C’est Stuplime!

As Europe arms itself for war, Paris is preparing for the 2024 Olympics. Cyprien Gaillard captures the stupid and the sublime in our increasingly bewildering world.

Jacques Monestier, The Defender of Time (Le Défenseur du Temps), brass, lead, steel, speakers, microswitches, transducers, 1979, reactivated by Cyprien Gaillard, 2022. Installation view from Lafayette Anticipations. 2022. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Contemporary art is devoid of knights. But there one stands, in Lafayette Anticipations, with shield and sword at the ready, like a lost warrior from the past. From 1979, to be precise, when Jacques Monestier created this remarkable animatronic sculpture, Le Défenseur du Temps (The Defender of Time), an absurdist timekeeper that combines mediaeval chivalry with the philosophical tradition of existentialism. The knight battles against the passing of time, like Albert Camus’s Sisyphus, for Cyprien Gaillard has made a minor intervention so that the hands of the dial now rotate counterclockwise.

I get the urge to write a text that goes against all temporal directions, like a clock that has gone bananas. A true knight never gives up. But, now and then, even a knight has to admit defeat. Monestier’s automaton stopped moving in the early 2000s. Since then, it has hung abandoned on a house front in the Horloge district of Paris, gradually succumbing to the laws of erosion and the droppings from a colony of pigeons. It would have succumbed to oblivion, had it not been for Gaillard, archaeologist extraordinaire of the contemporary.

Cyprien Gaillard, Gargouille crachant du plomb (Gargoyle spitting lead)(stone sculpture from Courville originating from Reims Cathedral, removed after the fire of 1914), 2022. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Thanks to Gaillard, this monstrously beautiful automaton has risen from the ashes. Once more, the knight can raise his weapon against his eternal assailants: a gigantic dragon writhing around his cliff, a bird and a crab that attack him constantly. Every fifteen minutes, the spectacle begins.  The creatures beleaguer the knight from every angle, while he twitches, gets stuck, reactivates, starts wielding his sword, and gets stuck again, like Monty Python’s Black Knight shouting, “’tis but a scratch,” to the man who just chopped off his arm.

I stifle my laughter, so as not to disturb the other dazzled visitors. For the installation appears both sacred and silly, not to say stuplime, to use Sianne Ngai’s neologism which capture the stupid and the sublime of an aesthetic experience of something that is at once both tragic, comical, and bewildering. Here, the stuplime makes the clocks stop, literally. 

For the sublime has its limitations. Even Lyotard realised that when he criticised artists who tried to portray the Holocaust through sublime abstractions. By defining the Shoah as impossible to depict, we risk presenting it as something isolated and distant from us. Lyotard separated the sublime from the heroic by showing us its mundane, repetitive features. Hal Foster recently attempted to capture this in a lecture at the INHA in Paris, where he examined the relationship between the sublime and banality and built unexpected bridges between Hanna Arendt’s theories on the banality of evil and the banality of Andy Warhol’s serial soup cans. All in the hopes of discovering a utopian dimension to banality. What was it?This was still unclear to him.

In a world that is anything but banal, artists can also build bridges between the sublime and the humorous, between the heroic and the ridiculous. The knight is a warrior, and what could be more ridiculous than the real warriors of our time?But is that what Gaillard is after? To make us laugh at the passing of time? If so, he wants our laughter to get stuck in our throats.

Cyprien Gaillard, Love Locks, locks, plastic bags, 2022. Installation view, Palais de Tokyo. Photo: Timo Ohler

In one of his earlier works, The Lake Arches (Restored version) (2007–2022), featured in the part of the exhibition that is shown simultaneously at Palais de Tokyo, two young boys are seen diving into a lake. They re-emerge seconds later; one has a nose bleed. The lake was, in fact, a fountain. The camera zooms out, and the architect Ricardo Bofill’s retro-futurist skyscrapers that came to epitomise the French postmodern dys-utopian suburbs loom majestically against the horizon.

