Sat 14 Oct 2023 to Sat 23 Dec 2023
Artist: Laurent Grasso
“Landscapes can be deceptive.
Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.”
— John Berger, A Fortunate Man
Perrotin presents Orchid Island, the eighth solo exhibition by Laurent Grasso with the gallery and the fourth in Paris. On this occasion, the artist presents a new film shot in Taiwan along with new series of sculptures and paintings.
In our world of images, there is perhaps nothing more familiar than a landscape. Painted and photographic depictions of nature—sublime or pastoral—abound in museums, on postcards, in our Instagram feeds, and on our computer screens. They inspire awe or nostalgia, offer moments of contemplation or escape, but, in a world where there is no place on earth left untouched by humans, these depictions of an idealized or untamed nature can be felt as deceptive. A landscape, as Berger noted, can sometimes conceal reality.
In Laurent Grasso’s new exhibition, he reconsiders the landscape tradition by making the familiar unfamiliar, thereby allowing it to be freshly perceived. (1) His project was born out of a series of questions about what it means to represent an idealized version of nature while the real wilderness is vanishing. Are painted landscapes souvenirs of a lost paradise? Ethnocentric emblems of Western imperialism? Signifiers of political and social relations that are concealed? Or are they vehicles for a metaphysical world?
The central work, a verdant tropical landscape in the diffuse light of dawn, presents a lush foreground of dense foliage framing a shimmering body of water behind which we see a range of hills rising up to snowcapped mountains. Seemingly suspended in the sky, an inscrutable black rectangular form—otherworldly and perhaps ominous—converges toward the horizon line, casting a veil of gray mist over the mountains and a shadow onto the foliage below. Is it an anomalous cloud? An interplanetary visitor? A conduit between worlds? Or a reference to modernist abstraction? Tropical paradise meets science fiction, primal past collides with high-tech future in a mysterious image that beguiles and bewilders.
If it weren’t for the presence of this floating rectangular form, Grasso’s work would even more closely recall that of an idyllic nineteenth-century landscape painting. It is part of a larger series titled Studies into the Past comprised of works painted after historical canvases, but into which the artist incorporates either natural or supernatural phenomena. In these works, insertions such as a low-hung cloud advancing in the street, a large rock floating in the air, or two suns beaming in the sky (2) refer to those heavenly signs onto which we project our fears and fantasies and which we may consider portents of our fate. Physically present yet peculiar and disconcertingly out of place, they appear to exist in a separate plane and speak to the artist’s fascination with celestial wonders and the paranormal, their incongruous presence producing an uncanny feeling of temporal vertigo. For Grasso, they represent what he has called “memories of the future.”
In another gallery, a set of familiar historical landscape paintings can only be seen through dark transluscent filters that partially obscure the paintings. We read these works as if they have been enveloped by the misty gray veil of the extraplanetary rectangle. Here the mysterious phenomenon has become physical, serial, modular, and three-dimensional. From a distance, we might mistake them for Minimalist wall reliefs, but as we draw closer, we perceive beneath their surfaces the shadowy presence of palm trees and mountains, water and sky. Discerning the details through this dark filter requires a particularly heightened form of attention, and elicits a sense of strange familiarity, an experience of déjà vu. They remind us of a reality that perhaps never existed but one that we sense we ought to know. Rather than windows onto the world for the viewer’s eye, Grasso’s landscapes create temporal pathways back into the viewer’s mind, memories, and emotions.
The black-tinted screens cast a dark veil over idyllic scenery, clouding the landscapes with a haze reminiscent of pollution or smoke. The artist cites as a reference the Airborne Toxic Event in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise, a dark cloud that is at once a technologically induced threat and an ineffable presence, both terrifying and awe-inspiring. Like Delillo's cloud, Grasso’s work invokes visions of man-made destruction: climate change, deforestation, lands colonized, peoples destroyed. Yet it also suggests something more transcendent: a depth, an embrace of the unknowable.
