interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
photography by HEINZ PETER KNES
Cyprien Gaillard is one of the most sought-after multimedia artists of his generation. Raised between Paris and San Francisco, the 31-year-old Frenchman now lives in Berlin but spends more than half the year traveling, searching for inspiration and adventure in the form of destruction and decay — the remnants of failed utopias. His work ranges from a film of Russian hooligans beating each other to Polaroids of abandoned golf courses and sculptures constructed from the rubble of demolished housing projects. Disinclined to judge the places and subjects he portrays, Cyprien leaves space instead for interpretation, revealing an unexpected beauty in the midst of ruin. His largest museum show to date will open this December at MoMA PS1 in New York City.
SVEN SCHUMANN — We are here at your apartment. Is it true that you don’t have a studio?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I don’t want to start anything from scratch in a studio, because I think the world is so beautiful, there’s so much out there, that I’d rather start from something that already exists outside. Also, reality has surpassed any form of fiction. That’s why I don’t have a studio. This is more of an evolving archive. Nothing is made here, nothing is really created here, but things end up here. So a lot of material from my travels is here, a lot of artifacts, a lot of books, a lot of references for work.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You collect National Geographic?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — That’s the entire National Geographic stock until around 1995, basically when it started to become a bit ugly.
SVEN SCHUMANN — All the way back to 1888.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Yes, the photography is just so good. The quality of the reportage that they were doing at the time was so amazing. It’s the kind of magazine your father had. It was this prism that you looked at the world through. There’s also something very colonial about it. The way that the Amazon tribes are portrayed, but then you see it evolving to be more politically correct over the years.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Understandably.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Yeah, but there was no consciousness of these things back then. So it’s interesting to have them, and they happen to be the same color identity as Caterpillars, which I also use in my work and have pieces from here.
SVEN SCHUMANN — The bulldozers?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Yes, I’m very much fascinated by them. So here you have these two parts that are called teeth, like the teeth of an animal. And they’re the parts that you put at the extremity of an excavator. They are the ones that get used for the actual digging. It really looks like an African mask, it’s amazing. They’re all from this place next to Joshua Tree. It’s kind of a Caterpillar graveyard.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Your work is not really confined to one specific geographic area. How do you find these places?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Earlier, by foot, due to a lack of funding. I was living in Paris and looking at what’s outside the city. First I took small trips to a Modernist building or to a monument, and it kind of evolved to going to Easter Island or to classic archaeological sites.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You are on the road most of the year. How would you describe your relationship to travel?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I love the German word Fernweh. It’s pretty amazing. It’s nostalgia for travel, right? The longing for travel.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Yes, it’s the urge to go away. It’s kind of the opposite of being homesick.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I really like that word. I don’t know if there’s a similar word in English. I love this notion that I’m fully free and fully operating when I’m traveling. And, of course, I’m always looking for something. All my work can be read as a kind of search for a form of the sublime. I’m searching for that amazing landscape. I like to feed my eye constantly with things, with real things, not just the Internet. I want to see things for myself; the expedition is important.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you travel alone?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I often travel with people I barely know. Recent encounters, new friends who have a bit of time, eccentrics. I’ll be like, “Do you want to go on this trip?”
