As autumn gets underway, Laurent Grasso is returning to the Galerie Perrotin with OttO, an exhibition which reveals the mysteries of Aboriginal sacred land, through objects and a film going by the same name. The artist has shared with AMA the issues underlying his practice: between the visible and the invisible, the scientific and the sacred...
A Steiner machine, sculptures in hypnotic forms, glass spheres... These are some of the different objects associated with Laurent Grasso’s new film, OttO, now showing in France for the first time. In this work, the artist continues his work on representing the intangible, and his research on aesthetic, fictional and poetic variations on scientific mythologies, theories or utopias... Explanations follow.
AMA: Your new - and second - exhibition at the Galerie Perrotin refers to Aboriginal culture. What prompted your interest in this area?
Laurent Grasso: In 2018, I was invited to take part in the Biennale of Sydney, and planned to undertake a local project for it. I’ve always been interested in the culture of this people, their relationship to the cosmos and the invisible, in the Earth’s imperceptible vibrations, of which Aboriginals are the guardians. So I decided to make a 21-minute film and to create pieces in relation to my stay in the wide desert.
AMA: Your film “OttO” presents deserts accompanied by quite disturbing “music”. What exactly are these sounds?
Laurent Grasso: The film refers to figures after whom the film and exhibition are named. OttO is Otto Jungarrayi Sims, a “traditional owner” of Aboriginal land in Australia, from the Warlpiri community, but also Winfried Otto Schumann, a German physicist who studied the Earth’s low-frequency resonances.
As well as having the same first name, these two figures share an interest in the Earth’s magnetic energy, its vibrational songs, which I translated in the film by spheres crossing the landscapes. In some way, these are a tangible emission from these sacred sites. What you hear throughout the film are sounds of the Earth’s resonance combined, at the end of the video, with sacred chants.
AMA: What do you set out to express through this new film?
Laurent Grasso: I try to translate into material form the inner “narration” of landscapes, an idea based on the “songlines” described by writer Bruce Chatwin in his book of the same title, through sensations. “Songlines” are the chants that Aboriginals sing when going to sacred sites, which tell secret stories about the sites.
As is often the case in my work, I try to bring into view what is not visible, or at least give a sense of the energy, the vibrations of a place using the tools of our era.
AMA: You managed to achieve the same effect through your film “Élysée” in 2016...
Laurent Grasso: Absolutely. After I was invited to participate in the exhibition Secret d’État organized by the French National Archives, I put forward the idea of filming the rooms of Élysée, the French presidential palace. By filming the Golden Room emptied of its occupant, I wanted to offer viewers a completely different vision, for them to sense its invisible essence.
AMA: Getting back to “OttO”, this film, which is also very aesthetic, uses special techniques. Can you tell us more about them?
Laurent Grasso: For this topic, I collaborated with a team of ten persons, including a photo director and a postproduction director, and it took about 2 years of work. During roughly two weeks of intense filming in deserts, over hills and landscapes that look like the “origins of the world”, we used drones on which thermal and hyperspectral cameras were attached. As these cameras captured infrared and electromagnetic waves, we managed to shoot aerial-view sequences and others “colored” like rainbows in which we can make out Otto Jungarrayi Sims’ silhouette. This traditional owner was our guide who helped us get the green light to film these sacred sites.
AMA: Negotiating to get the right to film key places of power with magnetic, sacred overtones, seems to be an integral part of your creation...
Laurent Grasso: That’s right, the diplomatic aspect of negotiating access to sites is part of my creative process. These negotiations, carried out through the intermediary of professor and historian Darren Jorgensen, who put us in touch with Otto Jungarrayi Sims, were incidentally quite tough! In the film, we discover four sacred sites, but access to some sites was banned for the shooting.
AMA: How has the Aboriginal community reacted to the film? Did you show it to them?
Laurent Grasso: The Warlpiris validated the film; they were very happy with and proud of it. They’re people who are very curious about the new technologies. They were also glad that a non-Australian tackled their issues, which is not always the case...
AMA: What issues are these exactly?
Laurent Grasso: They’re traditional owners, in other words, the symbolic owners of the sites, but they’d like to become their property owners, in order to reap benefits from them. In their community, this is a delicate and taboo issue, leading them to face a real dilemma.
I, meanwhile, don’t claim to be an artist who solves problems, but who instead makes propositions. Even if I was aware of their delicate and dramatic political situation, my wilful objective was to approach the film as an artistic collaboration with them, without any authoritarian view. This was possible because Otto himself is an artist, like his father, whose work, incidentally, was shown in the major exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre, at the Centre Pompidou, organized by Jean-Hubert Martin.
AMA: Film turns out to be one of your privileged tools. What role does it hold in your work?
Laurent Grasso: For me, it is an instrument of power that is part of a very diversified practice. My tools are the camera, the subject, music, movement... I imagine objects, immersive setups by studying certain mechanisms – forces, frequency, radiation –, and I set out to provoke questions in the viewer. Through my pieces, I try to understand what types of stories humans need to tell in order to exist.
AMA: Tell us about these stories. In this exhibition, we find objects in all forms and materials...
Laurent Grasso: I create machines, active here, in order to prevent confining myself to purely anthropological reflections. I like associating proven scientific beliefs and others that are less solid, in order to create fictions around the issues of representation, but also power and control, in our society.
For this exhibition, I invented machines and objects inspired by the 18th and 19th centuries. At the entrance of the film-projection room, OLOM welcomes visitors: a sculpture inspired by the Multiple Wave Oscillator (editorial note: known in French as the “Oscillateur à Longueurs d’Onde Multiples”, hence OLOM), designed by Russian engineer Georges Lakhovsky in 1930 to treat patients with frequencies.
There’s also La chouette de Minerve (Owl of Minerva), a monumental work in onyx based on a series originally designed for a commission from the Institut de France which has an owl emblem. It also alludes to the Dreaming, which links the owl to the Aboriginal sacred site referred to in the film…
AMA: We also see paintings and all sorts of incredibly intriguing machines.
Laurent Grasso: That’s right, there are paintings including one on silver leaf showing Otto, but also “Schumann’s metal-conducting spheres” diffusing resonances, an onyx electric ray to represent this fish used from antiquity onwards for medicinal purposes, some mysterious and esoteric “radionix” machines...
In short, high tech, music, stones with different powers, palladium leaf, gold leaf, marble, argon gas, neon, are some of my favorite materials.
AMA: Are you something of an artistic alchemist?
Laurent Grasso: I work with contemporary tools like an artist of today. There’s nothing mysterious about it! But I like stirring things up by combining scientific approaches to other more irrational ones...
I try to work in areas where our rational beliefs may be tested by things far less so, and that start off by being analyzed in our societies. I’m always working with History, on this hazy border between the sacred and the scientific, the visible and the intangible...
OttO, until 6 October. Galerie Perrotin, Paris.
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Featured images: Laurent Grasso - OttO, 2018. Exhibition views, Perrotin Paris (6 september – 6 october 2018). Photo: Claire Dorn; OttO, 2018. HD film, duration 00:21:26, 1/5 + 2 AP. © Laurent Grasso / ADAGP Paris, 2018. Courtesy of the artist & Perrotin.