Black Box: Laurent Grasso

Video/Multimedia
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Editorial Review

Berlin and Rome, inside the box
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 22, 2011

The latest exhibition in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's ongoing "Black Box" program of film and video art invites visitors to zen out a little bit. At the same time, it might make some of them freak out a little bit, too.

Located on the museum's lower level, "Black Box: Laurent Grasso" consists of two videos, each running eight to nine minutes. The first, called "Polair," is projected directly onto a gallery wall, which it fills with mostly static shots of Berlin. In addition to scenes that could have been shot anywhere - a street lamp here, trees blowing in the wind there, the facade of a depressingly anonymous building - the piece is dominated by shots of the city's iconic Fernsehturm, or TV tower, a monumental structure that resembles a gigantic car antenna with a tennis ball stuck on top.

The video is static in more ways than one. It's accompanied by a white-noise soundtrack that's halfway between waves crashing on a meditation CD and the annoying crackle of a badly tuned radio. As you listen and look at the scenery for a while, you'll start to see something mysterious - like energy made visible - floating around all those stationary objects.

A cloud of ghostly white particles is drifting through the air.

What are they? The New York-based French-Italian artist has described them as electrically charged pollen. But one minute they look like spectral dandelion seeds or microscopic protozoans swimming in liquid, and the next they look like Dementors, those wraithlike creatures from the "Harry Potter" books and films. They're clingy and vaguely creepy, in the way they seem to stick to things, reminding us of an unseen world - of radiation, radio waves and other pollutants - that surrounds us, innocently or otherwise.

A similarly ambiguous vibe emanates from "Les Oiseaux," Grasso's second video, here displayed on a small television monitor in a corner near a couple of comfortable chairs. Over the skyline of Rome, identifiable by the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, a flock of something else - this time something black - swoops and careers in wild arcs. As French speakers will have guessed from the title, they're birds. But their crazy, swarming behavior feels malevolent, even Hitchcockian. Grasso's evocation of the 1963 horror classic "The Birds" is no accident.

Is any of this real? It's hard to tell for sure. (See "The story behind the work.") Like "Polair," "Les Oiseaux" has a sci-fi feel. Both works are strange enough to inspire a touch of dread, but ordinary-looking enough to beguile the viewer into a state of relaxation just this side of boredom. Like a dream world furnished with the familiar but inhabited by a foreign presence, the Rome and Berlin of Grasso's art are places of uncertainty, doubt and fear.

You may not want to live in either one, but as Grasso shows you, they're not bad places to visit.