Cyprien Gaillard: The Crystal World
MOMA PS 1
20 January - 18 March 2013
Review by Siofra McSherry
At the centre of this first New York solo exhibition is ‘Artefacts’ (2011), a majestic video work that splices together footage of present-day Iraq with ancient Babylonian antiquities, most strikingly the Ishtar Gate, a monumental structure reconstructed in a modernist Berlin gallery. It draws in the exhibition’s characteristic themes of disintegration, violence, archaeology, and aftermath, punctuated by transient beauty. The whirling skirts of a dancing dervish form a candy-coloured carnival splashing across the screen’yet the acute camera angle prevents us from seeing the dancer’s figure, or wholly understanding the arc of the movement we are watching. We are left without the perspective necessary to put the performance together.
The soundtrack, a looped sample from the 2000 David Gray song ‘Babylon’, resonates through the gallery creating a spellbinding, half-familiar hum. There is a dark reminder here of torture conducted at Abu Ghraib prison by US soldiers, where the song was reportedly used to deprive inmates of sleep. It disconcerts and disorientates, as the skirts of the dervish do. ‘Artefacts’ documents a landscape fractured beyond repair. The artist’s bits and pieces of iPhone video, taken from moving vehicles and wandering around museums, do not give us a cinematic reconstruction of Babylon, or even modern Iraq; they provide provisional glimpses, suggestions, and debris. They have been transferred onto old-fashioned 35mm film that rattles through the projector and disintegrates throughout the span of the exhibition.
Here is the crux of Gaillard’s practice. The more than 80 pieces shown here include both staged and documented scenes of devastation, each marked by disorientation and visual fragility. A Parisian housing block in the banlieues faces demolition, but Gaillard is there to record a high-wattage light show put on by the development company to appease the locals. The decrepit, cheaply built building is treated like a piece of beloved civic architecture, wreathed in flowers of light before collapsing into a cloud of smoke. In this way the lives of those who lived there are honoured, but there is a sense that this artist honours destruction itself, and the landscape undergoing such a violent change. In a related work, Gaillard steals fire extinguishers from public buildings and sets them off on an idyllic woodland hillside, causing a hovering smokescreen reminiscent of demolition or a bombing. ‘Real Remnants of Fictive Wars’ examines the visual codes of destruction, and shifts the underlying violence into a political rather than physical space.
Surrounding pieces form totems to the artist’s archeological and ephemeral interests. An excavation bucket tooth stands alone and upright in a glass case, like the tooth of some outsized dinosaur. An apparent rubbing taken from a New York City sewer cover reads ‘Made in India’, again conflating political and geographical space, and suggesting an alternate world exists right below the city streets, accessible through imaginative potholing. Perhaps Gaillard’s most well-known works, Polaroid mosaics of associated images, bring together landscapes as diverse as Machu Picchu and East Berlin tenement buildings, both forcing patterns and revealing differences. This visual archaeology is subject to the Latourian limitations of traditional, spade and brush excavation. We understand only as much about the objects we dig up as we can extrapolate from experience. History, like violence, forms a smokescreen, and we can merely watch our imagination play over the debris.