With a nod to Diderot’s dictum that one “must ruin a palace to create an object of interest,” Cyprien Gaillard’s multi-faceted oeuvre is an elaborate homage to entropy. As Gaillard himself once succinctly put it: “I’m interested in things failing, in the beauty of failure, and the fall in general.” This penchant for failure has garnered him not a little amount of success. The site-specific work Dune Park, for which Gaillard excavated and then buried a former Nazi communications bunker outside The Hague, won him the 2010 Marcel Duchamp Prize for best artist. This honor occasioned an exhibition of his work at the Centre Pompidou, currently on view through January 9. In this interview, Timothée Chaillou speaks with the artist about failed utopias, anachronisms, sanctioned vandalism, and man-made structures reclaimed by nature, all recurrent themes in his work.
-Introduction by Grace-Yvette Gemmell
Timothée Chaillou: For the 2008 Berlin Biennale, your work The Arena and the Wasteland presented an ensemble of spotlights supported by four light poles in the Skulpturenpark, an open space in central Berlin. It was like a beacon had suddenly been turned on the site and all those visiting it.
Cyprien Gaillard: What I particularly like about simple lighting is the economy of means. Berlin doesn’t have much light pollution at night, apart from the illuminated monuments. The Skulpturenpark is a no-man’s-land that formerly separated West Berlin from East Berlin. Since the Wall came down, the area has remained almost devoid of buildings. My challenge was to expose this indeterminate zone such as it exists today. I didn’t want to treat it as an outdoor exhibition space, nor as a sculpture garden. I wanted to light the terrain as a horizontal monument, to develop it, in the photographic sense, from the negative of the surrounding park and buildings. I wanted to celebrate this space as it was about to become something different.
TC: In your work, you often draw upon the idea of the ruin. How do you understand this particular aesthetic?
CG: In my view, there are two types of ruins: sanctioned and unsanctioned. Sanctioned ruins are those listed as protected monuments and archeological sites, whereas the unsanctioned ones come from a more recent history. These are the demolished or derelict buildings. Examples of unsanctioned ruins include 1960s apartment blocks, WWII bunkers, and Victorian houses in Detroit or Baltimore.
What’s interesting about ruins is the long time span between the evacuation and the demolition of a building. Before tearing it down, the crew removes any glass structures, elevators, and so forth. Next, they recycle the major supports and concrete. In time the building acquires a life of its own, detached from its initial social function, from the history of modernism, from the architectural plan. It then becomes part of the landscape, receding into the background as if somehow unconnected to the scene.
I’m not really fond of contemporary architecture. It all seems so empty to me. The rate at which early modernist housing estates are being torn down is quite alarming. It’s hard for me to get excited about building an Olympic village where blocks of flats once stood. In the United States, one out of every five houses built by Frank Lloyd Wright has been torn down. Every town wants to put on its best face, an air of detachment. There is a kind of hypocrisy at work that denies the rules of entropy and decline. The companies that recycle concrete from demolition sites reduce them to gravel for new highways or housing developments. The ghost of the building is then spread out all over town. On the other hand, ruins are a form of preservation, not of oblivion.
TC: Is destruction “waiting for the nonexistence of power” [l’attente du non-pouvoir], as Maurice Blanchot put it?
CG: To my mind, it’s the contrary: destruction celebrates power. Demolition is anti-revolutionary. The state constructs a building and then orders its destruction. During the French Revolution, people started to destroy monuments themselves. So long as the state seeks to control everything, it leaves little room for revolutionary action. Moreover, the chain of events preceding the demolition is socially debilitating, leading to expulsions and exclusions. The sheer spectacle of demolitions gives them a kind of legitimacy, making criticism even less likely. It truly is a form of officially sanctioned vandalism.
TC: Victor Hugo described ruins as epic, even heroic. Louvre curator René Huyghe once said, in reference to Hubert Robert’s paintings, that “painters who glorify life usually end up cherishing ruins as reminders of the value of time.” Demolitions, accidents, catastrophes are like so many interruptions in the flow of time they help to make visible.
CG: I totally agree with you. In the pre-revolutionary era, when Hubert Robert painted the Louvre in ruins or the construction of canals on the grounds of Versailles, it was a very strong artistic gesture. That ruins and picturesque scenes are a lot more evocative for a painter than regular buildings makes perfect sense from a formal point of view. In Robert’s Versailles paintings the deforestation is part of the mise-en-scène, like some apocalyptic construction site. I am very attached to his work.
