A funny thing happened on the way to “Le Forum.” Outside Ochanomizu Station, a small group of neo-Nazis had set up shop and were playing the Japanese national anthem. One of them was wearing a modified SS uniform and proudly let me take his picture. I noticed that his jack boots and Sam Browne belt were slightly scuffed and cracked.
Apart from the opportunity to start this article with a groan-worthy pun using the title of a ’60s Sondheim musical, it seems worth mentioning the encounter in this particular review, as a strong theme in Grasso’s exhibition at the Ginza Maison Hermes Le Forum is the end of empires. And one of his video pieces features the fascist buildings of Mussolini’s Esposizione Universale Roma.
With the deliberately dodgy CGI of a low-rent History Channel documentary, deserted colonnades, vainglorious statuary and the infamous Palazzo della Civilta Italiana become gradually illuminated by the dawn light of two stars, the sun and Nemesis, a hypothetical dwarf star that, it has been suggested, was the cause of Earth’s periodic mass extinctions.
Another video piece is an epic and exhilarating flyover of Pompeii, the ancient Roman town simultaneously destroyed and preserved by Mount Vesuvius. Using a god-like aerial view that speeds us over the surface of the Bay of Naples, over the volcano, before following a stray dog winding its way among the ruins, Laurent has us hovering magically over the earth. Our judgement and understanding of what we are seeing is also suspended. There is no guiding narrative and no characters to empathize with; the perspective on nature, artifice and apocalypse is the passionless gaze of the starchild in Kubrick’s “2001: a Space Odyssey” or the advanced posthuman robots of Spielberg’s “A.I.”
The exhibition also features work that relates specifically to Japan, such as a gilt folding screen, which juxtaposes a lone Don Quixote-like figure with a black sun and an image of a medieval battle that could be from the “Tale of Genji.” Another work that has come out of Grasso’s research in Japan is an eerie carved figure of a Christian monk with an alien-looking head derived from the design of a Jomon mask. Across from this is a triptych visualizing an 1803 report of the discovery of a flying saucer-like object in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture.
Laurent Grasso’s work manages to be both esoteric and universal. Resistant to easy interpretation, and yet immediately and powerfully affecting, “Soleil Noir” uses the visual language of religious icons, prehistoric totems and courtly Japanese art, but undermines the authority and desire for control that these forms usually represent by making them hybrid, intellectually suspect and absurd.
Grasso is the “traveler from an ancient land” of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” who hints at our future by reflecting on follies of the past.
Soleil Noir: Laurent Grasso at Ginza Maison Hermes Le Forum runs until Jan. 31; daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Sun. till 7 p.m.). Free admission. www.maisonhermes.jp/ginza/gallery