And then we’ll go to India for six weeks, and I get to know this person.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Does that ever backfire? Going on such a long trip with people you barely know sounds like a recipe for disaster.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — It hasn’t backfired so far. I’m looking for people who are good drifters. Drifting is basically what I do best. Which is kind of hard, because you have to forget your problems, you have to be ready to just open your eyes and kind of soak it in. And eventually it might become a piece. But a lot of times it doesn’t. Out of 10 trips, two of them will be relevant to my practice.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What do you always have with you when you travel?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I always have my film camera — my great Contax T2 — and a Polaroid camera. I love that with Polaroids the entire image is produced on site. It never goes to a lab; it never goes through a computer. No matter what, the Polaroid is linked to the place that it represents. Just like a landscape painting would have been done in the 18 th century. So to me they’re like fragments. It’s almost like I took a stone or a branch or an element from that place. There are a lot of Polaroids of places I’ve been where I’ve thought, “Fucking hell, no one’s going to believe me that this actually exists.” But the Polaroid speaks the truth, it tells you how it really is; no Photoshop is possible.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Are you ever disappointed after a trip?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — No. I’ve always managed to make the best of a situation. I’ve never had a trip where I thought, “Oh, this is terrible.” At the same time, I also go to terrible places. I spent a month on the north shore of Hawaii in a mega-resort drinking watered-down Mai Tais, playing video games for a week and looking at the 30-foot waves. And it’s just like, “What the fuck are you doing there?” I don’t know. There’s beauty in everything.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Your film Cities of Gold and Mirrors is about Cancún — drunk students on spring break, Mayan ruins, dilapidated Modernist buildings — but the film doesn’t seem judgmental. Do you even find a horrible place like that beautiful?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — With Cancún it was immediate, like love at first sight.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I traveled to Yucatán in my early 20s, but when I arrived in Cancún and saw what was going on I left within 10 minutes.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Yeah I know! And then you probably went to Tulum.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Exactly.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — But I’m more of a Cancún kind of guy. I owe it to my work. You either like Glasgow or you like Edinburgh — I like Glasgow. It’s harder, but you have to go and hold your position and just take it in. Even though Cancún is pretty much considered to be one of the worst places, I find it wonderful — it crystallizes so many things that I’m interested in, different layers of things that are negative. You have the ancient ruins, you have modern ruins in the form of decaying hotels that were built in the form of Mayan pyramids, and then you have people who are ruins themselves — they go into this kind of binge, this trance, almost like an ancient ritual of getting drunk and passing out. So my film is about that. It’s kind of mathematical I guess: minus and minus is plus. You combine these things together, and somehow you create a new dynamic.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Something positive.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — We kind of have to accept this anthropic situation and live with it. At the same time the film is fighting the idea of nostalgia. When you see these archaeological sites that are now stuck between a golf course and a resort, you think, “Is archaeology dead?”
SVEN SCHUMANN — But you don’t think that?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I’d rather say that archaeology has just expanded. The whole city is now one big archaeological site.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How much time did you spend there doing “research?” Did you take part in the Cancún rituals?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I went there when I was much younger. I didn’t go to university, but I went to spring break. I went there with some friends. I wanted to experience the whole tropical decadence of just being totally drunk and recovering the next day. Feeling so fragile and looking at these buildings and kind of understanding them in a way. Feeling like you’re recovering and this place is trying to recover, but there’s no fixing it. To me it all makes sense. The whole place is kind of an architectural hangover — something we regret that we did. Cancún is a key piece of my work and my travels because it’s where I integrated consumption and influences of alcohol in my work for the first time.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How much of your work since then has been influenced by alcohol?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — It’s defined a lot of the work that I did later on: alcohol in cities, alcohol and archaeology. Some of my ideas, as well as the energy that I have to do the work, come from either drinking or recovering from a big night. I like being hung over. The state that I find myself in the next day allows me to think a bit slower and question things. To put it in a Churchillian way, I have gotten more from alcohol than alcohol has gotten from me.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Sometimes when I’m hung over I’m practically paralyzed.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — See, I don’t have that. You know why it doesn’t happen? I just wake up and go outside and walk and stare at things. I think it’s how you manage it. You can’t regret it. It’s a bit childish if you do because to me it’s all part of the same thing. You shouldn’t neglect one part. You can’t get away with it either; you’re kind of paying your dues. So the next day
I want to reappropriate this. I want to make sure it goes in a loop, that this is again used to make the work.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Does the loop also involve drinking again?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Yeah, sometimes it does. I wouldn’t drink during the day. But I guess that depends…
SVEN SCHUMANN — If hangovers are beneficial to your work, is there a certain drink that you like because of the kind of hangover you get from it?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — No. It doesn’t go that far yet!
