Cyprien Gaillard: 'Beton Belvedere' and Dunepark

Esperanza Rosales

Reviews / 16.04.2009
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'Beton Belvedere', the first retrospective of Cyprien Gaillard's work in the Netherlands (curated by Zoë Gray), groups together a selection of the artist's works from the past four years that illustrate his interest in Modernist ruins and the destruction of post-War architecture. Along with the site-specific work Dunepark (2009), the exhibition is part of Stroom Den Haag's 'nu monument' programme, which addresses different forms of historical remembrance in relation to monuments and buildings in the public sphere.

For Dunepark, Gaillard excavated a former Nazi communications bunker buried in the sand outside The Hague. The bunker had been built in early 1943, during the German occupation of the Netherlands, as part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall, a system of defence against an Allied invasion. After the war, the bunker was simply buried under the sand - covering it was a less expensive option than destroying it.

Situated approximately one kilometre inland from the sea, the bunker overlooks the residential community Duindorp, and beyond, the North Sea and coast. On the day the excavation was opened to the public, a few hundred visitors gathered on and around the bunker and took turns climbing the fortification to take in the view from the gun deck. As children rolled playfully down the slopes, a mixed crowd of revellers formed small groups along the bunker and the dune's sandy banks. The excavation became a site and set for an unscripted performance of viewing, gathering and pleasure, like a scene playfully staged and unknowingly acted out in the landscape. Gaillard's gesture of recovery gathers a public around the disused building's site, calling to mind Gordon Matta-Clark's concept of a 'nonument', a contemplative detournement from the notion of the monument.

Like Matta-Clark's Food Restaurant (1971-73) and Tree Dance (1971), Gaillard's work re-engages with no longer occupied historical sites (and in some cases engages with sites that have never been occupied by a public) through presence and performance. The bunker in Dunepark and Gaillard's recurring motif of the post-War housing block, which was a key element in many of the works included in the Stroom Den Haag exhibition, are positioned as buildings to be made use of in the present, not the past. Gaillard's interest in the visual landscapes offered up by these Modernist relics proposes historical sites and structures as catalysts for Romantic collectivity - as places where the experience of Land art and architectural ruin meet to form a new kind of community engagement.

In one of Gaillard's previous video works, Desniansky Raion (2007), gangs run wild in the courtyard of housing complex outside St. Petersburg. Later in the film a lightshow is projected onto a condemned Parisian housing block, which detonates and collapses during the firework display's dénouement, while the third and last section of the film shows buildings in a suburb of Kiev, which Gaillard recorded from an illegally chartered plane. The work contains an element of lawlessness, and demonstrates the sites as spaces of potential that become newly available for use.

This project of rescue and recovery of condemned buildings is strongest when it offers accessibility in place of critical reflection. Unlike Michael Heizer's ongoing City (1972- ) project, an earth work located in a desert valley in the US state of Nevada - which, as one of the largest sculptures ever made, is also one of the most inaccessible and remote - Gaillard's work calls up new communities within urban centres, who take up and take over pre-existing structures. Though mourning may seem an integral part of his practice (see, for example, View Over Sighthill Cemetery, 2008) Gaillard's fixation on the destruction of Modernist buildings stems, he says, from an interest 'not so much in the (loss of the) architecture as the landscapes they generate'.1 His work frames these landscapes as complex sites of both loss and potential, that can be reused, not simply 'remembered' or consequently destroyed because of their symbolic status of failed purpose or of socialist ideologies that have waned, been rejected or fallen out of fashion.2

In 'Beton Belvedere', as in Dunepark, Gaillard's work indulges in the inevitable appeal of things that are falling apart. The work presented here, speaks of loss, of cities and landscapes disinheriting their formal integrity in an entropic process. They also suggest the 'commonality of this loss, endlessly played out in the heart of a city, that is at the heart of the modern itself', as Pamela Lee has said about Matta-Clark.3 The exhibition's title refers to the concrete balustrade (béton is the French word for concrete) of the bunker's weapons emplacement, which as the uppermost section of the bunker was the only thing left exposed during its 64-year entombment. With his gesture of uncovering the bunker, Gaillard reclaims a platform for viewing the landscape, recovering the potential of the site that lay buried beneath the sand.

