New York

Cyprien Gaillard, Artefacts, 2011, digital video transferred to 35 mm, color, sound, continuous loop.

Cyprien Gaillard, Artefacts, 2011, digital video transferred to 35 mm, color, sound, continuous loop.

Cyprien Gaillard

MoMA PS1

Cyprien Gaillard, Artefacts, 2011, digital video transferred to 35 mm, color, sound, continuous loop.

The bold beating heart of “The Crystal World,” Cyprien Gaillard’s first solo exhibition at a museum in New York, was a work that viewers could hear before they could see it. A snatch of an old David Gray song, endlessly repeating the name of an ancient place with as heavy a sorrow as anodyne pop could bear, drifted through the corridors and drew visitors into a large, darkened room. There, beyond the crackle and whir of a 35-mm film projector, Gaillard’s mesmerizing elegy for a ruined Iraq, Artefacts, 2011, was playing in a continuous loop on a screen more than nineteen feet high. The artist shot the entire piece with the video camera on his mobile phone, then transferred the footage to its lush cinematic support. The wild discrepancy between amateur-style camerawork and commercial-quality film stock is just one of the many contradictions that make Artefacts such a strange, disarming, and deeply moving work.

It’s a project that could easily have gone wrong: A young and fashionable artist goes to Baghdad for adventure and war tourism and casts an indolent set of eyes across the wreckage laid out before him. But Gaillard’s images are ardent, curious; they hum with self-awareness. The film unfurls a ceaseless procession of deserts, sandstone archaeological sites, and apocalyptic junkyards with cars piled high; of palm trees, tall grasses, and other such tufts of vegetation; of soldiers in fatigues, mustachioed men in thobes and kaffiyehs, some character in a fine-tailored suit holding a chunk of rock to the camera, and the skirts of a whirling dervish. And still, somewhere off-screen, that thin, melancholy voice intones “Babylon” over and over again.

To a certain extent, Gaillard’s reputation continues to rest on the heft of Desniansky Raion, 2007, a thirty-minute video and “electronic opera” made in collaboration with the DJ and composer Koudlam. Though typically shown as an installation, the piece has also been staged as a concert, a mode of presentation that amplifies the sense that the social-housing projects that are pictured in the footage are the subjects and backdrops of obliterating violence. More recently, Gaillard earned considerable acclaim for The Recovery of Discovery, 2011. At the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, he built a pyramid from cases of Efes beer and then invited the public to consume, and thus destroy, the work.

MoMA PS1’s survey of Gaillard’s practice over the past ten years, which was curated by Klaus Biesenbach, certainly tapped into that aesthetic of entropy and collapse, particularly in its selection of films and videos, Desniansky Raion included. But the show’s nine glass display cases holding the bucket teeth of construction and demolition machines, alongside the dimly lit rooms lined with fifty-six of the artist’s “Geographical Analogies,” 2006–11, each featuring nine Polaroids arranged in a diamond shape, emphasized the elegance of Gaillard’s slower, more thoughtful formalism over the rambunctiousness of his quicker, in-your-face work. The result was a judicious edit of the artist’s oeuvre, with only one false note: three rubbings of New York City manhole covers, titled Gates, 2012.

Specially commissioned for the exhibition, these frottages added nothing to the weight of Gaillard’s visual language of beauty and violence. His vocabulary for the twenty-first-century sublime includes tower blocks, bunkers, smoke-filled forests, controlled implosions, failed utoptias, frat boys, ritualized fistfights, and the highly stylized dance of a gang member in a layered landscape of Mayan ruins and a Cancún resort. The “Geographical Analogies” alone, drawn from a collection of fifteen thousand images, create their own systems of meaning, shuffling through experiences of a deep past and a turbulent present by eliciting, as does Artefacts, the fleeting recognition of a famous landmark, an ancient temple, a looted artwork, or a streetwise stencil of Arthur Rimbaud. “The Crystal World” proved Gaillard a credible heir to his explicitly stated influences, such as Robert Smithson and the eighteenth-century painters of the picturesque. But he might also belong to another line of sensitive and inquisitive filmmakers, epitomized by Chris Marker and his Sans Soleil (1983), who take seriously their great privilege to travel the world and make searching work from the wonders and horrors they have seen.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie