Since the early 2000s, Loris Gréaud has been building an atypical career on the international contemporary art scene. He creates unique environments, often populated by disruptive elements, constructing an ambiguous narrative that blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. We caught up with the artist a few days after the opening of his new exhibition at the Petit Palais, “The Cortical Nights”.
“The Cortical Nights is a sort of archipelago, a nebula of images and reflections infiltrating the Petit Palais”
You have created a mysterious exhibition designed to awaken visitors’ senses, thus calling for their active participation. What is the importance of wonder or what role does it play in your exhibition? How do you want visitors to approach the show? What kind of experience do you want them to have?
While I’m glad that some sequences arouse wonder in the public, I haven’t a specific intention or expectations regarding how the exhibition will make visitors feel. I hope that the systems I have put in place for The Cortical Nights open up a spectrum wide enough for everyone to make their own understanding and experience of it. It’s an interesting thing that comes with the Petit Palais, which welcomes a very broad public from all nationalities and ages; I like the idea that some people might miss out on this exhibition, which is designed to feel like it infiltrates the building.
What was the starting point for “The Cortical Nights”? You mentioned being inspired by J.G. Ballard, do you evoke any particular books or short stories?
The starting point was none other than this invitation, this magnificent venue and my choice to produce works and systems to fit this particular project. The possibility of working on a blank page… Naturally, my references and my ‘fundamentals’ are likely to reappear. I also really like this idea of rereading, of ‘revisiting’ my classics (literary, cinematographic, musical…). As is often the case in my work, the titles of the pieces echo titles or passages from literary works that are important to me. For example, “La Machine Molle”, actually The Soft Machine, or Nova Express, are both borrowed from William S. Burroughs. The reference can also be the narrative framework of a short story that serves as a synopsis or script for a work, as was the case with the exhibition’s inaugural performance, “Prima Belladonna”, based on J.G. Ballard’s first written work. Link to the performance.
Several pieces address the notion of metamorphosis. Visitors to the Petit Palais will discover “I-I Tacet” (2023) – a series of sound works in which custom-made musical instruments are grafted onto reproduction casts of Philippe de Buyster’s seventeenth-century ornamental sculptures, the Anges du Dôme du Val de Grâce. Why this you choose to restore and reproduce this particular piece?
I began turning casts of classical artworks into abstract sculptures back in 2014, with the series “The Multiplication Table of Obsession and Irresolution”, acquired by the Centre Pompidou in 2021. For the Petit Palais, I used the casts from Philippe de Buyster’s “Anges du Dôme du Val de Grâce” sculptures. They have been meticulously restored according to the nomenclature used for conserving classical masterpieces, just like the plaster casts on display in the Petit Palais’ Grand Galerie Nord. A dialogue was instantly established between these works and the sculptures in the Petit Palais, and that brought up the notion of irresolution, which I find particularly productive.
To create “I-I Tacet”, you also commissioned organ builder Terence Jay to design bespoke musical instruments called “Euphones”, which you incorporated into the six sculptures. The marked verticality of the instruments contrasts with the organic-like shapes of the casts. What is the inspiration behind them?
Several elements led to the final work: the idea of an artwork in constant transformation, the fact that they were sculptures of angels, and the theory according to which there is an infrasound frequency specific to each building that can trigger its collapse. I found it interesting to graft these friction-operated musical instruments, which produce a beautiful sound reminiscent of that of the Crystal Bachet, onto the sculptures. I asked Terence Jay to design custom-made instruments that would merge perfectly with the sculptures, and whose notes would compose a harmony in D minor so that, theoretically, the infrasound produced by the activation of these instruments could resonate with the vibratory frequency of the Petit Palais’ North Gallery. Every evening, half an hour before the museum closes to the public, the works are activated by professional musicians, according to a score and protocol devised by my dear friend Philippe Langlois, Director of Education at IRCAM. Like this, this sculptural installation whispers the end credits of the exhibition every day, just like a swan song.
In the garden, hidden loudspeakers play ‘sheets’ of sound over the islands surrounding the pools. You collaborated with Professor Michel André on this project, which promises to be “a static journey of almost 50,000 km in real time from the South Pole to the North Pole”… Can you tell us more about it?
My dear friend and close collaborator, Prof. Michel André, has been working for over thirty years in his bioacoustics laboratory (the LAB). There, he collects thousands of data points, frequencies, and vibrations collected by microphones and intelligent sensors that he himself has placed in the most inaccessible corners of our planet. The “Listen the Deep Ocean” (LIDO) technology enables him to connect physically, in real time, to the farthest corners of the globe: the heart of the Amazon rainforest, the depths of the Antarctic seas, the Arctic ice floes, the desert plains of Africa and the Sea of Japan. Thanks to the collected data, he can assess the interaction between the sound universe of ecosystems and the acoustic pollution produced by mankind. Based on this information, he designs technological tools to prevent collisions between human infrastructures and animal species, for example.
