For nearly a decade, the French artist Laurent Grasso has produced a series of ambitious multimedia projects dedicated to the mysterious and the inexplicable, cultivating an ambiguous, and often ominous, sense that a strange alien logic is at work just beyond the contours of ordinary experience. His videos, for example, depict a dense, enveloping smoke cloud traveling through the streets of Paris (Projection, 2003-05), a solar eclipse coinciding with a sunset (Eclipse, 2006) and a boulder levitating in the desert (Psychokinesis, 2008). By elaborating on extraordinary details of the ordinary world or suspending rules that govern its logic, these sequences each foster a strange uncertainty that hovers between the imaginary and the real.
In “SoundFossil,” his recent exhibition at Sean Kelly, Grasso addressed this uncertainty by focusing, as he often has before, on the history of modern physics. The “sound fossil” in question is a low-frequency murmur that scientists first discerned in 1964 and quickly identified as an echo of the Big Bang. While he included a small-scale model of the “horn antenna”—a radio telescope through which the sound first became audible—Grasso seemed less interested in its historical significance than in its powerful implication of nonlinear time. For Grasso, this residue of the primeval moment suggests that the past and present sometimes coincide.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was a large-scale video installation titled Horn Perspective (2009). Projected wall-size, the video comprises one long tracking shot that follows a meandering path through an idyllic forest setting. This scene of tranquility is repeatedly disrupted, however, by a swarm of black shadows. They enter the scene from all directions, appearing to descend on the viewer, before dispersing along the path ahead. Their flapping, darting movements suggest birds, bats or insects, but they are digital creations, and Grasso leaves their forms unresolved. The strangeness of their presence and the portentous mood are emphasized by a crescendo of low murmurs coming from conspicuously large, ovoid, wall-hung speakers.
As counterpoints to this video, Grasso included two small paintings on the opposite wall that each represent a forest path with a flock of birds. Made in collaboration with conservators, these paintings imitate the style of Quattrocento landscapes. Taken together, the video and the paintings imply that the past survives in the present, but it does so only as a shadow, a fossil or a ghost.
In this way, the show quickly departs from its scientific pretext. Recalling 19th-century Symbolism’s taste for the supernatural and the unreal, Grasso transforms a discovery into an inscrutable mystery. The works, however, seldom offer a path beyond these mystifications. They perpetually risk substituting obscurity for insight, making mystery an end in itself.
Photo: Video still from Laurent Grasso’s Horn Perspective, 2009; at Sean Kelly.