ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW         ISSUE 35 FALL/WINTER 2019/20 OUT NOW    

Cyprien Gaillard

Words by
Andrea Lissoni
Issue 34 – SS 19

In his newest film, and across much of his work, the French artist looks at the realities taking place below ground–an excavation of lost and submerged histories providing a moving meditation on life as transformation.

If there’s one thing Cyprien Gaillard couldn’t do without, it’s movement: the movement of the subjects he captures; the inner movements of the image; the slight yet inevitable movement required by the act of watching; and of course his own, relentless being on the move. Standing in front of his work, when you’d think you’re looking at a sculpture, a collage, a photograph, you’re actually peeking into a black hole, where time and space collapse. You feel your gaze tighten, an inner tension stretching from the cornea out, investing your whole brain and body in the task of processing the image before you.

Even when that image is static, feeling almost heavy for how layered it is and how clearly it marks the space, the waving motion propagating from it is subtle but persistent. What you don’t expect is the backwash, as the waves start bouncing back, generating uncontrolled currents. The metric is lost. I’m in deadlock. And as usual, I resist. My background taught me that I can always rely on the marginal space, navigate the edges and find a narrow path that allows for utter freedom of expression while also serving as the perfect escape route. Circling the drain, one would say. Perhaps just before the downfall.

But in black holes, it’s right there on the edges that the horizon of events manifests itself, and this is where one should focus. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Nancy Holt and Gordon Matta Clark, Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, the in-situ works by Daniel Buren—my background throws various references at me, but I suspect they won’t suffice. There is a perturbing element to Gaillard’s creative efforts, a dramatic depth provided by the subterranean/subconscious excavation that generates them, which makes it slip away from the networks of familiar references they seemingly evoke. This is especially true with regard to the artist’s most disconcerting production: his films and video works.

The first question is the most simple and disarming: where am I? Or rather, where is my point of view situated? I am certainly not in a comfort zone, safely reclined in an armchair, nor standing in front of a reassuring fourth wall. I find myself in the space generated from an overflow of images, floating in a zone of intense proximity. I am one with the situation I’m watching, witnessing. If I resist the embracing force deriving from the combination of sequences, movements, montage, sound and music, the question that chases me is: why does everything look so believable and familiar, while at the same time manifesting itself as otherworldly? This feeling about Cyprien’s work has accompanied me for over a decade, beginning with Cities of Gold and Mirrors (2009) and Pruitt Igoe Falls (2009). In the former, a 16mm film set in the coastal resorts of Cancún, Mexico, Gaillard finds cultural histories distorted by and for tourist economies: American college students swig from tequila bottles emblazoned with Mayan iconography; hotels mimic the steps of ancient pyramids; local ruins provide a touch of “authenticity” to a tai chi session. In the latter, the titular “Falls” serves as both verb and noun, as Gaillard blends footage from the public destruction of a Glasgow tower block with a nocturnal view of Niagra Falls. In both works, we see the erasure of monuments presented as spectacle, the artist’s treatment at once cynical, surreal and sublime.   

At the very core of Gaillard’s investigations, I once thought, were the softly devastating shock waves he was conjuring up against late-modern sculpture. For the opening of his solo exhibition at the International Center for Art and Landscape Vassivière on 14 July 2007, he “occupied” the stern museum architecture of Aldo Rossi and Xavier Fabre, with night bonfires, smoke bombs lighting up the surrounding woods, and a fireworks disaster placed inside the lighthouse tower turning the celebration of Bastille Day into an ominously gloomy ritual. A few years later, with Dunepark (2009), the artist excavated a former Atlantikwall bunker buried in the sand in the Scheveningen district of The Hague, turning it into a monumental public sculpture which remained visible for the three-week duration of the show before being buried again and disappearing for good, hidden in the folds of history.

These endeavors led me to think the point was in the materials, their application, their weight; in disputing gravity and the centrality of sculpture, and instead radically extending its performative potential. Cyprien conjoined these concerns to his innate passion for interstitial spaces, margins of modernity, places that were designed for a function they were never able to serve and ended up melting down, vanishing like mirages in the suburbs of the imaginary. What I found compelling and close to my heart was the celebration of the end of the modern utopia, the construction of a complex, hallucinatory shrine to modernity, a monument to the fallen—never nostalgic, but rather generative of possible futures, gestural and enthusiastically ephemeral. This was back at a time of revolutionary attempts and wars (as testified by Artefacts, 2011, Gaillard’s cinematic rendering of contemporary Iraq, with its merging imagery of American militarism and Babylonian antiquity) and at the onset of a global revolution (or more possibly a war) in media and society.

It wasn’t until KOE, and especially Nightlife (both 2015), that I realized Gaillard’s investigation of modernist spaces and structures was only part of a bigger picture. KOE follows a flock of exotic green-feathered parakeets as they fly among the trees and through the streets of the city of Düsseldorf, Germany, where they find an ecological niche in the urban wilderness. Nightlife, meanwhile, is a majestic nocturnal saga connecting August Rodin’s partially destroyed sculpture The Thinker in Cleveland, the pyrotechnic show Pyronale in Berlin, and a non-native tree species called Hollywood Juniper dancing along the streets of the Los Angeles Basin—disparate scenes unified by a hypnotic score composed of a looped sample from Alton Ellis’ rocksteady track “Blackman’s World.” In these works, the focus shifts drastically: suddenly, everything is in dialogue with everything, and an unexpected non-human vitalism comes about. Circularity emerges as a recurring motif. Nothing is definitive, and among impermanent objects destined to disappear, light, air and sound are the new grounds of a reality where we physically exist, but are always irrevocably on the edge.

The intelligence of a flock is in receiving signals from the environment and re-transmitting them: the environment is nothing but the flock itself, and the space-time it crosses. Similarly, a plant is never an individual being, but rather part of a network, an interconnected colony. In that sense, KOE and Nightlife both speak to a coordinated reality, where everything resonates, each element an extension of the same macro organism. Part of what makes Nightlife memorable is the way the music spreads in circular, seemingly repetitive “dub” movements; but what is at the core of both works is this combination of extra-ordinariness and intense familiarity, which embraces the viewer in a way that I would define as haptic.

The wave is an essential movement in Gaillard’s work, its transmission a dynamic that his most recent works ignite to generative ends: as with sound uttered in resonant spaces, the layered echoes of memory, image and reference trigger associative forms, both intimate and collective, where underground, overground, marginal, central, passion, indifference and love dance together in an ecstatic revolution. In their wake, meanwhile, emerge latent forms of slow knowledge, a kind of clarity that is inherent to the street, that lives on the number plates of the houses, in the manholes, in the inscriptions on a wall while you descend into the subway, the words moist with authenticity. Of the two, I can’t be sure which logic guides Cyprien’s process. But asking ourselves what freedom in space means, in every form of space, and how we can make it resonate, may help us in finding our own points of entry into his world.

Cyprien Gaillard (French, B. 1980) is an artist who lives and works in Berlin. His work is featured in the 58th Venice Biennale exhibition “May You Live in Interesting Times,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, on view May–November 2019.
Andrea Lissoni is Senior Curator of International Art (Film) at Tate Modern, London. Together with Andrea Bellini, he co-curated the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement 2018.

Photography by Ari Marcopolous.
All images courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin/London/Los Angeles

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