The Beautiful End

In Cyprien Gaillard’s exhibition in Stockholm, the angel of fascism dances for an eternal and desirable sleep.

Cyprien Gaillard, Ocean II Ocean (installation view), 2019. Photo: Christian Saltas.

At first it seems ridiculous that Accelerator, the anticipated new art institution affiliated with Stockholm University, has chosen to show Cyprien Gaillard, one of the hippest ruin Romantics of our time. His circular works seem to criticise contemporary accelerationism, but what is Accelerator if not yet another institution to fuel a frenzied international art market? Yet, such a reading is all too facile.

Accelerator should actually be called Decelerator, as the konsthall invites the viewer to pause and deepen their understanding of an artist they might think they know, and at the same time gives that artist the opportunity to develop his or her work by connecting to the local context. That the institution is adjacent to a university and can thereby contribute to synergies between the diametrically opposed worlds of art and the academy is an added bonus. And who knows? Maybe Accelerator will one day employ Jean-Francois Lyotard’s thought of “spacing philosophy” and, like his legendary exhibition Les Immatériaux at Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985, try to eradicate the difference between art, science, and philosophy. Indeed, Gaillard’s exhibition and the accompanying events that have been organised in collaboration with Stockholm University can be seen as a step in that direction.

Why philosophy? Because in the subterranean gallery of Accelerator, Gaillard’s art emerges as Plato’s allegory of the cave. He had obviously been thinking about old Plato and the three stages of knowledge – shadows, fire, and light seeping in through the cave – when he chose to project the film Ocean II Ocean (2019) onto the large wall, an image of life’s shadow world; in the holographic sculpture L’Ange du foyer (Vierte Fassung) (2019), Max Ernst’s angel of Franco fascism flutters like dancing fire in the middle of the room, an image of consuming hatred; and last, but not least there is Woodland Cemetery Fixture (2019), a light fixture that Gaillard found in the Woodland Cemetery south of Stockholm, gesturing towards the utmost light source of ideas, death’s final reconciliation.

Let’s begin with the shadow world, the breathtaking Ocean II Ocean, shown at the Venice Biennale this year. The film is a twelve-minutes-long looped journey through civilisation’s wastefulness. Entering the room, I encounter subway trains sinking like submarines in the sea. The aquatic camera movement captures the eerie interiors of the subway cars, as well as fish, sharks, and a small turtle traveling through the cavernous train to music that sounds like a cross between Beethoven’s dramatic seventh symphony, Danny Elfman’s coldly naïve soundtrack to Edward Scissorhands,and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s violent contrasts of style. Suddenly, the ocean gives way to a gigantic eye that turns out to be a flushing toilet. Hallucinatory swirls of water become the spirals of fossilised seashells which appear on a subway wall somewhere in Moscow. Movements of people are contrasted with the ancient chronology of the fossil, which eventually reconnects the scene to freight cars in New York en route to their final resting place. The ocean. The fish. The turtle. The loop closes, as do my eyes, and I feel like sinking into an eternal sleep.

Cyprien Gaillard, Ocean II Ocean (installation view), 2019. Photo: Christian Saltas.

Is the circular nature of the film a critique of the linear postmodern view of history that put stock not only in the end of big narratives, but also the end of history, before 9/11 showed that Francis Fukuyama and the postmodernists were both wrong? What does Gaillard make of the art market’s rat race and its relentless contribution to environmental destruction? 

Those who have followed Gaillard know that he is good at aestheticising decay. He has always sought to upend the hierarchy between urban and non-urban ruins. Ever since he made his breakthrough with the work Recovery of Discovery (2011), a pyramid of Turkish beer crates, which with time turned into a ruin of social sculpture, he has worked in the borderland between iconoclasm and land art. And he has done so by way of a seductive entropy-Romantic aesthetic suffused with buildings overtaken by nature, DJ explorers (à la Indiana Jones), Flemish masters painted over, and nature-obliterating teargas. All in an unrelenting game with Robert Smithson’s famous “ruins in reverse.”

Cyprien Gaillard, L’Ange du foyer (Vierte Fassung) (installation view), 2019.

Gaillard isn’t only a master of aestheticising junk, however. He is also a master of extraordinary shifts in perspective. I’ve never seen a more stunning camera ride than that of the drone-controlled camera eye in his immersive 3D-film Night Life (2015). Like an ecstatic restless ghost, it hovers between Rodin’s thinker in Cleveland, swaying palm trees in Los Angeles, and fireworks over Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in an effort to capture the hidden story of the African American athlete Jesse Owens, whom the Nazis celebrated during the 1937 Olympic games. But what is the hidden narrative of Ocean II Ocean? What is the connection between tattered American train cars and Moscow’s subway? Between eyes and toilets? What brought down the world? The answer: Our fascination with the downfall. At least, that’s how I interpret the transition from eye to toilet drain, or rather, the eye that turns out to be a toilet drain. Our eyes are in fact pipes admitting a constant flow, without it ever meaning anything. It doesn’t matter whether we’re Fukuyama fanatics. The world ends for all of us because we’ve asked for it, and it does it again and again through our present version of Dante’s infernal funnel: the circle.

Gaillard is not a moralist, nor is he nostalgic. In his world, the downfall perversely becomes both beautiful and desirable. To paraphrase Denis Diderot, a palace becomes interesting only once it’s been destroyed. The same goes for planet earth. It will become interesting only once we’ve managed to destroy it once and for all. When we find ourselves in a sinking boat far out at sea, the only thing we can do is to set fire to it. It’s not for nothing that the angel of fascism is dancing to the shadow play of destruction.

But the end can also lead to a new beginning, to a way out of the circular demise. At least, this seems to be what Gaillard, in true post-accelerationist spirit, is suggesting. This exit illuminates the exhibition through the restored lamp from the cemetery positioned at the mouth of the cave, like an image of death’s final triumph. As JG Ballard once said: “It’s over. And that’s the best news we’ve had in a long time.”

Installations view from Cyprien Gaillard’s exhibition at Accelerator in Stockholm. Photo: Christian Saltas.