Gaillard’s melancholic slapstick humour may seem paltry, but here and there he ventures into darker moods. In the film Ocean II Ocean (2019), a reflection on the sedimentation of climate and time, an eye turns out to be a sewer, and in the hologram The Fireside Ange (L’Ange du foyer), 2019), the angel turns into a self-devouring monster. We are confronted with a cyclical concept of time and a perfect visceral image of humanity’s inability to be awakened from its fascination for destruction.

The world is preparing for war, but Paris seems impervious. People shop, dine, drink, and party as if they were living in the best of worlds. In 2024, Paris will host the Olympic Games. Preparations are in full swing, and Gaillard’s work at Lafayette Anticipations and Palais de Tokyo alludes to the city’s new construction work, entropy, and the gap between past and future. The double exhibition is named Humpty / Dumpty after an eighteenth-century English nursery rhyme that was popularised by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass (1871), the less-famous sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

Perhaps I should have mentioned the title at the beginning of this text, but my time is out of joint, just like Alice’s. As we all know, the verse is about an egg-shaped fellow who falls off a wall and is doing his best to restore his former condition, without succeeding: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

Cyprien Gailard, Frise 1, 2022. HD video on LED screen. Installation view, Lafayette Anticipations. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Humpty Dumpty is sometimes used to demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics, which is also a measurement of “disturbance.” The higher the entropy, the greater the disturbance; the higher the intensity of the thoughts, the greater the chaos in the design. The inability to put the egg together again after it was shattered is representative of this principle. For Humpty Dumpty, language is broken. Words can be made to mean anything. “The question is, which is to be master – that’s all,” he tells Alice, like a chief editor who decides the final contours of the work.

Could the knight be interpreted as Humpty Dumpty? A fallen master who has been put back together? Is it even possible to capture the time that has flown? No, and that is precisely what Gaillard seems to want to show us. At Lafayette Anticipations, he exhibits a photo of a friend who died in 2013. Underneath the photo are parts of the clockwork that were beyond repair. But here and there in the exhibitions are some morsels of hope, a word that has almost become grotesque.

Cyprien Gaillard, Formation, HD video, 2021, in the background, The Fireside Angel, holographic LED display, stainless steel base, 2019, in the foreground. Installation view from Palais de Tokyo. Photo: Timo Ohler.

I find it in the long video work Formation (2021), which stretches several metres along a wall in one of the semi-circular galleries at Palais de Tokyo. A flock of exotic birds with bright green plumage flies along the high-rise buildings of a shopping street in Düsseldorf. The work has a Hitchcock-like aura, repeated in the asbestos lumps placed around the exhibition. Asbestos, which means “inextinguishable,” has been banned as a building material since the 1990s because it causes cancer and various respiratory diseases. There is also a reproduction of a demon from the Amiens cathedral with asbestos stuck in its throat.

Gaillard’s works may sometimes be over-explicit and look like we expect contemporary art to look. But the important thing is not how his works are designed, but what they point at – and, sometimes, what they actually are: artefacts in time that future generations will look at with the same fascination that we have today when looking at a neolithic grindstone. Like Love Locks (2022), a few sacks filled with thousands of locks fastened by lovers on Pont des Arts, which caused parts of the bridge to fall into the river Seine in 2014. Love can build bridges, but can also apparently destroy them. How will future couples seal their love? Will there even be couples, or love?

On leaving Gaillard’s exhibition, which is an earnest reflection on our contemporary times, not just an entertaining commentary on them (like many presentations by older artists, who tend to transform their exhibitions into veritable amusement parks), I also have a lump in my throat. Melancholia flows through my veins, a mourning of all that disappears without causing a big commotion. Have I been poisoned by the asbestos? All I want to do is to race off to the next party, the next event that can help me forget the passing of time. But I hold back. I want to feel time pass, literally, aware that it will never return, and refrain from filling it with anything but the writing of this text.

Cyprien Gaillard, Formation, HD video, 2021. Installation view from Palais de Tokyo. Photo: Timo Ohler.