Tycho Brahe’s late sixteenth century astronomical observatory – which positions one between veracity and falsity, history and belief, and most importantly, intuition and observation.
Starting from a previous interest in Jeremy Bentham’s architectonic strategies for panoptical surveillance (the asymmetry of which was designed to format and unbalance the perception of convicts, for instance), the 2008 Marcel Duchamp Prize laureate has set up a labyrinthine structure at the Jeu de Paume. It shatters the contemporary white cube into an intricate combination of narrow passageways, which are pierced at eye level with small windows, multiplying points of view onto several accessible or closed showrooms and their extremely eclectic displays of art at the crossroads between science, religion and warfare. This triggers an impression of paranoia – though not so much in the sense Bentham may have intended, the constant fear of the invisible-yet-omniscient power in control. Rather, it’s more suggestive of the inclination that inspired Salvador Dalí’s ‘paranoiac-critical’ method: the mind’s tendency to interpret any given juxtaposition of objects, no matter whether their connection is rational or irrational.
That said, the route through the show is lit up by phrases in neon lettering, such as the inaugural Visibility Is a Trap (2012) that runs the length of the entrance hall and leads to five dark, partially hidden chambers hosting video projections. Les Oiseaux (2008) follows flocks of starlings – omens in ancient Roman religion – passing through the sky over the Vatican; in On Air (2009), a falcon equipped with a camera is transformed into a drone spying on a desert in the United Arab Emirates. The Silent Movie (2010) thoroughly examines the military architecture of the coast of Cartagena from the inside and out, as if trying to record the impalpable threat of a hypothetical enemy at sea. Bomarzo (2011) documents the bizarre sculptures at the ‘Park of the Monsters’ built by ‘Vicino’ Orsini around 1550 and rediscovered by the Surrealists in the 1930s. Finally, Uraniborg (2012) revolves around Brahe’s no-longer-existing castle on the Swedish island of Ven, where the astronomer spent 20 years scrutinising the stars and planets, “because”, the voiceover says, “he had a new sky in his mind”.
Items extracted from each of these films, such as the murmuration of starlings from Les Oiseaux or a constellation from Uraniborg, are reproduced in paintings belonging to Grasso’s ongoing series Studies into the Past, which revisits the oil technique and pictorial style of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Flemish and Italian painters. Strategically undated by the artist, and displayed alongside real historical artefacts (for example, a 1602 manuscript of Brahe’s Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica), their deceptive Renaissance quality makes them appear as if they long predate the films. Thus these backward prophecies, if you will, like the mazy architecture of the show, insist upon the visitor’s disorientation in space and time. Which causes him or her, in return, to envision how the circumstances and conjectures of the present moment – whether scientific, religious, political or artistic – decisively inflect one’s understanding of the world.