Discovering Laurent Grasso’s “Anima” Exhibition at the Collège des Bernardins
“Works of art should encourage viewers to think and question, without being the bearers of a message or a judgement”
Thanks to his ability to immerse viewers in his troubling and reflective private world, Laurent Grasso is considered as one of the most prolific and stimulating French. artists. Film, sculpture, painting… Grasso’s oeuvre is not only extensive but also highly interdisciplinary. Working across different media and temporalities, he manages to construct phantasmic worlds challenging our perceived reality. Represented in France by Gallery Perrotin, the French artist is currently exhibiting in the former Cistercian Collège des Bernardins. Located in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, the venue bears a strong history and mysticism lending itself perfectly with Grasso’s artistic vision. As part of the Ecology Chair, founded at the Bernardins by Bruno Latour and held by Grégory Quenet, Laurent Grasso was invited to take over the space through a multidimensional exhibition. Laurent Grasso shares his vision on “Anima” with Say Who.
How did you start collaborating with such an uncommon place, the Collège des Bernardins?
I have been working for several years now with Grégory Quenet, an environmental historian who accompanied me on the “Soleil Double” exhibition at the Galerie Perrotin, and then on the “Artificialis” project at the Musée d’Orsay. Our collaboration takes the following form: Grégory provides me with new concepts, technologies or ongoing, yet undisclosed, research. And so, when Bruno Latour founded a chair dedicated to ecology at the Bernardins and entrusted it to Grégory, he immediately offered that I become an associate artist and that I conceive an exhibition. I took part in discussions with several speakers like Philippe Descola, Bruno Latour and Frédérique Aït-Touati, among other participants. Once I started addressing the project to be carried out at the Bernardins, I began working with Jérôme Gaillardet, geochemist and founder of the scientific network “Zone Critique”.
Was this network what inspired you to work on Mount Sainte-Odile?
These laboratories study our world focusing particularly on the thin and complex layer between the earth and the atmosphere – which concentrates a lot of chemical exchanges. When Jérôme Gaillardet introduced his research to me, he mentioned Mount Sainte-Odile. I was already familiar with it and so I felt like it was a fitting starting point for this project. After an initial trip to the site to gather some information, I became aware of how many stories and disciplines were intersecting there. Mount Sainte-Odile is a place of confluence, both a historical site and a place of particular beliefs and practices, such as geobiology. For instance, a pagan wall was discovered there, a two or three-metre-high construction which forms an eleven-kilometre-long enclosure, whose date and function remain unknown. In addition, there is the story of Sainte Odile, who is said to have regained her sight thanks to a water source. The geobiology surrounding this place is thus not a strictly scientific practice. It is rather based on an understanding of the earth as a network of influences and forces producing cosmo-telluric energies. These practices are at first scientific but in reality they are para-scientific. It is precisely because of their duality that I’ve always been interested in them. They are fields of experimentation that can in fact lead to scientifically validated applications.
How do we then move from theory to artistic practice?
My studio and I started working with biogeologists in order to understand the tools they were using and did some scouting to determine how we would approach the landscape. We then cross-checked with ideas from the scientists of the Zone Critique, the history of Mount Sainte-Odile, the pagan wall, and a plane crash that took place in the area in 1992. These reflections were the genesis of the project and gave us the idea of making a film in this enigmatic forest, which would become a sort of ecosystem where different trajectories – human, non-human, living or not – intersect. To conceive my projects, I rely on my sensitive experiences and personal feelings so my research is intuitive, yet it often overlaps with pre-existing theories. I liked the idea that a tree, an animal or a rock could have, in the film, an interiority of their own, like an unknown form of intelligence. These are phenomenons that often reappear in my work and eventually create an intriguing feeling in these particular places.
So this is how the film projected here, in the former sacristy, came into existence?
Some places have a greater significance or force than others. The film emerged from these scouting trips and reflections. We went to Sainte-Odile for a week of shooting with a team of about thirty people. As for the music, I worked again with Warren Ellis.
This project and the film were conceived during a two-year “residency” at the Bernardins. The works exhibited echo the film, which is projected directly into the sacristy. How does one approach a project rooted in a place as full of significance as this one?
When I first visited the place, I immediately thought of the final project, but more importantly of the fact that it was not one but two spaces to take into account. First of all the nave, even if it is not always respected for its true value, and then the sacristy. Formerly a Cistercian college, this building bears a genuine strength. The nave looks like a forest with its structured columns. I deliberately placed the film in the sacristy so that the forest of columns and the forest of the film would be in dialogue, responding to each other, as opposed to disconnected spaces. I worked around the idea of a temporal corridor that would start from these paintings representing church interiors in the style of 17th-century Flemish paintings. The phenomena that appear in my films like the suspended flames or the cloud hovering among the trees, trespass the screen and settle elsewhere under other forms.
