Jeu de Paume, Paris, France
Visitors to the Jeu de Paume, returning perhaps after last season’s mammoth Ai Weiwei retrospective, will find themselves in a space radically transformed. Gone are the second floor’s wide-open galleries. The traditional contours of the institutional white cube have been replaced by a series of dark, slender, maze-like corridors, offering peephole windows into other worlds, partially obscured. These evenly spaced letterboxes onto the works make the viewer a Victorian voyeur at a peepshow, or a prison guard peering in on his charges, reminding us of the aesthetic dimension already present in penitentiary architectures such as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. This attention to the micro-architecture of museum space, to the archaeology of the museum itself, and to the micro-politics of spatial arrangement are abiding concerns of the young French artist, Laurent Grasso.
In a short film entitled The Silent Movie (2010), Grasso builds up a cinematic tension, alternating swooping wide shots and Ophüls-esque cranes with a number of different kinds of cinematic silences (subtle Foley tracks, deep throbbing drones, etc.). The film’s subject, however, is not a chase or a murder, yet the framing imbues it with a commensurate violence: we are surveying, in fact, a landscape of military installations on the coast of Cartagena. Built into the landscape so as to be almost completely camouflaged from a distance, these structures are all about seeing without being seen; Grasso offers us a kind of glimpse into the invisible. For all that, the architects could not resist certain aesthetic touches: columns and porticoes built in here and there. The portholes for watching the coast for invaders, which the camera switches between looking out of and in through – making us hunters one moment and prey the next, resemble in many ways those interrupting the exhibition corridors.
A room-sized bright-blue neon in Cooper Black font reminds us that Visibility is a Trap (2012), and physically enacts its own warning by forcing the viewer to poke his head precipitously through a constricting window. Only thus leaving oneself exposed to whatever unknowns may lurk beyond can we see the work’s full extent. The quote is from Michel Foucault’s 1975 treatise on penal technologies and bio-power, Discipline and Punish, a book whose theories provide a guiding thread through many of the concerns of Grasso’s work. ‘Architecture has a utilitarian function,’ Grasso avers in the exhibition catalogue, ‘but also a symbolic one that influences the way we think.’
If the exhibition, then, becomes its own governmental technology, it is equally concerned with raising questions about the media in which these works are presented. Many of the pieces exhibited betray the influence not just of Foucault, but of Paul Virilio, the great theorist of war and cinema. Virilio’s themes are explored in Grasso’s The Silent Movie, as well as in On Air (2009). The latter sees Grasso devising his very own ‘drone’ by strapping a miniature camera to the head of a falcon and sending it off over a serious of mysterious industrial sites in the United Arab Emirates; the rapid movements of the bird’s head creating a paradoxical live-action flicker film.
Elsewhere, we find glimpses of the media-archaeological perspective of theorists such as Jussi Parikka. Proto-cinematic technologies are the threads that led Grasso to the Danish island of Ven to shoot the 16mm film Uraniborg (2012). There, the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe once made his castle into a machine for looking, fitting each of its openings with a series of inventive devices for observing the heavens, at a time when telescopes and sophisticated lenses were yet to be developed. Grasso’s camera swoops in on Brahe’s former island from above – almost like, you might say, an invading army – only to find the castle long demolished. What he does find, however, is a curious statue of Brahe staring back up at him, towards the sky. In a further case of this show folding in on itself, the gardens at Ven have been landscaped to a design closely resembling the Tuileries gardens, where the Jeu de Paume is housed.
Ultimately, Grasso’s theme is power: who gets to see and be seen, and just what they are allowed to see; a regime of visibility that touches on militarism, state power, and the church. In stark contrast to the high-quality big screen Blu-ray projections of most of his other moving image works, The Construction of History (2012) is displayed on a small black cathode-ray TV. The video shows the pomp and circumstance of Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005 as a highly theatrical occasion, not unlike a grand opera with its lavish costumes and ornate setting. Catching police helicopters and balustrades stuffed with paparazzi within his frame, Grasso makes sure we realize we are not the only ones watching. But the actors in this high ceremony finally end up looking faintly ridiculous, reduced to desperately clinging onto their hats and catching at their gowns as a gust of wind threatens to unseat them. Next to the television, in the same room, the parade is dwarfed into insignificance by a vast neon, 1610 III (2011), which reproduces a star-studded page from a work the Vatican once tried to ban, Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius.
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