Cyprien Gaillard, Nightlife, 2015, 3-D DCI DCP film, color, sound, 14 minutes 28 seconds.

Cyprien Gaillard, Nightlife, 2015, 3-D DCI DCP film, color, sound, 14 minutes 28 seconds.

Cyprien Gaillard

Sprüth Magers | Berlin

Cyprien Gaillard, Nightlife, 2015, 3-D DCI DCP film, color, sound, 14 minutes 28 seconds.

A nine-second sample from the Jamaican-born rock-steady singer Alton Ellis runs through Cyprien Gaillard’s entrancing new 3-D film Nightlife (all works 2015), which anchored the artist’s recent show “When Nature Runs Riot.” Blending the refrain of Ellis’s 1969 classic “Black Man’s Word”—“I was born a loser”—with that of the song’s 1971 re-working as “Black Man’s Pride”—“I was born a winner”—Gaillard subtly interwove the resulting acoustic fragment throughout this nearly fifteen-minute work. The artist’s repeated use of this conflicting refrain—chopped, distorted, falling away, and coming back—filled his show with the looming question of agency itself. Just as Ellis’s voice, the lone human element in Nightlife, spurred viewers to ask who was speaking and what had determined his winning or losing fate, the film itself presents a sequence of images that force the question: Who or what is active here, and by what material means and processes is agency itself even realized?

In prompting such questions, Gaillard is concerned not with individual actions but with the deep and unruly patterns by which forms, spaces, and histories—and the monuments that mark and comprise all three—accrete and entwine across time and space. Nightlife opens with a supple circular pan of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s cast of Rodin’s The Thinker, dynamited in 1970 by the Weather Underground, and moves via Los Angeles’s sprawling industrial landscape and the skies above Berlin’s Nazi-era Olympic Stadium to a Cleveland school yard spotlighted by a roaming helicopter. From a dynamited concretization of the early humanist mantra “I think, therefore I am,” in other words, Gaillard transports us by the film’s end to our contemporary fate of “I am, therefore I am surveilled.” Nightlife’s brief glimpse of Elysium in between these views—in which Gaillard’s camera, drifting in the air among smoky tendrils of spent fireworks, seems to have entered the diaphanous space of Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist, 1950—was shot, not coincidentally, in the skies above Hitler’s grand palace of sport, where Cleveland-raised Jesse Owens famously upstaged the dictator’s own Aryan specimens. History’s traces, Gaillard elegantly demonstrates, are everywhere interwoven—especially where their gravitational pull appears to have been most effortlessly left behind.

The bulk of Nightlife was filmed among disparate patches of LA philodendrons and so-called Hollywood junipers, all of which dance madly to the repeated loop of Ellis’s song while assorted traces of human activity (discarded trash, giveaway-newspaper boxes, fragmentary built environments) stare mutely on. Echoing the magnified botanical views of Karl Blossfeldt, Gaillard presents a seemingly secret world of plants that (as his exhibition title declared) runs riot in our absence. Such entwinement of natural and cultural forms was furthered in the images and objects shown alongside Nightlife: Ammonite Dub, 2015, composed of a sliced-in-half ammonite fossil and a turntable needle encased within a double mirror that seemingly reached endlessly into the gallery wall; Reid/Coxsone (gold monitors), 2015, which consists of modified copies of the two Ellis records from which Nightlife’s dub sample was made; and the Polaroid series “Sober City,” 2014–15, in which images of urban spaces and monuments have been double-exposed with that of an amethyst crystal from New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Gaillard’s complete ensemble, from his double mirrors and double exposures to doubled dubs and discs, constitutes a subtly formulated essay on the ever unfolding life of symbolic forms—one that reaches across geological time and encompasses flora and fauna, winners and losers alike.

Graham Bader