Laurent Grasso weaves together philosophical and mystical references to create a multidisciplinary practice that ranges from classically painted oil on canvas works to video. Drawing on the artist’s research into the Japanese Jo¯mon period, medieval Europe, the Vatican City and the French presidential Elysée Palace, his solo exhibition, ‘Élysée’, at Edouard Malingue Gallery confuses historical timelines and cultural origins to create contemporary works that could belong as easily to the future as to the past. Here, even a neon resembles a historical artefact – see the eerie, luminous Élysée (2016), mounted on a wooden panel in the gallery’s entrance.
Power is the show’s thematic lodestar: its titular work and centrepiece is a new, 15-minute film soundtracked by Nicolas Godin (of the French electronica duo Air) in which the camera peruses the Salon doré (Golden Room) of the French presidential palace. The salon has retained its 1861 decor, said to have been created by painter Jean-Louis Godon for Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, and includes Gobelins tapestries and a masterpiece of French furniture: Charles de Gaulle’s personal Louis XV-style writing desk, created by the 18th-century cabinetmaker Charles Cressent. Here, the desk’s messy piles of papers have been partially staged by President François Hollande’s team ahead of Grasso’s filming, which was originally scheduled to have taken place the week after last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. (Also visible on shelves are back issues of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.) Grasso’s slow-sliding camera formally evokes the sheen of the gilded decor that frequently surrounds those in power. The salon’s contemplative quietude stands in stark contrast to the tumultuous reality of the global political arena; in times of uncertainty, its perennial serenity acts as a form of anchor.
Opposing the screen are two Anechoic Walls (both 2016) made from cubic forms in gilded cedar wood. These, and other works, appear to objectify the authoritative influence emanating from the main screen. Silence, secrecy and a certain form of immortality are here the attributes of power. This aligns with the artist’s tendency to leave his works with an indeterminate status as to when they were made. Three skilfully painted oils on wood, for example, are iterations of the artist’s ongoing series of undated works, ‘Studies into the Past’. Two depict the Salon doré as it is today, but in the rococo style of the French court painter Jean-François de Troy; the other, more futuristic, depicts geodesic radomes such as those used by the ‘Five Eyes’ Echelon surveillance programme.
Disparate-seeming constellations of works orbit around the main theme. Two Japanese-inspired screens enclose the film Soleil Double (Double Sun, 2014), which depicts the rays of two suns – a reference to Nemesis star theory, which states that the sun is part of a binary system – filtering through the colonnades of the Fascist-era Palace of Italian Civilization in Rome. Guarding the Japanese screens, a marble heron sits atop a pedestal holding an egg in its beak (In Silentio, In Silence, 2016) – an invocation of the precarious but necessary secrecy that surrounds the powerful. (According to the artist, he came across the motif in a fresco while exploring the Vatican’s alleyways.)
Protecting the whole exhibition are two wooden sculptures: both have Dogu¯-like heads (referencing the humanoid clay sculptures of Japan’s Neolithic Jo¯mon period) but one is attached to the armoured body of the Roman soldier Saint George (Chevalier, Knight, 2016) and the other to that of a robed priest from the Middle Ages (Prêtre Jômon, Joˆmon Priest, 2015). Like the show’s other protagonists, these silent, solemn figures allude to the complex sources of power, which range from concrete attributes (architectural mises en scène, military arsenals) to invisible movements and mythical symbolism.
First published in Issue 180