:caption: Cyprien Gaillard, Cities of Gold and Mirrors", 2009, Filmstill
Like a siren’s song, the soundtrack for Cyprien Gaillard’s 16mm film “Cities of Gold and Mirrors” (2009) called viewers up the stairs to the second floor gallery of Sprüth/Magers, Berlin. The dreamy electronic melody is cool but poignant, and played repeatedly over each of the film’s five non-narrative sequences. Gaillard has gained attention at a meteoric pace in the past few years, primarily for works – executed in media ranging from video and film (often featuring a seductive soundtrack) to performance, photography and appropriated sculpture – which address the failure of utopian modernist architecture, as epitomized by the demise of tower block housing. For his first solo exhibition at Sprüth Magers (and his first in Berlin), however, Gaillard turned his focus from defunct urban architecture to Cancún, a playground of managed leisure in the Yucatan Peninsula developed by the Mexican tourism industry the 1970s.
The film’s soundtrack is derived from an 80s television cartoon, “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, which, according to the exhibition press release “tells the story of Spanish conquistadors and merges South American history with archeology and science fiction”; Gaillard’s film obliquely references similar themes. In the first scene, two shirtless boys of the American fraternity variety stand in front of an enormous hotel and competitively attempt to drink an entire bottle of tequila each, while onlookers spur them on. Thanks to the soft patina of 16mm film and the evocative tenor of the soundtrack, the scene looks like a surreal gladiatorial fantasy, though the scenario has much in common with the crude and cruel stunts on the American tv show “Jackass” or Sacha Baron Cohen’s (a.k.a. Bruno/Borat) gambit of creating awkward circumstances in which men are induced to perform a predicable, juvenile kind of masculinity. The scenes that follow are less pathos-driven, but likewise traffic in a fusion of sentimentality and unease: a herd of dolphins swims directly in front of a hotel; a banner bearing the logo of the baseball team of the Cleveland Indians – a racist cartoon of a diabolical, red-faced head complete with feather headband – flies through the air; a young man, possibly Mexican, dances among Mayan ruins, his face covered with a red bandana, while a mega-hotel looms in the background; a mirrored office building is stunningly demolished; the camera takes a vertiginous tour of a plant-filled hotel interior; and finally, the film ends with a light show in a mega-club.
Gaillard’s choice of Cancún, one suspects, was motivated in part by his professed admiration for Robert Smithson, who himself traveled to the Yucatan forty years earlier, and where he created some of his best- known works.  The younger artist is drawn to Smithson’s concept of entropy, and Gaillard is fond of quoting Smithson citing Nabokov: “The future is but the obsolete in reverse.”?  Indeed, Smithson references surface throughout the film: the massive hotel is a steroidal update of Smithson’s derelict Hotel Palenque, while the glint of the sun on the ocean and the demolition of the mirrored building formally evoke Smithson’s use of reflections. Gaillard seems to have little anxiety of influence, even if his romantic recasting of Smithson’s (already romantic) tropes of entropy and decay are incursions largely drained of conceptual traction.
In addition to the film, mounted along a hallway was a selection from Gaillard’s ongoing project “Geographical Analogies” (2006– 2009), in which polaroids are arranged in 3?×?3 grids and placed on the diagonal within horizontally-displayed boxed frames. The press release suggested that this arrangement was “similar to the display of archeological artifacts” in a natural history museum, though it just as easily called jewelry display cases to mind. Like his use of 16mm film, Gaillard’s photographs invoke notions of transience (both mediums fade with exposure to light) in a readymade manner, as a shorthand way to signify a sensitive, if ambiguous, relationship to time. Shot during his global gallivants, each grid of photographs contains landscape imagery from diverse countries and continents linked by a formal or thematic analogy. In one work, photographs of cemetery obelisks from Baltimore to Hong Kong surround a central image of a marble slab in front of the Seagram Building in New York, itself rather funereal-looking. In another, polaroids of boarded up windows in the United States and Scotland frame a photograph of an artificial dinosaur head in a South Dakota park. Gaillard’s “Geographical Analogies” evoke a lineage of photographers who document public structures on the verge of obsolescence: Bernd and Hilla Becher come to mind, as well as Zoe Leonard’s monumental series “Analogue” (1998–2007). But whereas Leonard’s work concisely addresses the socio-economic realities that define complex global interconnections – the erosion of local cultures, the ever-quickening obsolescence of technologies, the recycling of commodities – Gaillard’s analogies remain on a pseudo-morphological and picturesque level, as he deliberately diminishes site-specific, geo-political details.
Structurally and thematically, the exhibition followed the pervasive contemporary culture of simultaneous, undifferentiated entertainment and short-term memory. Gaillard crystallizes the forces that would induce us to forget: repetition, sublime yet empty spectacle, hyperbolic rituals of consumption, the leveling out of geographic distances and difference. He manipulates his imagery so that the content is at once overdetermined and generic. Especially in the case of the photographs, where the organizing principle is based on external form rather than content, I was reminded of the way in which commodities (iPhones, commissioned artworks, etc.) are “personalized” while essentially remaining the same from one unit to the next. Similarly, much of the footage in the film hinges on the line between beauty and banality. This explains the awkwardness of the dancer on the Mayan ruins – the footage could easily serve as marketing for either skater sneakers or an anti-globalization agenda – and the creepiness of the Cleveland Indians banner flying through the air, functioning as a logo which condenses imperialist history and the zeal of sports fans against a background evocative of the classical pleasures of plein-air leisure.
„Cyprien Gaillard“, Galerie/Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 20. No-vember 2009 bis 16. Januar 2010.