At Stroom, visitors to the space were greeted by the flicker and noise of the film Real Remnants of Fictive Wars (V) (2005), running loudly through a projector. The looped film shows a quiet smoke scene unfolding on an otherwise empty lawn, and each consecutive viewing impresses more streaks and scratches onto the film, in keeping with one of the artist's consistent interest in entropy.

In Gaillard's series of etchings Belief in the Age of Disbelief (2005), tower blocks incorporated into traditional seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes by Rembrandt and Jan Hackaert intermix with pastoral settings. In The New Picturesque (2007), meanwhile, swathes of white paper with sections torn out isolate and expose sections of paintings reproduced on postcards. The 'new' picturesque is presented here as a fractured image, as the potential for beauty contained within the fragments of a whole.

For the large-scale photograph La grande allée de Château de Oiron (2008) Gaillard covered the gravel path leading up to a Renaissance castle with the demolished remains of a former housing block transplanted from the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, in reference to the chalk or gravel paths used in French cemeteries and gardens. In Real Remnants of Fictive Wars (Part V), veiled within the landscape by a picturesque arrangement of trees, Gaillard and friends release a number of fire extinguishers. Filmed at a dreamlike 32 frames per second, the resulting cloud of smoke expands in a graceful sfumato that lingers like the trace remains of battle on the field in a historical drama. The exhaust dissipates slowly, at times concealing and revealing trees, while the freakish absence of men suggests the 'ghostly sentiment of a living presence', an observation that was once made about Piranesi's etchings.4 With the players in this fictive battle hidden from view, the event that takes place on the lawn suggests the theatrical presence of an unseen dramatis personae - a gang-like company of players represented by the smoke that is seen in their corporeal absence.

The community Gaillard's works gather might be best described as a generation eager to rid itself of ghosts, or at least eager to present itself as capable of reoccupying the spaces claimed within haunted or historically loaded structures. His shared interest with Matta-Clark in the afterlife of buildings fated to die proposes entropy as an endless cycle of things being destroyed or falling apart in order to be re-built or re-imagined. It suggests the potentiality of a shift in thinking about life amongst ruins and memorials.

In Gaillard's work, entropy is proposed as creative cycle, one that produces something new for everything that it breaks down. The presence of a new community gathered by the appeal of lawless inhabitation and re-engagement that considers unwanted, abandoned sites and buildings anew, hints at an open question about what and how a community might build through things that are broken down.

The excavated bunker at the centre of Dunepark will be buried again in three weeks, and remain that way, hidden from view, for an untold length of time. For a practice rooted in such entropic endeavours, such loss can only be gain.

- Esperanza Rosales

Footnotes
  1. Statement from the artist, included in the exhibition press release.

  2. A good example of this, and one parallel to the position Gaillard takes in his work, is the debates in unified Germany about the destruction of DDR buildings. When it was announced in November 2003 that the Palast der Republik, the old East German Parliament building in Berlin, would be torn down so that a replica of the Prussian-style Berlin City Palace that previously stood in its place could be rebuilt, a generation of young Berliners protested and took over the empty building - which had been disused for 15 years - staging various interventions, artistic and otherwise. Their actions did not prevent the building's demolition, but populated the abandoned building in the years the years before it was torn down.

  3. Pamela M. Lee, Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001, p.209.

  4. Greg Peters and Connie Peters on the art of Giovani Battista Piranesi (last accessed on 14 April 2009). As a counterpart to the exhibition, 'Beton Belvedere' includes eight etchings by the eighteenth-century Italian architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose elaborate, near Futurist depictions of urban decay and theatrically rendered scenes of the crumbling façades of the buildings of ancient Rome link Gaillard's practice to the Romantic and Neoclassical fascination with ruined landscape. This description of the ghostly, in relation to Piranesi's works, best describes the element of haunting or historical memory associated with the sites Gaillard makes use of and refers to in his works.