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CYPRIEN GAILLARD. RUBBLE AND REVELATION
Caserma XXIV Maggio, Milan
Conceived for the military bakery of Caserma XXIV Maggio—a fascinating gem of industrial architecture which was shut down in 2005, after supplying bread to all the military complexes in Lombardy for over a century and nourishing the whole city of Milan during World War II—Rubble and Revelation presents a selection of new and recent works that reflect on destruction and deterioration, leading us on a journey through the past and present, amid cultures and contexts that bear the scars of violent transformation and the hallmarks of collapse.
Like an archeologist probing the wreckage of modernity, Cyprien Gaillard travels the world in search of modern-day monuments that have lost their aura and symbolic power, documenting their life and gradual decline with the precision of a scholar. He roams from continent to continent, immortalizing these ruins and relics in photos, videos, sculptures, and collages that convey his obsession with the poetry of decay. They are pieces that tell of the calm after the storm; to trace the roots of dramatic social changes, Gaillard compiles a vast archive of images in which every detail is a shard of collective memory, a scrap of choral history. He explores the power of images and the fear they can inspire: iconoclasm and vandalism are recurring themes in his work, which also betrays a profound interest in the perennial process of erasure and rewriting that landmarks and icons undergo throughout history, a process all the more topical in an era rocked by street protests and natural disasters.
Architecture, with its globalized commercial symbols and its effigies of power, is a discipline that fascinates Gaillard with its potential to deeply influence human behavior. Modernist buildings, rundown neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, crumbling highrises and skyscrapers, and military fortresses and bunkers become the stage set for a Natural History of Destruction (to cite German writer W.G. Sebald’s essays on the devastation wreaked by air raids during World War II); within it, the artist highlights the dynamics that govern social interactions and relationships between the individual and the group. Youth subcultures and urban tribes play a central role in Gaillard’s sociological explorations of our cities: often, in his work, categories such as freedom and the individual right to choose seem to no longer apply, since everything moves as if guided by mass will.
These forces can all be found at work in Rubble and Revelation, his project for the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi. Inside the spaces of the Caserma XXIV Maggio military bakery, with their patina of memories, Cyprien Gaillard leads us through his evocative vision of the ruins of our time: in a constant crescendo of juxtapositions and layerings, the videos, photographs, images and sounds trace a path that weaves between explosions and silences, devastation and contemplation. The exhibition begins with Gates, a series that the artist made in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2012, shown here for the first time. The artist has roamed through the streets of the Californian metropolises collecting imprints of manhole covers, some of which read “City of Los Angeles – Made in India”. This charcoal frottages conflate different localities, overlapping distant geographies. Acting as portals to the underworld and as a threshold to the exhibition, the rubbings chart an imaginary travel across the Earth, while revealing the hidden connections and frictions of our globalized economy. The second and third oven rooms feature collages from the series New Picturesque: old black and white postcards of ancient castles, covered in pieces of torn paper that both hide and reveal their silhouettes. With this simple device, which conceals the most decorative details of the images, the artist questions the deeper meaning of these grizzled edifices, which have been stripped of their function and transformed for the most part into Disneyesque recreational spots. Weaving a web of references to 1960s American art, debates about urban planning, preservation, ecology, and the rise and fall of modernist utopias, Gaillard’s derelict buildings and shifting landscapes romantically incarnate the inevitable fate that the passage of time holds in store for all human efforts. This can be seen in the video The Lake Arches, which shows teenagers playing a game that evokes both a rite of passage and a portrait with ruins. The artist uses a handy cam to film a group of young men diving into a shallow body of water, one of them re-emerging with a bloody, broken nose. The backdrop to the scene is a hulking relic—a Ricardo Bofill apartment block in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, near Paris—which seems to watch the scene helplessly like a postmodern ghost; a modern-day fortress, remote and impenetrable. The next two rooms hold Millions into Darkness, an installation composed of large vitrines made for the exhibition. They contain an assortment of fragments and vestiges arranged with scientific precision: dozens of black and white images, salvaged from various archives of American newspapers are rescued from darkness as the title of the piece suggests. The installation seems to reconstruct a history of conflict and catastrophe, juxtaposing news photos and documents with splinters of meteorites from outer space, shrapnel fallen to Earth from the dark corners of the Universe, that might also function as weapons for a new brand of urban guerrilla warfare. In the next room, the video Pruitt-Igoe Falls—named after Pruitt-Igoe, a gargantuan St. Louis housing project built in the Fifties, whose demolition in 1972 came to symbolize the end of Modernism—shows the demolition of a building on the outskirts of Glasgow, juxtaposing it with the thunder of Niagara Falls, a marvel of nature that has been turned into a tourist attraction, lit up by colored spotlights at night as if it were an amusement park. Together, they create a vast moving image pervaded by a new form of urban romanticism, a contemporary version of the melancholy ruins depicted in the eighteenth century by artists like Piranesi. The exhibition continues with Geographical Analogies, a series of panels resembling displays in a natural history museum, which in this case hold compositions of Polaroids—shot by the artist on five continents, and arranged in groups of nine—through which Gaillard traces an atlas of the world, carefully drawing analogies and contrasts between places that share a sense of the sublime: from the pyramids of Mexico to housing projects in the Bronx, French castles to public sculptures in Iraq. The exhibition concludes with Real Remnants of Fictive Wars V, the last in a series of five short performances, filmed in 35mm, where the artist sets off industrial fire extinguishers in carefully chosen landscapes. In this fifth installment, the scene takes place on a castle balustrade: a cloud of smoke slowly wafts out of a tree in the background, in a small act of reversible vandalism which first erases and then reveals the composure of the landscape. The thread linking together the whole show is Prelude (Dragged), an original composition by the American band Salem—known for the dark atmosphere of their music, which combines genres ranging from electronica to hip hop—whom Cyprien Gaillard asked to act as his musical alter ego, creating the soundtrack for this project. Here music functions as an architectural insertion that expands through the entire length of the building, warping time and space and turning the experience of the exhibition into a sort of real-time movie. Salem’s piece is a re-edit of the prelude to Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first opera in the four-part Ring cycle, whose sweeping historical and mythological fresco ends with the fall of the gods and the ruin of an entire civilization. Salem’s electronic alteration summons an anachronistic presence in the show. When Wagner wrote Das Rheingold, Europe was in the grip of revolutionary ferment, as our world is today. And just as it did then, art becomes a tool for reflecting on the inevitability of radical change while trying to find a new form of equilibrium within chaos.