This sense of sublime threat pervades the artist’s new film, titled Orchid Island, presented for the first time in this exhibition. Set in sites of apparently unspoiled natural beauty in remote locations in Taiwan with dream-destination names—Orchid Island, Thousand Island Lake, and Tianliao Moon World, the film, rendered in black and white, is infused with a sense of foreboding. Reflective of the underlying political and social complexities of Taiwan today, the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow and the use of aerial surveillance technology enhance the sense of unease. (3) The camera, mounted on a drone, moves as if imbued with its own life force, hovering, floating in one location, or traveling from above to below as if investigating what it then captures. Grasso says his film seeks to “activate an altered state of consciousness similar to that of hypnosis.” (4) The music of the film, a haunting melody underlaid by the sibilant hum of a synthesizer, invests the film with an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere, further contributing to its hypnotic effect. (5)
In the opening sequence there is no horizon line, no foreground, middle ground, or background to orient us. There are close-ups of fluttering leaves subsumed in shadow, illuminated by occasional gleams of sunlight. A dew-speckled flower shimmers in the sunshine. The reflection of the sun dances on the rippling water. Then, as seen from below the branches, the blazing light of day pierces the tropical foliage. The camera cuts to a wide shot of the landscape showing the sky and the horizon and presents spectacular views of rugged cliffs, lush hills draped in trees, and glittering oceans.
Yet throughout we are aware of the presence of that ominous rectangular form Occasionally its forbidding shadow passes over a carpet of foliage. At other moments we see it looming in the sky, its shape hazy and spectral, or it suddenly comes into focus, sharply defined. The surreal form glides across a cloudy sky, secreting something, a strange mist perhaps, that is suggestive of a storm on the horizon. Mysterious dome- and dish-shaped structures hint at human activity: are they parabolic antenna for the military? Sites of nuclear waste? The sense of wilderness is psychological as well as geographical, the effect stark, disorienting, and yet hauntingly beautiful.
In the final gallery, this otherworldly rectangular has metamorphized into four cloud-shaped forms made of marble, placed on the floor like Minimalist sculptures. Here, the properties of clouds appear inverted. Smooth, flat, and polished to a mirror-like finish on one side; rough, three-dimensional, and unfinished on the other, they are terrestrial instead of aerial, black instead of white, substantial instead of intangible, heavy instead of light. It is only their contours, reminiscent of raw cotton or a cartoon cloud, that define them as the schematic image - an “ideogram” in the artist’s words - of an idealized cloud.
Grasso has often stated that his work is about materializing the invisible. Could the visible itself be not a given but an abstraction, a construction created of interaction between nature and ourselves? Like Berger, Grasso understands there is deception in idealizing an untouched landscape: “Clearly, the idea of nature as we once understood it—pure, virginal, atemporal—has become questionable... We now know that nature—as a concept—is an invention, and that we are more interconnected with it than we thought...” (6). If we are part of nature, what is our role in relation to it? What are we seeking to achieve when creating representations of it? There is a mystery and beauty in Grasso’s work that is expressed through his use of shadows. The darkness requires us to focus our attention, to think harder, to cultivate questions rather than answers, ambiguity rather than clarity. It seems to point to an ever-expanding consciousness and an ever-unknowable future.
(1) I am referring the concept of defamiliarization as developed by the Russian literary critic Victor Shklovsky in his Theory of Prose published in 1925.
(2) The artist was inspired by a natural optical phenomenon called a mock sun or a sundog.
(3) Orchid Island is both a tourist attraction and the site of a nuclear-waste dump that has led to a conflict with the Indigenous Tao. Thousand Island Lake with its emerald-green waters is in fact an artificial reservoir created by the construction of the nation’s largest dam.
(4) The score of the film was composed by Nicolas Godin co-founder of the music duo AIR. This is Laurent Grasso’s second collaboration with the artist.
(5) Laurent Grasso in conversation with the author, August 19, 2023.
(6) Laurent Grasso ‘Mon film reflète notre présence au monde’, The Art Newspaper, May 19, 2021.