The Crystal World
By Cyprien Gaillard
January 20 – March 18, 2013
My knowledge of ancient Babylon is limited to middle-school textbook illustrations of the Hanging Gardens and the Ishtar Gate, and tales of ruthless leaders battling lions with their bare hands. Apart from the obvious point that such representations cater to the attention span of pre-pubescent youth, they nevertheless influence how this once-powerful civilization is contrived and perpetuated in popular imagination. In his text Watching Babylon: The War on Iraq and Global Visual Culture (2005), Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that the image of ancient Babylon perpetuates today “as a remembrance” and “contains the promise of a future.” “In turn,” he writes, “the sense that the West is the proper home of modernity is also haunted by the memory of other urban civilizations that have risen.”1 Babylon is simultaneously a mirage and a metaphor, an image of “the ancient within the modern that doomed that modernity to becoming ancient itself.”2
This transience is at the heart of Cyprien Gaillard’s first solo exhibition in New York City, The Crystal World, at MoMA PS1. Comprised of over eighty works, the centerpiece is the film Artefacts (2011), which was recorded on the artist’s cell phone during a trip to Iraq. The camera oscillates between the past and the present, from avenues lined with Brutalist residential towers, to abandoned archeological sites in the middle of the desert. Scenes of a junkyard filled with demolished cars quickly give way to the remnants of the Ziggurat of Ur, the once mighty temple built in homage to the moon god Nanna, suggest that Iraq is trapped in a prolonged state of Babylon. Gaillard refuses to exoticize this ancient land—a tendency made popular in the nineteenth century by artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Frederick Arthur Bridgman—replacing grand panoramas with shakily captured imagery spliced together in a non-linear, non-narrative style. No matter how grand or powerful a civilization might become, Artefacts declares, it is subject to ruin.
Gaillard explains this nostalgia for the past as a way of locating viewers within a particular moment in time: “They are decaying but we survive. I am here and that’s great.” The modern landscape, however, with its soaring office towers and cookie-cutter McMansions, is comprised of hollowed-out artifice, which does little “to tell you where you are.”3 It is difficult not to miss his biting commentary on the shallowness of America’s faltering influence, which has become ever more apparent since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Such displays of military might, coupled with the rhetoric of global citizenry echoed by the Obama administration, are the last-ditch effort of any nation to assert dominance and authority in spite of the fact, as Edward Said observes, “Every empire . . . tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”4
In a short scene in Artefacts, the camera finds its way to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, a grand storehouse of archeological treasures of the ancient world, including reconstructions of the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate. Donald Preziosi explains how such spaces embody a desire for rationality and order, a central tenet in Western society since the Enlightenment.5 The discovery and legitimizing of objects and artworks became, and arguably still is, a universal standard of measure to envision a hierarchy and markers of advancement. This impulse is closely aligned with scientific methodologies from the eighteenth century that sought to fix the known world into a proper order within what Preziosi describes as the “ideal horizons of a (potentially universal) history of artistic form.”6 Archeologists and curators, like scientists, fabricate an elaborate order of specimens linked by multiple chains of causality and influence. Within this systematic order, anything chosen as worthy of study can sustain a willed fiction, that they somehow “constitute a coherent ‘representational’ universe, as signs, substitutes, or surrogates of their (individual, national, racial, gendered) authors.”7 Gaillard uses archeology as a subtle, yet powerful metaphor for the West’s obsession with discovery, which is rooted in its own desire for survival. This theme continues in a gallery tucked away at the back of the exhibition, where nine narrow pedestals with glass cases enclose different detachable tools used by excavating machines. These readymades are evidence of the heavy machinery necessary for uncovering the past.
There is much affinity in Gaillard’s work with sculptor Huma Bhabha, whose exhibition Unnatural Histories was simultaneously on view at PS1. Her sculptures are a series of rigidly posed figures that call to mind a myriad of archaic prototypes from Egypt and Greece. They are constructed of foam, chicken wire, salvaged wood, and spray paint, and evoke the remnants of a futuristic post-apocalyptic civilization. Bhabha draws upon the decayed as a motif to evoke the fallibility of modern social and political systems, which, like all things, are doomed to ruin. Aesthetically, however, Gaillard’s films are very different from Bhabha’s sculptures that fixate on the materiality of deterioration; Gaillard is concerned with poeticizing the long-term ramifications of distorting or ignoring decay.
