Ball of confusion
Eight years after his last Hong Kong show, French contemporary artist Laurent Grasso returns to the city with 'Future Archaeology', a new exhibition at the Edouard Malingue Gallery that upends notions of time and knowledge with paintings, sculpture, video, neon and a giant room installed atop Central Ferry Pier 4.
Grasso's career has soared since his last visit here in 2004, with three dozen solo shows around the world and a Marcel Duchamp Prize. After a few days in Hong Kong to set up 'Future Archaeology', he returned to Paris to prepare for another exhibition in the French capital and to work on yet another for the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art next year.
'It is not time to play the naive or romantic artist,' says Grasso. 'It's time to create work that is as complex as reality.'
In this case, the 40-year-old Paris-based artist has brought together two seemingly opposite notions: the future and the past. 'My main objective here is to give this sensation of time travelling towards the future and towards the past,' he says. 'You have the sense that, in the future, each object is an archaeological object.'
This is seen most explicitly in Studies Into the Past, a series of landscape paintings in the style of the Italian Renaissance. Each depicts a group of travellers gazing up at solar eclipses and mysteriously floating rocks. The works are tinted to obscure their actual age. Grasso likes the idea that these scenes of paranormal and extraordinary activity could one day be mistaken for artefacts from the past.
'If in 500 years somebody found the painting, he would never be able to know what was going on,' he says.
'I work with this confusion. I like this border between something that seems like it could be impossible, but is finally possible in the end. I'm not doing pure fiction. I'm not interested in science fiction because it's not possible. But I think somebody like Nikola Tesla is interesting. He invented wireless electricity, which seemed like a wild dream, but is now possible.'
Grasso is fascinated by the relationship between viewers and his work. He likes to create a destabilising effect, what he calls 'a temporary vertigo in front of a painting'. That immediate emotional response is important to the artist. 'The most important thing about art is that without any signs you can create a strange feeling in people,' he says.
He does that using a variety of mediums. In addition to paintings, 'Future Archaeology' includes Psychokinesis, a retro-futuristic television set that displays an eerie video of a boulder that levitates and slowly drops down to earth. Retroprojection uses silver ink silkscreen on aluminium-mounted paper to create a bizarre effect that is somewhere between viewing a painting and watching TV.
There's also an installation of neon lights called 1610I, which reinterprets a drawing of a constellation by Galileo. It is mounted on a wall facing a window looking over Queen's Road West. In the evening, you can see the stars from the street, but from the gallery you can only see their reflection in the window.
'When you travel through space, you are travelling through time,' says the artist. 'It's like seeing a star - you are actually looking at the past.'
One of the show's more intriguing pieces, and a bit of an outlier from the rest of the exhibition, is a video called Radio Ghost, which Grasso made for his last Hong Kong exhibition in 2004. As the camera floats over Hong Kong's urban landscape like a wayward spirit, voiceover monologues relate local stories about the ghosts and other-worldly spirits that lurk in every corner of the metropolis. 'It is crazy that nobody talks about it, but in Hong Kong people live with ghosts,' says Grasso. 'It's not something religious, it's something you live with every day. It's not a small project, either - they offer gifts to their dead relatives.'
There's a similarly filmic sensibility in Anechoic Pavilion, a large room built atop the Lamma Island ferry pier in Central. Essentially a minimalist wood cabin, it has banquette seating where visitors can sit, listen to a soundtrack and look out over Victoria Harbour.
It's one of several intriguing public space installations that Grasso has made over the years. Another, Nomiya, a Japanese-style bar built atop the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, emitted a purple glow that mimicked the aurora borealis.
These kinds of projects are a natural extension of one of Grasso's goals: to play with the relationship between the viewer and his art.
'I make space as if I'm editing a film,' he says. 'It extracts the viewer from reality and from the moment, like a movie is able to do.'
Future Archaeology, until June 16, Edouard Malingue Gallery, 1/F, 8 Queen's Road Central, and at Central Ferry Pier 4