Cyprien Gaillard

by Edoardo Bonaspetti


Cyprien Gaillard, born in 1980 in France, studied in Switzerland. With just a handful of works behind him, he’s already given life to some interesting scenarios, such as the idyllic landscapes of his videos, in which suspicious clouds of smoke rise up into the sky (and the title explains that they’re actually “Real Remnants of Fictive Wars.”) Or his false 1600s incisions where concrete and glass buildings rise up over woods and lakes, totally plausible in style, but absurd for everything else. Is mass produced, rational architecture already as remote as the landscapes of four centuries ago? Or is this a signal that the disfigurement of nature is so widespread that it subtly projects itself into our memory and imagination? Maybe it’s time to investigate the matter a bit further.


EDOARDO BONASPETTI: I’d start from the first time I met your work. I was immediately impressed by your etchings where you inserted anonymous and dreary buildings from Holland landscapes of the 18th century. Human presence is hidden, and the views are dark and distressing. Could you talk to me about it?

CYPRIEN GAILLARD: The time lag of these anonymous buildings, uprooted from their usual habitat and placed in the Uber-classical 18th century landscapes underlines two important problems of my work—first, the question of Modern Utopias and the architectural ruins they produce, and second, the definition of a new urban form of Romanticism.

EB: You have talked about a new definition of an urban form of Romanticism. What do you mean when you talk about a “new urban form of Romanticism”?

CG: Well, the matter is that all the buildings I like will be destroyed in Europe in the next ten years. I just got back, for example, from Newcastle where I was part of a show at Baltic, I stayed three days in the city, and spent my days riding my bicycle all around its suburbs. Two of the greatest buildings of the city both designed by the brutalist architect Owen Luder are about to be demolished. In January, I was in Glasgow (the city that holds more than ffty percent of all the high-rise estates of the U.K.), to film the demolition of the tower block that was featured in Jonathan Glaser’s add for Sony. The scenario is always the same—in the next five years the Glasgow Housing Association will demolish half of these buildings in order “to change the skyline of the city” to use their words. I have this project where I want to move all these buildings that are about to be destroyed into a big park I will create in the south of France, just like somebody did in the eighties, dismantling some French castles rock by rock to rebuild them in his wine yards in America. In my park, nevertheless, these buildings will be allowed to become real ruins, in a typical French romantic landscape, with it’s hills, lakes, and waterfalls. This park will define a new urban form of Romanticism, very much like the French “parcs aux ruines” built of the 18th century.

EB: The brutal aesthetics that characterize many of your buildings on which you work seem to be the counterpart to a deep disappointment for the failure of utopian social models…

CG: The social and political context these projects were born in is rather secondary in my approach to housing complexes. What first drew me to the projects was a sort of romantic fascination with them, much like the fascination French Ruinists had for derelict sceneries. Nonetheless, I choose to use these forsaken places is an act that, with time, has taken another dimension. Many European countries, indeed, have taken up overbearing Renovation politics that imply the destruction or the entire reconstruction of these buildings. The urgency of this situation has driven my work further than simple fascination and has brought me closer to these unauthorized ruins as I might be one of the last to capture them.

EB: The series is called Belief in the Age of Disbelief. What can we still believe in?

CG: R. Smithson once said, “The future is the past in reverse.” When I gave this seemingly enigmatic title to the series, what I was actually aiming at was to characterize the regression that I feel the modern societies are undergoing. To me, the “Age” we live in is one of the broken dreams and disappointed (disillusioned) expectations. However, the tower blocks I focus on in my work are in my opinion signs of the renewal of a certain form of Belief. You can hear an echo of the Medieval Age, of its threatening and enclosing castles, of its blind belief in the Church, to its endless wars. There is actually a French word that epitomizes this analogy, the word “cité,” which both means “tower-blocks“ and “city“ (meant not in the current sense but as polis, as the center and engine of the organization of a community).

EB: You seem fascinated by a certain idea of beauty that is found in landscapes altered by human intervention. What is your conception of nature?

CG: Nature in itself doesn’t interest me. It only truly exists as a part of Modern landscapes. I don’t separate human kind from nature. I force myself to look at things in the state that they are when I get there. I was born in 1980, and these buildings have always been part of my vision of a landscape.

EB: These buildings seem to make a reference to a modernism humiliated by the failure of its social utopias. Do you think a utopian dimension exists in your work?

CG: I think the only utopian dimension that exists in my work is its being produced outside the workshop, the studio, in an effort to reconcile the art world with the real world (and not the other way around).

EB: Often the identity is defined in opposition to something, to someone. What is your work in opposition to?

CG: It is in direct opposition to artwork produced in studios by studioartists.

EB: This year you participate in Art Basel, in the section,“Unlimited,” the most spectacular one. What can we expect to see?

