New York

Laurent Grasso

With their 1991 novel The Difference Engine, which imagines the social repercussions on Victorian Britain had Charles Babbage successfully invented the mechanical computer in the 1820s, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling created the definitive novel of the now-popular sci-fi subgenre known as steam-punk. Driven by nostalgia for a vision of a future that never came to pass, and by an attendant obsession with obscure and obsolete technology, steampunk has since become a widespread trope in literature, music, and popular culture at large. Laurent Grasso’s work—though not a pure representation of the genre—shares its interest in fusing the antique and the fantastic, setting up a temporal maze littered with abandoned and inconclusive experiments.

The title of “Sound Fossil,” Grasso’s first exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery, riffs on the idea that inanimate objects might somehow store aural vibrations, and alludes to the 1965 discovery of a radio-wave “echo” of the big bang by astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. Grasso attempts to combine these references in Horn Antenna, 2010, a small model of the receiver used by Penzias and Wilson, a gramophone-like trumpet that emerges on stilts from a kind of hutch. But while the object’s sources are intriguing, its material reality fails to communicate that wonder. The artist’s avowed interest is in the intersection of theory and fact, fanciful speculation and hard evidence, but the potential volatility of this mix is dissipated in this rather polite, ossified representation. The mad-scientist look of steampunk is here, but little of its vital energy.

At the opposite end of the scale is the exhibition’s centerpiece, Horn Perspective, 2009. In this video and sculptural installation, which all but filled the main gallery, we watch as the camera rushes forward along a woodland road, its view periodically disturbed by a fast-moving swarm of unidentifiable black shapes suggestive of birds or bats. Huge conical speakers lining either side of the space emitted a sound track that alternates between an ambient dirge and the creatures’ unnerving flutter. The film loops every twenty minutes; we fail to arrive at any particular destination, and the nature of the swarm is never revealed. Are these unnamed entities ghosts? Are they from the past or the future? At once more ambiguous and more fully itself than Horn Antenna, Horn Perspective also comes closer to immersing us in an alternate world.

Less successful, again because less ambitious, are Anechoic Wall (A) and Eclipse, both 2010. In the former, Grasso models a surface of the kind familiar from recording studios in glistening copper, his idea being to pair the design’s acoustically absorbent properties with the material’s reflection of light. Hardly earth-shattering, but it might have been neat enough were the wall actually wall-size, rather than the timid panel it is. In the latter, two overlapping circles of neon, one violet, the other orange red, efficiently illustrate the titular event, but the effect seems a little dull—especially when compared with Horn Perspective’s, or indeed with that of Olafur Eliasson’s Wall eclipse from 2004.

Scattered throughout the show were several small, faux-aged paintings in which Grasso interpolates mysterious cosmic or futuristic forms into otherwise unremarkable period scenes. In Studies into the past—Sphere, 2010, for example, a spiked geometric object hovers alarmingly above a tranquil figure on horseback riding toward a distant town. This dislocation, which echoes the surreal juxtapositions of Max Ernst’s collage novels, suggests a time-traveling mishap, a forbidden meeting with potentially disastrous consequences. And though the idea is not exactly a new one—consider the film Back to the Future— the myriad possibilities it suggests do make for an entertaining update of a well-worn theme.

Michael Wilson