The exhibition is built around the sculpture of an owl standing at the back of the nave on the left. But also paintings are hung on the columns and surrounded by sculptures incorporated into the walls on both sides of the nave. Finally, the film is projected in the sacristy on the right. What is the logic behind this specific setting?
I have been experimenting with the fiction genre for a while, particularly with the concept of time travel, and I wanted to tackle it again for this project. The owl sculpture is positioned at the left of the exhibition, on a totemic, almost animistic, scale. It leads the path towards the painting pieces of the exhibition – hanging on the columns just as the 17th-century paintings did – and onto the Schumann Spheres installed on the left and right of the nave. The latter project waves of the Earth’s frequency, 7.38 Hz, thus bringing this relationship to the invisible, which is something that I like to integrate into my exhibitions. I approach Mount Sainte-Odile as a sort of French Stonehenge.
The motif of the eye seems to be playing a leading role in the sculptural pieces. How does this ubiquitous symbol fit into this particular project?
The motif of the eye and the concept of surveillance have already been the subjects of several of my projects. This time, however, I decided to interweave two motifs: the carbonized tree of the bronze sculptures, and the eye. The symbol of the eye is found all over the monastery dedicated to Sainte Odile since it was founded to celebrate the miracle of her recovery of sight. I wanted to give the trees a form of sensitivity by putting eyes on their branches and also to retrieve the idea of an intelligence belonging to the plant world. In the end, it’s a fairly simple conceptual juxtaposition.
You frequently work with scientists. Does the discussion take place throughout the entirety of the project or does it rather serve as a starting point for it?
I am not really fond of linking art and science, it is not something that interests me. Science is to me what a motif is to a painter. That said, I quickly get detached from my source of inspiration so I can create a project that is fully autonomous. I nurture my research with historical and cultural elements that stimulate me, but the resulting projects are never illustrative of some scientific theory. For instance, in the case of the exhibition at the Bernardins, the film is not intended to be representative of an environmental message that we are all already acquainted with. An extensive body of literature already exists about Sainte Odile, telling its story. Personally, I find that an artwork should not seek to verify an existing theory, but rather aim at producing an experience that is both disturbing and new. Works of art should encourage viewers to think and question, without being the bearers of a message or a judgement. Finally, they should not quote either a theory or a thought.
The pictorial representation of your research has led you to use a scanner which, in the film, allows us to see through objects. How is it incorporated into your work?
It is, indeed, a lidar scanner that allows one to scan a landscape and see objects in transparency. I use the camera as a presence bringing forward its own interiority and functioning. The idea is to detach oneself from human vision to ultimately create a new point of view.
This exhibition is defined, by a multiplicity of techniques. We go from painting to sculpture and finally face the film. Let’s have a quick look at the pieces…
The owl sculpture, inspired by the figure of Minerva and composed of three onyx circles, is reminiscent of the figure of the sun. The paintings belong to an earlier series, “Studies Into The Past”, which re-enacts recurrent motifs of my work in historical settings or past universes. These pieces are fabricated in a quasi-scientific manner and therefore it is impossible to determine if they are paintings found at a museum or new works. Together with the sculptures and the Schumann Spheres, the paintings subtly guide the visitors towards the film. Projected in the former sacristy, this final piece welcomes its viewers into an imaginary territory of suspended fires, clouds and hypnotic cameras. Categories are deconstructed in this cinematic universe. Better to see it than to write about it…
On the occasion of the launch of the Paris + by Art Basel, you organized a dinner in this very same setting. How do you find this fair different from the FIAC?
Together with Emmanuel Perrotin, we organised a big dinner with more than 200 people who were seated all around the exhibition space. Dining amongst the works and the strong architecture of the venue was indeed a very special moment. I think Art Basel has brought a new ambition and a more international audience. This has enabled us to gather people from all over the world, particularly Americans, Chinese and Koreans.
What are your upcoming projects?
Next May, we will present an exhibition at the gallery in Seoul, then another in Paris during Paris + in October. Besides that, I am preparing an exhibition with the MASS MoCA in Massachusetts. So there are many exciting projects coming up, and the exhibition we are visiting today is open to the public until February 18.
Translation by Cristina López
Photos: Jean Picon