In the closing chapter of his 1942 book The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus pinpoints what he thought to be the missing consideration in Sisyphus’s eternal struggle. Condemned to push a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it perpetually return to the plain below, Sisyphus stands as a cautionary figure representing hubris, punishment and futility. Yet, as Camus imagined it, while Sisyphus descends from the summit to repeat his plight anew, there is a moment of reflective pause. Temporarily unbound from his continual toil, Sisyphus recognizes the absurd truth of his fate, and this becomes the key to his freedom. “That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering,” writes Camus, “that is the hour of consciousness.”
It was difficult not to find reflections of that contemplative hour, when inherent absurdity brings renewed perspectives, in Montreal artist Pascal Grandmaison’s recent exhibition “La limite de l’écho” (The Limit of the Echo). Comprising an assortment of new works—two video pieces, a series of 12 photographs and five plaster sculptures (all 2013)—the exhibition was a study of rational thought turned on end by a poetic reversal of the way we see and experience the lived world.
The opening work was Nostalgia #1, which directly draws on the story of Sisyphus. Displayed on a vertical plasma screen, the 10-minute video tracks a rock tied with rope as it moves across stone-pocked pavement. The tightly framed footage, shot at a crystal clear 230 frames per second and running in slow motion, offers fantastically surreal detail, made all the more strange once you realize that it is playing in reverse. Here, it is the rock that seems to pull the rope, the sequence defying the fundamental order of things and questioning the gravity of a Sisyphean fate.
This perceptual disorientation continued in “Second regard,” a series of photographs taken at the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa Caverns in Guerrero, Mexico. It is only in glimpsing what seem like toy-size tourist walkways that the viewer discerns the alien proportions of the stalactite- and stalagmite-filled caves. For Grandmaison, though, the absurdity of these images pivots on darkness and light. First explored by torchlight, where impressions of the space were necessarily assembled in the viewer’s mind, these caves are now sites of theatrical tourism where perspective is dramatically staged in spotlit mise-en-scènes. Therein lie the work’s central concerns: How does the contrast between imagination and spectacle affect reality? And what does it mean to illuminate the unseen?
Grandmaison’s considerations of the natural order inverted and in flux culminate in his La main du rêve (The Hand of the Dream). The large-scale video projection takes viewers on a 45-minute ramble through the wilds of Quebec’s Laurentian region. As in Nostalgia #1, Grandmaison has slowed and reversed his high-definition footage to surreal effect. Shattered trunks of moss-covered trees reassemble; turbulent surfaces of lakes calm and eject previously submerged rocks; dead leaves and sticks float back into the air. There is a scientific precision to it all, a naturalist’s fantasy of the forest regenerating itself. Though tinged with melancholy, Grandmaison’s focused subversion suggests a hopeful vision of renewal. It’s a view that returns to Sisyphus and Camus. “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world,” Camus writes at the end of his closing chapter. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”