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Disorientation in neon and concrete

Laurent Grasso’s Uraniborg

Imagine waking up and finding yourself in the middle of a dark, shadowy maze of narrow corridors, lined with open rectangular windows that section off  mysterious rooms that are luring you to enter. That’s one way of describing the experience of walking through Laurent Grasso’s latest exhibition, Uraniborg, in the Musée d’art contemporain.

The entire exhibition is unique in that it is architecturally structured to resemble a labyrinth of multi-media artworks, ranging from 17th century European paintings to 20th century photographs and more recent video installations. As I was directed to the second floor of the museum, where I was told Grasso’s exhibition would be displayed, I hopelessly searched the entire floor for a couple of rooms with Grasso’s works on neat display. As one of the security guards led me past a few of these conventional display rooms (albeit, featuring other artists’ works), he halted at the sinister, poorly-lit entrance of my destination, and with a smirk, informed me that finding the exhibition and navigating through it wasn’t easy.

Reflecting back, I find it telling that the security guard behaved almost like a gate-keeper, a common trope in old legends, because Grasso’s exhibition captures the very essence of delving into a myth, where our sense of spatial and temporal orientation dissolves into irrelevance. This is emphasized by the ostensibly deliberate omission of information cards that are usually placed next to museum artworks to inform the viewer of the title, date, and medium of the work they are observing. Take the video installations as an example. On Air featured footage, mainly in extremely wide shots, of a near-deserted location in an unspecified desert occupied by vast dunes of rubble and dirt. The tiny bodies of vehicles and people that move amidst the space are mere specks – it is the dunes that command our attention.

The Silent Movie is a video installation that explores a large military surveillance dome in the middle of the sea. As it directs us through the cracks and crevices of the dome and glides through the smooth metal walls that shield it, the camera curiously lingers on a wide shot of the moving sea, or on a colony of spiders populating a corner of the dome, to remind us, as the rest of Grasso’s exhibition does, of the sublime and daunting presence of nature. One installation quite literally spells it out, where large, neon-lighted letters that read “Visibility is a Trap” are lined against a wall.

A theme explicitly (and successfully, in my humble opinion) explored in Grasso’s work is that there is always more than meets the naked eye, and humankind has been guilty of claiming authority over what it sees. This is addressed in the windows of displayed artworks, where each piece – be it footage, painting or sculpture – is stationed behind a concrete wall, one that segregates and dictates an appropriate distance between observer and artwork. With neat square windows cut out to allow us to observe them, Grasso appears to be invoking the notion of how controlled visibility has infiltrated various institutions, including the realm of art. In other words, if these artworks are truly oeuvres in possession of admirable qualities, the concrete wall and cut-out windows prevent us from appreciating these qualities. Instead, we are forced to view them from a controlled distance.

The most memorable piece was, to me, the most banal-looking. It consisted of neon-lit shapes of stars on the wall, forming what I was later told was the constellation of Orion, modelled on a preserved sketch of the constellation by Galileo. Beside it stood a small TV screening the televised footage of Pope John Paul II issuing a public apology on behalf of the Catholic Church for having condemned Galileo to heresy, 400 years after the fact. As I stood utterly perplexed in what was the smallest room in this labyrinth of an exhibition, one of the security guards crept up behind me and quoted a critic (unbeknownst to me) who claimed that it took the Church a lot longer to recognize its misstep than it does for the light of a star to travel to our eyes.

Laurent Grasso’s Uraniborg runs until April 28 at the The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal at 185 Ste. Catherine.