The pastel blue walls and ovens of the former military barracks in via Vincenzo Monti — where all the bread was baked for barracks in Lombardy from the late 19th century on — are the perfect setting for the Massimiliano Gioni-curated Fondazione Trussardi's solo exhibition on Cyprien Gaillard, an artist who reads the present through episodes and architecture of the past.
Gaillard's research explores the tensions and hardships of our century, which began with the collapse of the Twin Towers and continue to manifest. Industrial archaeology, rundown parts of the city and memories buried beneath the rubble of ideological failure paint a picture of the recent past, impacting on transforming the current one. It is not, therefore, merely a question of time or chronological succession. The past returns in the present through highly inconsistent manifestations of demolition, conservation, preservation and reconstruction. Gaillard's work helps us trace a map of the present that incorporates a form of "expanded vandalism": from the most obviously anti-institutional experiments to those of dubious appeal dictated from above by urban regeneration and reorganisation policies.
The Paris-born artist attempts the approach of balancing contrasts, partly conveyed by the use of certain media of immediate visual impact such as 35 mm projectors, Polaroids and black and white prints, media that often veer towards a "musealisation" of history such as the monumental glass tables containing the Geographical Analogies (2006-2011) Polaroid collages presented as iconic archaeological finds.
There is, however, always something unexpected in the apparent "freezing" of the ruins, which may be achieved via an image, a performance or a video. This aspect is principally conveyed through the dual dimension of expectation and occurrence. The Pruitt-Igoe Falls, a 2008 video, appears before the collage room in the exhibition. Initially a building standing proud in the middle of an old Scottish cemetery, a moment later it implodes in a cloud of dust that gradually turns into a waterfall.
The same applies to the Real Remnants of Fictive Wars V sequence, dated 2004, the last in a series of five films made in 35 mm. Here, a slow tracking shot shows how the solemnity of a landscape is suddenly broken by the effects of an industrial fire extinguisher that produces a cloud of smoke and, in doing so, blurs the outlines of the overall vision and reveals the indomitability of nature.
This is the moment of entropy to which both Robert Smithson and much postmodern literature from as early as Thomas Pynchon resorted to convey a form of unstoppable evolution and also to serve the purpose of reconsidering the semantic worth of certain terms such as scrap, ruins, archaeological remains and abandoned, worn-out places.
Although, in one sense, the violence in Cyprien Gaillard's images embodies a strongly romantic component drawn from much 19th-century painting, in another, they also reveal their inevitability, as in the even more enigmatic case of The Lake Arches, a "portrait with ruins" in which two young men are filmed as they dive into the water of an artificial lake that soon proves a trap with a hard bottom and shallow water, and from which one emerges with a bloody nose.
The impact with the concrete of a generation born in the era of collapses is played out in the motionless and almost human presence of Ricardo Bofill's architecture which sums up all the postmodern expectations by revealing its obsolescence.
It is, perhaps, this bizarre mix and Pop vibrancy that struggles to emerge in the exhibition as a whole. Gaillard is not only the artist of historic ruins and geographies. He is also a response to a clear contemporary and anti-nostalgic vision, something that enables him, for instance, to pass from the Egyptian pyramid, the sacred tomb of the pharaohs, to a pyramid made of 72,000 Turkish Efes beer bottles — a splendid synthesis of the contemporary monument. There are the "aesthetics of resistance": gangs of rowdy hooligans in front of prefabs in Russian cities; drunk American tourists in the foreground of pictures of futuristic resorts built beside Maya ruins in the heart of Cancùn; and soldiers in uniform passing through the remains of the ancient legend of the "first city" Babylon and the legacy left by the war in Iraq.
If all this does not prompt a reflection on the future — and on what links us to its times and spaces — then we should question the value of an operation that, for Gaillard, also serves to identify ourselves as a part of society. An enquiry that is consumed here and now, adhering to contemporaneity wile being a part of it; and through what has been suggests visions and perspectives on what is. Martina Angelotti (@martinanji)
Through 16 December 2012
Cyprien Gaillard: Rubble and Revelation
Curated by Massimiliano Gioni
Fondazione Trussardi. Ex Caserma XXVI Maggio
via Vincenzo Monti 59, Milan