Over the past few months, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the new commander of the International Space Station, has become a media sensation. Since his December ascent into space, he has been transformed into an oddly accessible celebrity in constant communication with his fans and followers. In the four or so months that he has been hovering above us, he has chatted with school children, recorded a song with the Barenaked Ladies, offered endless footage of his experiences and observations, and become a social media star: He tweets to his followers from the final frontier. As a result of this unprecedented interactivity, outer space has been rendered individualized, accessible and observable in ways never previously possible.
In contrast with this current context, Laurent Grasso’s exhibition, Uraniborg, co-curated by the artist and Marie Fraser, and currently on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, encapsulates and articulates the ongoing allure and ultimate unattainability of the infinite unknown. The multi-media exhibition includes photographs and videos, paintings and drawings, historical artifacts, sculptures and neon signs, collated in the confines of an architecturally immersive environment. Information accompanying the exhibition argues that the artist has sought to produce “a false historical memory” wherein past and future, truth and fabrication, interact, augment and undermine each other.
The exhibition’s title refers to the “Castle of Urania,” an astronomical observatory built by Tycho Brahe on the island of Hven in 1576 and dismantled only twenty years after its erection. The various videos included in the exhibition allude to the politics of observation, examination and surveillance: among others, On Air offers images both of and from a camera affixed to a falcon’s head as it tilts and swoops above the desert landscape of the United Arab Emirates, secretly surveying the space; The Silent Movie alternates between two perspectives – one approaching from the sea, the other looking out from the land – as it uncovers the camouflaged military architecture built into the hills on coastal Cartagena; and Uraniborg, shot on the site where the castle once stood, recounts a visually unavailable history of which few traces remain.
Other objects similarly refer to the disjuncture between viewing and being viewed and between that which is available to sight and that which is denied. The entire layout of the exhibition, identified by the curators as itself a “viewing machine,” offers only obscure access to certain sites. Windows are cut out of the walls lining darkened hallways so that spectators can peer into adjoining rooms containing various archival objects – rare books, drawings, documents, metal instruments and sculpted figurines – unlabeled and set upon plinths at an unbridgeable distance from the viewer. Other windows closely frame portions of large-scale video screens, rendered almost illegible by their pixilation and proximity. Even objects allowing for uninhibited observation are equally obscured as a result of their unexplained age and attribution: a series of Renaissance-style paintings from Grasso’s series, Studies from the Past, depict apocalyptic suns and other meteorological phenomena hovering ominously above crowds of period-specific spectators. Carefully constructed to resemble fifteenth- or sixteenth-century Flemish and Italian paintings, these contemporary productions contribute to the temporal and spatial confusion of the entire environment. Evident throughout the exhibition is the insatiable desire to look out at the unknown, whether that entails attempts to access the past or prophesy the future, to gaze wondrously into the distance or perfect strategies of surveillance. Viewed in portions through three consecutive windows in the wall, a sprawling neon sign exclaims, “Visibility is a Trap.”
In one of his many inter-spatial interviews, Hadfield admitted that he hated going to sleep as every minute spent in slumber reduced the time he could spend observing the universe. Suspended in the solar system, Hadfield looks back from where the eyes of Uraniborg’s rooms were once trained. Wandering the darkened hallways of a resurrected Uraniborg, the exhibition’s visitors share a condition with both the astronaut and the original castle’s sixteenth-century spectators: all are occupants of a viewing machine, attempting to establish and understand their place within the geographical and cosmological immensity of time and space.
Uraniborg does not aid this endeavour, but frames and reframes its perennial appeal. The directional disorientation experienced by spectators as they wander the halls, enter and exit rooms, all under the cover of darkness, is only exacerbated by the discordant temporalities alluded to throughout the exhibition. Time here – like space – is neither linear, nor navigable. The exhibition comprises an uneven archive of failed histories and unfulfilled futures in which the world under view appears to have ended, although it is ultimately the one in which we live. This is archaeology after the end – a post-apocalyptic archive of the world’s remnants and remains – but whether the end has actually occurred is not entirely certain. A history is written in the exhibition, but – as is always the case – it is built of both artifacts and imagination, events and their interpretation.
The narrator in one of Uraniborg’s videos repeats Victor Hugo’s approximation of history as “the heap of ashes that we call the past.” The statement easily brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s allegorizing of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus as the angel of history who, peering over his shoulder, sees the past not as a chain of events, but as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, 257). The image conjured opposes the notion of universal progress – teleological time in which history advances toward eventual resolution or redemption – and suggests, rather, that while time may be directional, it may not always face forward. We don’t leave the past behind like the dashed lines on a highway. It unevenly accumulates and piles up at our feet. We carry it with us and we make of it what we will. Writing history as a linear narrative of exploits and events does little to account for the perpetual presence of the past. “There is no document of civilization,” wrote Benjamin, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (256).
While there are no images of direct destruction or explicit violence in Uraniborg, its potentiality underscores the very premise of the viewing machine as an instrument of surveillance and control: the falcon spy; the rendering visible of camouflaged encampments; the footage of Vatican security silently signaling one another; the desire to render the cosmos intelligible; the implicit violence involved in the appropriation of archival objects. Indeed, the current of militarism flowing through the exhibition implies that it is indivisible from the desire and the science behind surveying, mapping, and ultimately controlling our terrestrial and celestial environs. There is something illicit about Uraniborg. Maybe it is the undercurrent of aggression implied in the writing of history, or maybe it is the experience of feeling one’s way through a low-lit interior and choosing to enter rooms marked only by the provocative glow of neon signs. Whatever it is, it is worth exploring and for all its tampering with temporality, the exhibition itself takes time. To gain real satisfaction from the experience, visitors should afford themselves the time to sit and to saunter and to survey.
Emerging from Grasso’s dark archive, spectators step into the clinical clarity of the concurrent exhibition, Lynne Cohen’s False Clues (which we wrote about in a previous post). Despite their obvious formal differences, the two shows share a number of thematic parallels (militarism and implicit violence; the politics of visibility and surveillance; allusions to the fabrication of information) that articulate an astute curatorial choice.
Uraniborg is on view at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal until April 28th, after which – like the previous Castle of Urania – it will be dismantled and dispersed, parts of it retained and remembered, others abandoned to the passage of time.
Natalie Zayne Bussey and Reilley Bishop-Stall
© Passenger Art