Cyprien Gaillard: Recycling the Ruins
Cyprien Gaillard recently witnessed the destruction of high rise buildings in Glasgow: acute observations of this are the subject of his new work. Joanna Fiduccia talks to him about his practice and the death and decay of modernism in urban architecture
‘I told Murray that Albert Speer wanted to build structures that would decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins... The ruin is built into the creation, I said, which shows a certain nostalgia behind the power principle, or a tendency to organize the longings of future generations.’
Don DeLillo, White Noise
The work of French artist Cyprien Gaillard has inspired more than a few frissons for his synthesis of romantic landscapes, modernist ruins and land art ethos. Gaillard’s videos, collages, etchings and photographs disclose, however aesthetically, the blemishes of urbanism and the spectacular, destructive efforts to erase them. His latest project was presented this year at the Hayward Gallery, London.
Joanna Fiduccia: Your show in the Hayward’s project space, Glasgow 2014, is your first in a major British institution, and a first for them as well. I understand they’ve opened up a closed lot for your new sculpture?
Cyprien Gaillard: Glasgow 2014 was extended from the project room to a space we call ‘the secret garden’, an area which used to be part of the public space but has been closed since the 1990s. Within it, there’s a very small plot of land with some grass on it. When Tom Morton, curator of the project, invited me to show in this space, I decided to make one of these monuments I’ve been wanting to make for a long time, using recycled concrete from a demolished tower block up in Glasgow. We shipped about 30 tons of concrete to London and I assembled this rubble into the shape of an obelisk. It’s called ‘Cenotaph to 12 Riverford Road, Pollockshaws, Glasgow’, which is the name of the building demolished this summer.
JF: Will that be a permanent sculpture?
CG: Hopefully. Obviously, creating a work in this space raises questions about whether the institution should use it; it points out a small wasteland within the institution. But at the same time it recycles this site, making it an art space again. The idea is that the work will stay until the Hayward decides to use the land again. It could take years.
JF: So, as soon as this space is reclaimed for art, your artwork will be dismantled…
CG: Yes, the rubble will be dismantled again (though probably not dynamited). Before, this space was used as a stock, and it was closed to the public. Now it’s reopened three times a day to give visitors tours. You can view it from the inside of the museum as well.
JF: And the title of the exhibition?
CG: The city of Glasgow has been demolishing a lot of its modernist buildings in preparation to host the Commonwealth Games, which are like the Olympics of the UK. I use the title like the name of a science fiction novel: in 2014, there will be an opening ceremony on a city of ruins, but one that promises a utopia of Olympic villages and arenas. In the first room are large-format prints of demolished buildings—photographs not of architecture but of the death of architecture. Just after the building is dynamited, the rubble takes a natural shape, almost like a pyramid. I’ve photographed three buildings—two of them in Glasgow and one outside of Paris. In the next room is a video called ‘The Lake Arches’, set just outside of Paris, where I went with two friends of mine. One of them dived into the lake and broke his nose. In the video, you see this kid bleeding with the postmodern architecture of Ricardo Bofill in the background.
JF: You also have a large solo show coming up in Kassel at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in January. The title of the show is Pruitt-Igoe Falls—after the infamous St Louis housing project, Pruitt-Igoe. I believe Charles Jenks pronounced that the day of its demolition was ‘the day modern architecture died’.
CG: Jenks is right, but it’s not only Jenks; most historians of architecture agree. Pruitt-Igoe was one of the first times that these high rise buildings were demolished by the city, as a symbolic way to explain to Americans that the state could never solve their problems; they had to take care of themselves. Pruitt-Igoe was a massive structure—33 buildings of 11 stories—built by [Minoru] Yamazaki. Yamazaki’s buildings had this kind of curse. He was also the architect of the Twin Towers, so he’s responsible for two deaths: one, the death of modernist architecture, the other…
JF: The death of American invulnerability?
CG: Exactly. One of my favourite sculptures of all time is this sculpture by Fritz Koenig that was at the bottom of the twin towers. They found it under the rubble when they started cleaning up the site, and they decided to leave the sculpture destroyed. It’s just been moved to Bowery Park. I see it as a monument to dead buildings, not just a monument to 9/11. It’s amazing how it is now, ruined. It was never this beautiful before.
JF: Pruitt-Igoe has had its own afterlife in the Godfrey Reggio’s cult experimental cinema classic Koyaanisqatsi, a film that you’ve mentioned in the past, an entropic opus that captures the demolition. Is that where you learned of it?
CG: That was the first time I saw it, for sure. Pruitt- Igoe was built in 1956, demolished in 1972. It had only 16 years of life. But the building was dispersed; that’s what I really like about it, and what first gave me the idea to make these monuments using recycled concrete. Given the ecological consciousness of current city administrations, demolition teams are told to recycle as much of the building as they can. When a building is demolished, they process the concrete on the side and resell it to build highways, roads, parking lots, schools… whatever they need it for. That same concrete is dispersed, so you find the remains of that building in the new infrastructure of the city.
JF: That’s macabre.
