Many artists deal with history as subject matter for art, looking at remnants of the past for inspiration. But Paris-born, Berlin-based artist Cyprien Gaillard has been described as “an archeologist of recent history,” examining ruins that took not decades or centuries to collapse, but are much more recent. In looking at events and places still so close in the rear-view mirror, he studies the way ruination is in all our futures and decay is occurring all around us.
Through sculpture, painting, etching, photography, video, performance and large-scale interventions in public space, Gaillard has made a name for himself as a major emerging figure in the international art scene and will show work this year at the prestigious Venice Biennale. His work, including the 16mm film Cities of Gold and Mirrors, will be presented at the University of Utah’s Museum of Fine Arts as salt 3, the third exhibit in a series that showcases contemporary artists from around the world.
Jill Dawsey, the UMFA’s acting chief curator, explains, “I am interested in Gaillard’s work not so much for his concerns with the formal properties of the mediums with which he works—although I think he is innovative in this regard—but rather for his engagement with questions surrounding the urban, built environment, landscape and history.”
Gaillard often uses several media simultaneously. His Real Remnants of Fictive Wars series (2003-2008) were land-art performances, documented by video and photos, of the artist activating industrial fire extinguishers in controlled settings, a contrast against the surrounding landscape. For a recent project, “Dunepark” (2009), he excavated a site to reveal a German military bunker, treating it almost like an ancient Egyptian setting.
Cities of Gold and Mirrors alternates scenes of American college students on spring break in Cancun, Mexico, with ancient Mayan architectural sites. The contrast is stunning, but then parallels emerge between the drinking rituals of the young Americans and the rituals in the background of the ancient civilization that had come to collapse. He doesn’t impose a narrative on the film, but lets the cycle of images tell the story.
With all this ruin as a central theme of his work, he still views the choice to be an artist as a romantic one, though not without irony. He questions the nature of the typically romantic project of the depiction of landscape in his New Picturesque series, interjecting white paint on sections of 18th- and 19th-century paintings, leaving what he sees as “worth being painted.”
“One of Gaillard’s key insights,” Dawsey says, “is his understanding that history underpins everything, is present everywhere in the human, ‘made’ world. It acts on us, just as we act on it, whether or not we’re aware of it.”
As much as his landscape paintings comment on art history, many of his films and videos document the destruction of buildings—our attempts to erase our own history. In an interview with frieze magazine, he said, “I want to claim [the act of destruction] as my own—not necessarily as an artist, but an individual within society. … It should always be one of the people who lived in the building who gets to dynamite it, never an official, faceless, white-collar act of destruction.”
Gaillard has been influenced by the late Robert Smithson, creator of the Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake. The UMFA’s The Smithson Effect exhibit—which includes work by Gaillard and more than 20 other artists—shows the wide-ranging impact of Smithson’s ideas. Gaillard is particularly interested in Smithson’s use of entropy—the second law of thermodynamics, which states that everything in the universe tends to move towards a state of disorder. “Smithson’s influence courses through Gaillard’s practice,” Dawsey notes. Gaillard’s series Real Remnants of Fictive Wars used Smithson’s Spiral Jetty as one of its sites.
“Originally, I had hoped that salt 3 and The Smithson Effect would overlap for a longer period of time,” Dawsey says. “So much of Gaillard’s work is informed by Smithson’s ideas that I could have included any number of his other works in The Smithson Effect.”
Gaillard has said that architecture and alcohol are, for him, closely linked. Perhaps that’s because monuments and buildings are the height of expression of human power over the environment, and that power can be intoxicating. At a recent exhibition in Berlin, he constructed a pyramid-shaped “social sculpture,” made up of cases of beer, which was then destroyed through the audience’s consumption.
He found the need to become inebriated to get a sense of the place before filming Cities. “The scenes of spring-break debauchery may be familiar to many of us at the university,” Dawsey jokes. “Of course, the drinking is also metaphoric—it presents history as one enormous, blinding hangover.”
SALT 2: CYPRIEN GAILLARD
Utah Museum of Fine Arts
410 Campus Center Drive
University of Utah
May 26-August 21
$7, free for UMFA members and college students