CG: I will be showing my latest video, Desniansky Raion, which I spent four years working on and shot in the suburbs of Paris, St. Petersburg, Belgrade, and Kiev.

EB: It’s a video in which alternate aesthetics of vandalism and minimalism, order and chaos. There is the brutal violence of gangs, pyrotechnical collapses of constructions, and architectonical geometries of a series of buildings in Kiev. The effects are destabilizing. What is at the origin of this conflict?

CG: The origin of this conflict can probably be traced back to what I said earlier about European politics of renovation and “requalification” of entire urban areas. The contrasts I used in the video show the strong analogies that exist between our present and ancient ages. The massive fight portrayed in the first part of the video (which was composed as a Triptych) formally opposes what you call the “architectonical geometries“ of the buildings in Kiev, which for me represent the links with the stone ages. It was impressive to notice, while I flew over Kiev for the shooting, how these buildings seemed to a kind of Ukrainian Stonehenge.

EB: Is it true that for the shooting in Kiev, you flew illegally over the zone with an ultra light?

CG: Yes, and everything to avoid Eastern-European bureaucracy. To get all authorizations would have taken too long.

EB: And why this attention for the connections between different ages?

CG: I think that time is not just a mental concept. In front of a place like Desniansky Raion as well as sites such as Stonehenge or The Ring of Brodgar, I realize how time takes on a real physical presence, both architectures are about time, and not so much about space anymore.

EB: You also have a band—the Landsc Apes—with which you produced the music for Desnaisky Raion. What role does the music play in the video? Do you have other projects?

CG: I am not sure the Landsc Apes can be really called a band. It is more of the result my collaboration with musician Koudlam, for whom I produced the music. The music is the cement of the video— it allows it to transcend genres, to be out of space and time. The closest next project is Koudlam’s upcoming album, “Goodbye,” for which I am doing the artwork.

EB: In 2002, Real Remnsants of Fictive Wars started, a film series that documents many Land-Art interventions. Can you tell more about this project?

CG: A few years ago I started using stolen fire extinguishers to make Land Art. Actually, when I was in high school I already used them for fights we roused in parking lots. And these films also exist as a form of celebration of those illegal “activities” I used to do as a teenager. The series is composed of six parts, all of which take place in a different setting. Nevertheless, all works develop around one element, a cloud of white smoke that emerges from hidden fire extinguishers, and slowly bathes the scene in white dust. To me, the beauty of the smoke’s expansion allows the onlooker to renew his vision of the scene once the smoke is whisked away. The purpose of the fire extinguisher is indeed to “weaken” the landscape in order to reveal it.

EB: Do you think it is possible to recognize vandalism and some illegal activities as strategies to provide new perspectives?

CG: The cloud formed from these fire extinguishers literally erases the landscape. Then it is redrawn. Almost as if the cloud which had at one point annihilated it, brings it back to life, and gives it a deeper dimension. It is something that has to do with the representation process. Many landscapes don’t survive to this process and, even if they can be beautiful in reality, they die once they have been captured and portrayed by an artist. My intervention destroys the landscape but actually allows it to survive it’s representation.

EB: In these works you have always used a Czech 35 mm projector. What’s the reason for this choice?

CG: I have the same problem as Land artists, I go somewhere and make something, but can have but a few people with me to witness it. I didn’t want to reduce myself to documenting my works with photographs as many did, then; I decided to use a 35mm camera to record what was originally a land art work, turning the documentation into a film. Pushing also the camera to capture 32 images per seconds, I obtain a realistic “slow motion” effect and give the film a fictional quality.

EB: In the last video of the series where you invade the Spiral Jetty of Robert Smithson with a white cloud, you revise in your own way the notion of entropy defined by the artist—a movement of transformation that tends irremediably towards chaos.

CG: I celebrate this lack of order, and if it’s not there, I produce it. A landscape destroyed or partially destroyed is always more beautiful than a perfect one. Last summer I went on the Spiral Jetty and emptied a fire extinguisher I had stolen in Salt Lake City. What I did was an act of vandalism on what has become a national monument. But what you see in the picture that documents the act is the new natural state of the Spiral Jetty, the Spiral in smoke. This is the essence of my work: the possibility of being seduced by my work and the acceptation or not of the acts and consequences that generated it.

EB: In your work, life seems marked by a congenital, almost pathological, violence. Society destroys and wastes in equal measure that it makes itself rich and productive. Is this relationship inevitable?

CG: Condemning and/or fighting against the inevitable is useless. Also, I do believe the world, and life in all its forms, is ruled by the laws of Entropy. I celebrate this principle of unavoidable decaying, and in some ways I accelerate it, both through my work (fire extinguishers, cut-down trees, etc.) and through my everyday life (my persistent refusal to recycle). I think that by going to chaos there will be renewed harmony. I heard Putin on the radio today talking about the global warming: “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up!”


Originally published on Mousse 9 (Summer 2007)


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