Laurent Grasso’s “Uraniborg” is one of the most inventively installed exhibitions to be staged at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in recent memory—and fittingly so, given that it takes its name from the Scandinavian castle-observatory built by 16th-century astronomer, inventor and alchemist Tycho Brahe.
The show, presented in a series of darkened chambers and narrow passageways, is a Borgesian labyrinth and a fantastical museum that brings together video, paintings, sculptures and historical artifacts both real and fabricated, all united under the theme of celestial observation. Drawing on the history of Renaissance science, Grasso suggests that the exhibition space itself is a kind of observatory, a device for looking and speculating not only about the objects on display, but also about the connections between vision and power, knowledge and history.
On entering the exhibition, you might think that you see a small projection against the right hallway. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be an opening cut into the thin wall; what you’re actually looking at is the reverse side of a video being projected in the adjacent room.
As you move further in, you discover that the walls are full of these punctuations. The chamber on the left, for example, is inaccessible. To see the works within, you have to poke your head through the window, whereupon you are confronted with several artifacts on plinths: a sculpture in wood and clay that resembles a moon rock, 5th-century BC sculptures of a warrior and a falcon, and a 15th-century Italian codex with illustrations of Renaissance war machines. (The Jeu de Paume version of “Uraniborg,” which debuted in 2012, had fewer of these types of artifacts; the Montreal show contains various objects lent by the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and the McGill University and University of Toronto libraries.)
The hallways leading to the projection rooms announce the titles of the videos in neon signs. The Silent Movie (2010) was originally produced for Manifesta 8 in Cartagena, Spain, and it documents the military architecture near the city, which is Spain’s main naval port on the Mediterranean. In a series of patient, dramatic tracking and crane shots, Grasso’s camera surveys sun-baked, scrub-covered golden hills pocked with camouflaged caves and fortified bunkers. In a dynamic formal play between looking out and looking in, the viewpoint switches between surveiller and surveilled. Looking out over the sparkling ocean waters, you can watch submarines and battleships perform manoeuvres. In the ancient-looking landscape, the throb of aquatic engines sets an ominous tone.
On Air (2009) explores similar juxtapositions of ancient and modern. In the sky above the United Arab Emirates, a camera-equipped falcon acts as an archaic mode of reconnaissance—one that both evokes and contrasts with today’s drone warfare. One is reminded that the landscape, which seems lunar and barren, may be the staging ground for games of espionage played by unseen powers.
Going deeper into the exhibit, things grow more surreal. A second room viewable only through windows presents us with a medieval stone capital carved with the likeness of grotesque heads. Next to it, a 3rd-century BC marble head of a woman provides a more refined counterpoint. The final plinth displays a copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or Poliphilo’s Dream about the Strife of Love, a romantic allegory published in 1499. Written in an arcane Italian with words from Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, and copiously illustrated with woodcuts, the book was an intriguing puzzle and conversation piece for Renaissance aristocrats.
On the wall behind these artifacts is a painting from Grasso’s series Studies into the Past. Executed with the help of professional art restorers, these canvases are exquisitely rendered in the style of the Flemish and Italian masters of the 15th and 16th centuries, incorporating imagery from historic paintings while adding incongruous details. This one includes an elephant carrying an obelisk, borrowed from the open page of the Hypnerotomachia, as well as a cave in the shape of a human face.
This cave and the elephant recur the next video, Bomarzo (2011), an impressionistic documentary about the famous Parco dei Mostri built near Rome on the estate of the 16th-century figure Vicino Orsini. Full of fantastical Mannerist sculptures with esoteric inscriptions and allegorical significance, the garden has been an inspiration to figures as diverse as Dali, Antonioni and de Saint Phalle.
If “observation” in the first section of the exhibition is associated with military control and surveillance, this second section—comprising the Hypnerotomachia room and Bomarzo—shifts the focus to the Renaissance concept of humanistic inquiry, in which science, art, philosophy and myth had yet to diverge into specialized fields. The governing impulse here is a sense of wonder and fascination, best exemplified by the cabinets of curiosities that Grasso’s eccentric collections recall.
Knowledge in the Renaissance was, of course, also heavily subject to the control of the church, a theme that governs the third section of the exhibition.
Entering this third suite of rooms, a neon sign reads “In Silentio,” a motto evoking the Vatican’s culture of secrecy. A group of five archival photos are collectively titled Specola Vaticana (2012) and show robed clerical officials examining the giant telescopes at the Vatican’s observatory.
Nearby, a video entitled Les Oiseaux (2008) records starlings flocking over the Vatican’s domes at sunset. Gallery literature indicates that Grasso considers the undulating, strikingly complex forms of the birds’ group flight to be similar to the shifting motions of particles in a magnetic field—making the birds a living, visible manifestation of an otherwise invisible atmospheric phenomenon
The final room of this third section contains the show’s smallest video display: footage from the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II shown on a tiny, black cathode-ray television. The antique technology and ritualistic pomp of the ceremony assume a slightly ridiculous aspect next to the large, elegant neon sculpture that occupies the wall. Entitled 1610 III (2011) the piece reinterprets a drawing of a constellation from Galileo’s treatise Sidereus Nuncius (sometimes translated as Starry Messenger). It reminds one of the astronomer’s long-delayed triumph over charges of heresy and eventual rehabilitation by the church, actually under John Paul II himself.
In the hallway outside “In Silentio,” another closed-off chamber contains a giant neon sculpture that reads “Visibility is a Trap,” a phrase borrowed from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Here, more than elsewhere, one becomes aware of the threatening connotations of having to stick one’s head out in order to see. To be visible is to be exposed and thus potentially subject to surveillance, control and censorship—for asserting that the earth orbits the sun, Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest.
On the other hand, many things exist in plain sight without being understood. Tycho Brahe was one of the last major astronomers to work with the naked eye, before telescopes. His contribution was simply to record, more accurately than anyone before him, the motion of heavenly bodies that anyone could see.
Passing a room full of large, stunning paintings from the Studies into the Past series—all depicting Renaissance landscapes visited by eerie phenomena like eclipses, aurora borealis and Magritte-esque floating rocks—one arrives at the final room and titular video of the show, an elliptical piece that travels to the once-Danish, now-Swedish island of Hven, where Brahe’s Uraniborg once stood (it was destroyed after he abandoned it for Prague in 1597). Over the crystalline tones of a soundtrack worthy of a sci-fi movie, the narrator muses in accented English about the mysteries of Brahe’s colourful life and unusual death.
In his varied and curious projects, Grasso doesn’t develop anything that could be regarded as determinate historical knowledge. Instead, he exploits the more poetic aspects of observation. Mimicking astronomy, what Grasso traces are constellations—patterns drawn between things that both induct them into a system of thought and imbue them with narrative and mythos.
As meaning-making activities, Grasso implies, both art and science ultimately originate from a fascination with looking at the world.
A clarification was added to this article on February 15, 2013. The original article did not mention that some objects in the show were lent by libraries at the University of Toronto.