Cyprien Gaillard's "Crystal Worlds" at MoMA PS1 Trace the Fragility of Empire

Cyprien Gaillard's "Crystal Worlds" at MoMA PS1 Trace the Fragility of Empire
Cyprien Gaillard, "Artefacts," 2011. HD film transferred to 35 mm, continuous with sound. (detail)
(© Cyprien Gaillard. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London; Bugada & Cargnel, Paris; and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London.)

Thirty-two-year-old French-born Cyprien Gaillard is a rising — or perhaps already risen — star in Europe, having won the Prix Marcel Duchamp at FIAC in 2010 and Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie für Junge Kunst in 2011. At the Berlin show, the artist also carried the vote of the public by a margin of over 50 percent — the first time in the award’s history that the public and the jury have chosen the same winner. After seeing Gaillard’s show at MoMA PS1 this past weekend, I can understand why.

In “The Crystal World,” his first solo museum exhibition in New York (which runs through March 18), Gaillard creates powerful and mesmerizing portraits of suffering cities, meditations on transformation and decay that are also simply enjoyable to look at. Although the 80 works on view here comprise a variety of media, video art is the centerpiece. The show is anchored by the film “Artefacts” (2011), which has the largest exhibition room to itself. In these images from Baghdad during the U.S. occupation, soldiers in fatigues hold out fragments of ancient tablets and other archaeological finds, men in traditional dress trek across the desert, and, in one intensely enjoyable and intriguing segment, swirling bands of solid color fill up the screen. These bands suggest the mad movements of carnival rides, but we’re told that they’re the spinning skirts of a whirling dervish. The film captivates and draws you in, kind of like a travelogue — over the weekend, there were even some young children sitting on the floor watching it with their parents.


But this is also heavy stuff — occupation, cultural destruction, and loss, evoked obliquely, without violence. Though the images of American soldiers are innocuous enough, their presence brings to mind the massive destruction to Iraqi antiquities that resulted from the U.S. invasion. The music is a continuous loop of a sample from David Gray’s song “Babylon,” which, as the wall text points out, is said to have been used as part of the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib. Here, though, the repetition is haunting without being torturous, and there’s an added layer of meaning; located about 50 miles south of Baghdad, the ancient kingdom of Babylon, with its fabled hanging gardens, is itself a symbol of loss and the passage of time. Technologically the work is also composed of layers — Gaillard filmed the video on his iPhone and then transferred it to 35-millimeter film, which you can hear whirring through the projector while watching the shaky, handheld images. 

The show is rich in connections between works. One small room holds seven huge excavator bucket teeth in seven glass cases, recalling the display of Babylonian antiquities at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum that were viewed in “Artefacts.” I found myself examining them from all angles, as if they were worn antique statues, when of course they signify something very different — their natural erosion occurs from digging into earth to put up new construction.

In his long series of three-by-three grids of Polaroid photos, “Geographical Analogies,” Gaillard also plays with notions of tourism and the past. Each grid is focused on one locale; I recognized Baghdad from seeing  one of the structures that appeared in “Artefacts.” But most of these cities could be anywhere — a certain kind of anywhere, that is. Images of foreclosed houses made me think of Detroit (though they may be in Passaic, New Jersey, one location that Gaillard used), and others look like the outdated, monolithic structures of many third-world cities. Individually, with their slightly orangey hue and their odd angles, these snapshots could be photos that any tourist has taken. The way they’re arranged in grids, though, is somehow very elegant and poignant. Poignant, perhaps, because, as the wall text informs us, Polaroid film is unstable, and in these photos (taken between 2006 and 2011), the colors have already begun to break down.

These works are almost Romantic in the way they find beauty in contemporary ruins. But Gaillards landscapes are also landscapes of people, whether soldiers patrolling Baghdad, spring breakers guzzling tequila in Cancún, or rival Russian gangs brutally clashing with each other. The artist seems to remind us that people are a force of randomness and decay as much as time. A few works here seem less complex, such as two frottages of New York sewer lids and a found landscape painting from 1914 on which Gaillard silkscreened the grinning face of the Cleveland Indians’ mascot. But the show is a highly rewarding journey. “The Crystal World” presents a world that may be crystalline in its fragility, but is rough, rocky, and decrepit, populated by random human gestures and the survival of things past.