TC: Sometimes you add strokes of white paint to existing paintings, or obliterate sections of your landscapes. Some of your films show locations shrouded in plumes of smoke. These actions indicate a type of vandalism, or amnesia to some extent, like danger signs in the landscape.
CG: It’s about the painting process. To represent a landscape as it is, is not enough. Only when it is ruined, or represented as partially ruined, can you do something interesting with it. In my films, for instance, the places are more important than the gestures and actions. They’re actually portraits of places. I demolish landscapes only to rediscover them in their weakened state. The clouds of smoke I create are much smaller than those generated by actual demolition sites. What I am trying to address is a more fundamental, more institutionalized form of vandalism.
I started by stealing fire extinguishers in central Paris and randomly discharging them somewhere in the suburbs, in no-man’s-land, just for the fun of it. I liked the object itself, its connection with safety codes and its vital function in emergencies, all devoted to useless smoke clouds. Little by little, I detached this gesture from destruction or acts of vandalism. I no longer film people discharging fire extinguishers. I like that the audience doesn’t know where the smoke is coming from, as if it were a natural phenomenon. I would rather the images in my films be seen as romantic.
TC: Are you nostalgic for certain revolutionary moments in history when acts of destruction were justifiable?
CG: I can hardly be nostalgic for events I never experienced. On the other hand, I do worry about the pace of demolitions taking place in our cities. Anachronism has a way of combating nostalgia. But anachronism can only exist when that bit of the past we wish to preserve is mixed with contemporary elements. For example, I especially like a theater in Detroit that has become a parking lot. It now stands as a combined monument, cultural symbol, and tourist destination. It truly makes sense to me, in a Mad Max sort of way.
TC: Can you tell us a bit more about your Geographical Analogies series? Are the Polaroid pictures a personal map of the world, an intimate geography?
CG: This series has allowed me to bring images together, to lay them out side by side as equals, mixing pyramids with housing projects. All of these assembled landscapes deal in one way or another with ruination and decay.
I started the series in 2006 with Polaroids of cypresses growing in cities in California, mainly because their shape reminded me of explosions or fires. Their shape inspired the structure of the work, because I wanted to isolate them from their original context as much as possible. I wanted to take it away from the sexy and idyllic California architecture. I avoided horizontal or vertical angles in the shot, choosing a slanted one instead. From this angle, I was able to capture more of the tree itself than the architecture around it. Then I selected nine Polaroids and arranged them in a diamond-shaped frame.
I was not attempting to make this series an alphabet book of ruins world wide. It’s just a device that helps me organize the world in the way I see it. To my mind, these don’t function as documents or photography but simply indicate the three movements that came after the moment of photography: a slanted perspective; a geological, diamond-shaped assemblage; and the act of spreading them out on flat tables, almost like archeological research. In addition to this, I like the idea that over time the Polaroid pictures fade to become nine white images; they vanish, slowly becoming abstractions.
TC: In Desniansky Raion (2007), fireworks explode from the top of a tower block before it implodes. This reminds me of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s paraphrase of Adorno, that “the only truly great art is the making of fireworks: pyrotechnics perfectly simulate the sterile consumption of pleasure.”
CG: I really prefer low-tech devices like the ones used by smoke bomb hooligans. I like when fireworks take place at dusk rather than when it’s pitch black, because you can still enjoy the scenery. I like the whole idea of pyrotechnics as a day job, and I somehow see myself as part of that scene. A certain modus operandi binds fire extinguishers to fireworks. Smoke clouds are displays that work in the daylight. If an artwork can make an intervention in the landscape, then fireworks are doing the same thing on a much larger scale. My actions are adapted to the specific requirements of the landscape at hand, allowing me to inhabit that landscape.
TC: In your opinion, is hooliganism necessarily synonymous with violence?
CG: My video Desniansky Raion is very much like a history painting. Groups of hooligans are fighting each other in St. Petersburg; the surrounding buildings look like fortified castles. It’s like an engraving, a picture of some Napoleonic battle. I don’t see violence here, and I don’t consider my work violent. True violence comes from those who want to control the landscape, from bureaucrats to postmodern architects. The violence I depict is very small in comparison to that, like a gentle slap in the direction of extreme violence. I have a romantic view of the world and hold myself accountable as far as the big issues of the day are concerned.