62 rue de Lille
May 19–July 18, 2021
Expansive, ethereal music by Warren Ellis floods the Orsay nave, flowingly accompanying the sharp, brilliantly colored frames of Laurent Grasso’s latest digital film, ARTIFICIALIS, 2021. “Like a painting in motion,” the artist’s “image machine” makes use of an LED screen more than 30 feet wide that has been mounted above the centuries of bronze and marble sculpture filling the museum’s grand hall, a former railway terminus. “I had the idea to re-enchant the nave,” museum president Laurence des Cars explained of the Orsay’s decision to “graft” Grasso’s project onto “The Origins of the World: The Invention of Nature in the 19th Century,” a concurrent exhibition that examines the intersection of art and science in the century of Darwin.
Grasso had the HMS Beagle in mind when he began this new project, but with worldwide Covid lockdowns scuttling any chance of shooting new film, he plunged instead into a flux of existing images. The resulting work is a sort of herbarium that floats between reality and the CGI imaginary. Endless ice sheets spouting jets of fire, a mutated double-stamen daisy, a field of frantically fluttering butterfly wings: All are juxtaposed in Grasso’s ravishing film, whose star is technology itself. In one moment, we see LIDAR camera views of the ocean floor, in the next drone footage of Chernobyl, its architecture buried in radiated trees growing to lush, unnatural heights.
But what is natural in the so-called post-Anthropocene? Collaborating with environmental historian Gregory Quenet, who endorses the epithet, Grasso fancies himself a “post-Anthropocene Darwin.” Yet ARTIFICIALIS feels more like the work of a Mary Shelley protagonist, transforming as it does images of rapid adaption and hybridization into a new, terrible sublime—toxic and absorbing in its urgent, unreal beauty.