Prof. Michel André has lent me this technology so that we could install 20 loudspeakers at the exact coordinates of the Petit Palais garden – 48° 51′ 57.773” N 2° 18′ 52.524” E. Software specifically designed by LAB enables the venue to connect at regular intervals to one of these 5 locations and broadcast the acoustic environment at a given moment. It is genuinely a physical journey covering over 50.000km, by means of acoustics, which endows the Petit Palais with the notion of ubiquity thanks to “The Cortical Nights” infiltration.
Your first collaboration with Prof. Michel André was in 2012 for the project “The Snorks: A Concert for Creatures” – an underwater concert for abyssal creatures. What was it about? What other projects have you collaborated on since then?
Indeed, I met Prof. Michel André back in 2012, he helped me solve an equation that not even the MIT in Boston could solve. The idea was to broadcast an underwater concert in an attempt to stimulate abyssal bioluminescent creatures through the sound frequencies emitted. I couldn’t think of a better partner than this pioneer in bioacoustics. We then broadcast music composed specifically for the occasion by Anti-Pop Consortium all across Toulon’s coast, at a depth of over 4,000 metres.The Snorks trailer
We’ve been together ever since. The development of “Moratorium” at the Petit Palais was a long-term project… we are working alongside Prof. Francesco Sauro and Michel André on what is certainly the project of my life, which will see the light of day in 2026.
You also collaborated with the CNRS and Dr Audrey Dussutout, a specialist on the physarum polycephalum, also known as blobs. You developed a breeding farm in your workshop, which has now been transferred to the museum grounds, in the heart of the landscaped garden. Why? Where does this interest come from?
The physarum polycephalum is probably the species that comes closest to the stereotypical idea of an alien. Unclassifiable, this unicellular organism with no bones, no brain and no nervous system overturns the body of knowledge: it is virtually immortal (it goes into dormancy when conditions are not favourable for its growth), it is endowed with intelligence (it is capable of processing information to achieve its objectives and share the knowledge it has acquired with its peers). For Les Nuits Corticales, this creature grows in an outdoor space, which paradoxically is the heart of the museum: the garden. The various effects produced by these large black monoliths installed on the ponds, the vegetation and their interweaving, created a system, a case for the ‘blob’ in which the visitor almost became a foreign body.
Collaboration is very important, even essential, in your practice. What criteria do you use to choose your collaborators? How do you see the interactions between artists, scientists, musicians, and people from other fields? How can these kinds of collaborations enrich an artist’s practice?
Collaboration isn’t the core of my practice per se, but rather a means to materialize my ideas into the real world. Every project has its own demands and often requires me to travel and get acquainted with experts who can help me explore the topic examined. That’s the reason why I reached out to Dr Audrey Dussutour, a world specialist in physarum polycephalum. The Physarium project couldn’t have been conceived without her knowledge and expertise.
Can you say a few words about the piece “XX-XX” (2023), a kinetic sculpture of a pangolin – a creature suspected of transmitting Covid-19 – and about your olfactory sculpture “Nova Express”?
The Cortical Nights is a sort of archipelago, a nebula of images and reflections that infiltrates the Petit Palais and that, together, form this great timepiece made up of the works you mentioned
XX-XX is a pangolin, hyper-realistic resin print, made from the imprint of a real animal – a species suspected of being the intermediate host in the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Only its finish, its texture, the mechanism with which it is equipped, its cogs, its motor and the steel barrel housed in its lower abdomen make it a sculpture in its own right. It’s a kinetic sculpture because, with its back to visitors in the museum’s SUD gallery, it moves inexorably forward in a straight line at the almost impossible rate of 1.25 cm per month – the average growth rate of human hair.
“Nova Express” is an olfactory work based on an unexpected discovery made by the Max Planck Institute in 2009. Astronomers were trying to find traces of amino acids (the building blocks of life) in deep space when they came across ethyl formate, a terrestrial molecule. Surprisingly, this is the same molecule that gives raspberries their taste and rum its smell. In light of this discovery, I had this intuition that the molecules making up the heart of our galaxy, ethyl formate, could be propelled into the vast space of the Petit Palais South Gallery using olfactory diffusers developed specifically for the piece. This device – its technology and its functional mechanisms – is a sculpture in its own right: it is presented under a bell jar on a base of raw steel. Paradoxically, the work itself is immaterial: it is physically present yet invisible to the naked eye. Every day, in 15-minute sequences, the 4 diffusers are activated, and the South Gallery and then the reception rotunda are physically filled with the expanding Milky Way. In this empty space, the museum becomes porous, permeable to infinite distances.
The Cortical Nights is also the preliminary work, a piece that I love very much, a short film exploring UFOs that I made in collaboration with my dear friend Charlotte Rampling. Entitled “Announcement”, this cinematic work will be screened in MK2 cinemas in a few days’ time, and can already be streamed here.
The Cortical Nights by Loris Gréaud, from 04 October 2023 to 14 January 2024
Curated by: Juliette Singer.
Interview by Say Who
Photos: Courtesy Loris Gréaud
Loris Gréaud, The Cortical Nights, Petit Palais, 2023. © Loris Gréaud, Gréaudstudio, Petit Palais, Paris Musées, ADAGP 2023.
N° 01, 02, 09.
Crédits Photo: SFX Designer — Geoh.Photo.
Other: Crédits Photo : REALISM NOIR.