30 April 2013

Review: “Cyprien Gaillard: the Crystal World” at MoMA PS1, by Pac Pobric

Cyprien Gaillard. Artefacts. 2011. HD film transferred to 35 mm, continuous with sound. © Cyprien Gaillard. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London; Bugada & Cargnel, Paris; and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London

Real Remnants of Fictive Wars IV, 2004.  35 mm film and 35 mm film transferred to dvd; 4:15 min.

Filmed in the Vietnamese jungle, 'RRoFW IV' is a series of five films documenting Cyprien GAILLARD's land art works. Using fire extinguishers, the artist creates clouds of smoke that gradually invade the camera frame and then disappear, absorbed by the lush Vietnamese vegetation. The 35mm camera gives the film a narrative quality, playing furthermore off the aesthetic of Vietnam War films.

Courtesy MoMA PS1

An obvious charge against much recent contemporary art is that it is too nostalgic or tasteful in its embrace of modernism, or that it mines the history of modern art for form but not for content. It's easiest to make this case with the casual trend that comes out of abstract painting (Noam Rappaport's excellent work comes to mind), but it can also be said to recent film and video work, which tends towards beautiful imagery. But what that would mean—for any art to have form by actually lack content—is left unclear, because it's simply an impossible argument to make.  All art has content, but certain artworks are more compelling than others. Only individual pieces succeed or fail, which is to say that a strategy can never be dismissed. The better question is whether it is capable of producing strong work.

As far as film is concerned, Cyprien Gaillard seems to be making the most of the “return” to modernism. That should be especially clear following his show “The Crystal World”, which closed recently at PS1. The scenes of his films are finely organized but never static. Nor do they rely on any unnecessary activity to draw attention to themselves. This isn't to say that they don't demand to be looked at. But they do so through an intelligent handling of drama, even when narratives aren't entirely clear. The strength of Gaillard is basically that he does not shy away from film as a medium that is essentially optical and narrative, which is to say that he relies on the medium's fundamental qualities.  He aims his art directly at our eyes and ears, and this is exactly what brings up the charge against its “modernism.” 

Still, if there's one thing this reading of his work seems to get right, it's that it hews the line of a tendency in recent art has towards nostalgia, even though Gaillard denies this interpretation. What's relevant is that when Gaillard's work falters, nostalgia becomes his weakest suit. A film like Cities of Gold and Mirrors (2009), which relies on a heavy-handed camera filter to endow the film with a “vintage” tint, is simply overburdened by nostalgia to the point of collapse. The visual effect is the same as the one produced by cell phone camera filters, which layer exactly the same “retro” over snapshots and formal pictures alike. With Gaillard, the result is overwrought.

The real question is why, as a device, Gaillard's “nostalgia” or “formalist modernism” so often succeeds, when probably the most obvious aspect of his work is its “anti-modernism.” The three narratives make up the film Desniansky Raion (2007)  a vicious street battle between two Russian gangs; the destruction of a Brutalist housing block in the suburbs of Paris; or the frozen landscape of Stalinist housing units in the post-Soviet bloc—are all symptoms of modernism's failure. No doubt we can all recognize that they are indications of a senseless world, which modern thought—art and philosophy—was supposed to change dramatically and comprehensively for the better.

The answer, of course, is that for all of Gaillard's supposed modernism or anti-modernism, the work being made is new. Despite what is immediately familiar about his art, whether it be nostalgia or pessimism. Gaillard has nevertheless landed on something that is fresh and compelling. Perhaps what his work does best is to prove that any and all approaches to art making can be successful and that there is no such thing as an inherently conservative tool.  What matters most is the effect of its use. 

Pac Pobric is an art critic and assistant editor for The Platypus Review.

Cyprien Gaillard. Cities of Gold and Mirrors. 2009. 16 mm film, color, with sound. 8:52 min. © Cyprien Gaillard. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London.

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