CG: It’s terrifying. You’re walking on the ruins of these modernist buildings, just like in Rome or Greece. You can think of ruins as architecture in time, but you can also think about them in space, an architecture of movement. Like how a London bridge ended up in the American desert, or how Cleopatra’s Needle ended up next to the Thames. The shape of my obelisk is like a smaller version of that needle, which is now literally right across the bank from the Hayward.
JF: Does this interest in ruins and entropy influence the form your works take? I am thinking, for instance, of your series ‘Geographical Analogies’, for which you composed nine photographs of kindred landscapes into fragile rhombuses, laid like specimens in vitrines, or the video sequences of ‘Real Remnants of Fictive Wars’, which document the release and dispersal of industrial fire extinguishers over various vistas.
CG: Definitely. You can tell this monument [Cenotaph] is going to age so well. That is, so badly. But the main example is the ‘Geographical Analogies’ boxes, for which I use Polaroid film. The support is very interesting because it’s slowly decaying. Out of all types of photography, it’s the one that is most victim to time. I’ve been working on the ‘Geographical Analogies’ for the past two years, and the first ones are already beginning to fade. These boxes are so figurative; nine pictures of different landscapes slowly fading into something completely abstract. Twenty years from now, they’ll just be nine pieces of paper within a big box.
JF: Your work has this épater le bourgeois attitude which leads many to describe it as ‘art vandalism’. It is an attitude historically linked to the avant garde’s rejection of the status quo and of the past. But on the other hand, there seems to be a lot of nostalgia to your practice; taking Polaroids, revisiting Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’ (albeit to hose it with an extinguisher), documenting modernist decay… Do you see a contradiction there? Are you a nostalgic vandal?
CG: I see what you’re referring to, but I know why I destroy things. Using a fire extinguisher to spray 500 kilos of powder onto a landscape can seem like an act of vandalism to some people, but it’s nothing compared to decisions made today that shape our landscapes, like chopping down entire neighbourhoods to create a pedestrian street or an Olympic village. I call this ‘state vandalism’. Louis Réau has an amazing book called Histoire du vandalisme, les Monuments détruits de l’art français. It’s 1000 pages long and at no point does it talk about public vandalism, like graffiti or car scratching. This book is an encyclopedia of all the mistakes in French urbanism since the Middle Ages. It’s fantastic. My answer to this state vandalism is to do something on a small scale, to measure myself against much bigger actions.
When a building is demolished, the state always manages to win in the end, even if no one is sure why the building is being torn down, even if it has displaced a whole community. The demolition is just so spectacular that it legitimises everything behind it. I feel that ‘Real Remnants of Fictive Wars’ is almost the same: spraying fire extinguishers in the forest or the suburbs of Paris creates such a romantic image. You’re seduced by the formal aspect, even if you can’t necessarily accept the mechanism that created that beauty, once you understand that these fire extinguishers suck all the oxygen from the landscape.
I was just in Glasgow for the demolition of these two massive buildings. The weather in Glasgow is always so shitty, so windy. So this huge dust cloud started spreading, moving toward the people, who started to scatter in all directions. On the horizon you could see this cloud moving, compact because the wind was moving in only one direction. This was a huge act of destruction on the scale of a landscape. Though I’m not criticising it. I’m just hoping that people will be a bit more aware of who decides what you see or how a city should look.
But to answer your question, most of my work is fighting against nostalgia. I’m only interested in how things are now.
JF: You recently exhibited a work at the Berlin Biennial on one monumental ruin-in-progress, the Crazy Horse Memorial, for which you created a montage of the memorial’s construction, accompanied by the fiery performance of musician Koudlam. What interests you in Crazy Horse?
CG: Crazy Horse’s memorial was started in the 1940s by the [Lakota] Indians who commissioned a Polish artist [Korzack Ziolkowski] to carve this massive sculpture into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Now the sculptor is long since dead, and his grandkids are still working on it. They’ve been dynamiting for 50 years, and they say it’ll take another 70 to complete it. Some say 70, some 80, some never. They’re making a monument to a man of nature, but they’re dynamiting a whole part of the region – creating a huge dichotomy between the original idea and what it has become.
JF: A debacle to rival Pruitt-Igoe?
CG: Like Pruitt-Igoe and urban renewal in general, the more we try to fix it, the more chaos it creates. The closer the sculpture gets to its completion, the more dynamite it uses, the more it destroys, the more it becomes obsolete. It is an intrusion on the landscape, going in the opposite direction that everyone should go, toward something quieter and more peaceful.
JF: I wanted to return to a comment you made earlier about your sculpture at the Hayward. You said it would age well. What do you mean by that?
CG: To age well is to show the effects of time. I think the ‘Spiral Jetty’ ages well; I think Robert Morris’s big ‘X’ in Grand Rapids ages well. The whole idea to restore the ‘Spiral Jetty’ was crazy, as was the protest about drilling the lake. I think Smithson would have actually loved it. Think of an image of the ‘Spiral Jetty’ with an offshore drilling platform right behind it. How amazing would that be? That’s aging well. Accepting your own fate.
JF: And what about you?
CG: Oh, I’m a ruin myself.
Joanna Fiduccia is a curator and writer based in Paris