Another significant film in the exhibition, Cities of Gold and Mirrors (2009), opens with a rag-tag group of American spring-breakers feverishly chugging bottles of tequila on the well-manicured lawn of a hotel in Cancún. Such scenes are now commonplace, due in large part to television reality shows like the Real World and Jersey Shore. The film’s title is a reference to cultural conquest—the centuries-old myth of El Dorado, the Mayan city of gold, and the mirrored structures common in beachside resorts along the Yucatán Peninsula—that have dominated modern Mexico’s history. Like Iraq, Mexico is in a state of Babylon, unable to conceal from outsiders the image of its past glory and bleak present. The cultural oblivion of one society giving way to the hedonistic desires of another is made evident in the other scenes that expose such decadence, from dolphins swimming near modernist architecture to a light show at a dance club.
There is a curious scene in Cities of Gold and Mirrors where a gang member dressed in red bandanas dances among the ruins of El Rey. Does his performance evoke Mayan mythology or ritual? Is he representative of the local population that has been burdened by the expansion of tourism? Is belonging to a gang part of a larger narrative regarding economic disparities in Central America? Or is answering any of these questions a futile exercise? Ultimately, there is no easy resolution. I searched through various reviews to find no plausible explanation. And while I am perplexed by this figure’s inclusion, his performance adds an odd sense of lyrical harmony, akin to Martha Graham’s fluid and graceful gestures, in contrast to the antics of the spring-breakers.
Both Artefacts and Cities of Gold and Mirrors were recorded on digital video and subsequently transferred to 35mm film. The grainy and yellowish-green tinted images were explained in the press release as highlighting “the fragility of the cinematic material, which wears out and frays as it is projected over the course of the exhibition period, mimicking the cyclically endless nature of civilizations’ periods of growth and decline.” I am not convinced that the films actually achieve this, especially since digital and virtual technologies have made it easy for artists to preserve and disseminate their work across innumerable conditions and localities—in fact, Cities of Gold and Mirrors is available for viewing on YouTube and Vimeo.8 Watching the work online is a very different experience to witnessing it in the gallery, where the projector emits its characteristic clattering sound. However, the use of antiquated technologies is, at best, a cliché of contemporary installation practices that usually does little to enhance or alter the works conceptually.
This trope is also apparent in the inclusion of Geographical Analogies (2006–13), a series of fifty-six collages, each with nine Polaroids in a diamond-shaped pattern. Among the many images we find juxtapositions of crumbling doorways and high-rise apartments with golf courses and cemeteries. Each grouping, as art critic Mark Prince asserts, draws connections between seemingly incomparable “locations from across the globe.” . Nevertheless, the ambiguity of their relationships requires more time than it is worth, especially since there are so many pairings that need deciphering.
A few weeks after viewing the exhibition, I couldn’t help but question to what effect The Crystal World’s nihilistic images of Iraq and Mexico are intrinsic to every culture. How helpful are they in communicating a manicured view of history and the present? It is hard to imagine the films as opening anyone’s eyes to something they don’t already believe, especially as they were screened in the comfort of PS1 alongside other politically left-leaning viewers of art. And while the walls of our own cities remain intact, and there are no barbarians at the gates, I agree with Gaillard that the sure sign of the West’s faltering influence is manifested in its own fetishistic desire for self-preservation. At least, that is what his films lead us to believe. Unfortunately, we can’t know for sure until the end actually does arrive. But by the time it does, our civilization will be nothing more than a pile of artifacts.
Harry J. Weil is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art at Stony Brook University. He was awarded an Art Writers Grant in short form writing from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.
This review is a project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.
NOTES 1. Nicholas Mirzoeff, Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2005), 93. 2. Ibid. 3. Cyprien Gaillard interview by Susanne Pfeffer in Flash Art Online: www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=780&det=ok&title=CYPRIEN-GAILLARD. 4. Edward Said, “Blind Imperial Arrogance,” LA Times, July 20, 2003, http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jul/20/opinion/oe-said20. 5. Donald Preziosi, The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 9. 6. Ibid. 7. Ibid., 500. 8. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ4rA4QX_gY and http://vimeo.com/51359790.
Installation view of The Crystal World (2013) by Cyprien Gaillard