SVEN SCHUMANN — What is your drink of choice?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I guess beer. It depends. I try to go with a drink depending upon where I am. I’ll drink pisco down in Peru, Scotch when I’m in the Highlands, and wine when I’m in France. I try to drink local. The origin of the alcohol is kind of important at the beginning of the night but it fades away as the night evolves.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What does alcohol stand for in your work?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — It’s really important to me that people don’t think it’s anecdotal. A lot of these works that I’m doing using liquor as a reference, it’s just a metaphor for this constant acceleration — the one thing that is constant in our postmodern, post-postmodern world — and the impossibility of slowing down and living more at peace with anything. I am myself this person who is constantly unfulfilled, and that’s what drives me. But then again I’m an individual, I’m not a corporation, I’m not official.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How difficult is it to transfer a work that you’ve created out in the world, like your Cancún film, into a gallery or a museum space?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I hope that you feel in the work that it refers to an outdoor world and it arrives there as a relic somehow. A little bit like land artists who will do something, like a strong gesture or a work somewhere else, and bring back a document of that performance. It all happened elsewhere, and what you’re going to see is only a document of what happened. I really like that.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You once said that you would rather kill yourself than create an installation for a white cube. But then you kind of did that with your piece The Recovery of Discovery, a pyramid you built out of 72,000 beer bottles at the Kunst-Werke Museum here in Berlin. Visitors were allowed to drink as much as they wanted, slowly dismantling the pyramid until it almost completely vanished.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Yeah, that’s kind of true. But I refer to it more as a sculpture and a performance than an installation. If you saw it at the beginning, it was a perfect pyramid. For example, I could have gone to Cancún and recreated Coco Bongo (which is their biggest nightclub) within a white cube and staged a party there. This is a way that I wouldn’t use a museum. This is a way I wouldn’t work. To me the pyramid was clearly a sculpture, and then it vanishes into a kind of public mass performance. It’s just a proposal and then it’s torn down, torn to pieces by the viewers.
SVEN SCHUMANN — When I first heard about The Recovery of Discovery it was a couple of days after it had opened and a few of my friends had been there. Everybody was talking about it, because the Kunst-Werke is usually a sterile museum space and suddenly people were going there to get wasted.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — It would just turn into a riot every weekend when they were trying to shut down the museum. People who’ve been working at the museum for ages all of a sudden had to act like bouncers and try to get people out. Everyone was smoking and drinking, smashing bottles everywhere. The opening turned out to be insane. Three thousand people came, and it was open until very late.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What kind of people did it attract?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — There were high school kids doing the classic museum tour coming out drunk and their parents were like, “Where were you?” And they could say, “I was at the museum!” [Laughs]
But you also had people who had never stepped foot into a museum who started going to this museum — unemployed people, punks. I mean, if you had an unemployed card it was three euros instead of five to get in, and it was all you can drink, so you had people just staying there from the opening until the closing. Not even going to the toilet, passing out and waking up and drinking another beer.
SVEN SCHUMANN — That’s exactly what I witnessed. When I went the first time, I entered and on the left side there were these three bums sitting on the floor and they had their own little camp set up. One of them was so drunk that he failed several times to get up.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — And then he carries on. You know what I mean? Part of the sculpture is there with you the next morning. Everyone waking up the next day hung over having to deal with it. I love this idea that they carry on the work with them. I remember being in the basement of King Size [a small bar/club in Berlin] back in the day when everyone was doing coke there. One night people were doing so many drugs down there and the ceiling was just kind of peeling. There was a lot of dust and I couldn’t help thinking that when the people were inhaling this cocaine they were also inhaling part of the building. I thought that was kind of interesting, that they carry part of the city, part of the history of Berlin, in their lungs.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Was this idea only possible in Berlin? Not many cities are comfortable with people climbing a pyramid of shattered glass while getting drunk.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I clearly got this idea from spending time in Berlin and thinking, “That could be possible here.” It is a very open city in that sense, but I also went there a lot to speak to the staff. They were very stressed because there were underage drinkers, people pissing, breaking bottles, smoking. The smell! Toward the end of the show the smell was unbearable. There were times when I just couldn’t walk in. There was no daylight and it was never cleaned.
SVEN SCHUMANN — For three months?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Well, that’s not entirely true. One crazy story turned into a counter-performance. A group of 10 art students came with brooms and everything and cleaned. They weren’t taking anything out because they weren’t allowed, but they were putting it neatly in the corners. That was pretty cool.
SVEN SCHUMANN — One of my friends was offered a hand job on top of it, which I think says quite a lot about the piece.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Hah! That’s insane. I also really liked that people would throw their birthday parties there.
SVEN SCHUMANN — The cheapest birthday party ever!
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — It was amazing how the whole piece spread. One of the great things about Berlin is that people are available.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Because a lot of them have no jobs…
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I would rather think that they are just waiting for the night.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How did you end up in Berlin?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I came here because of the DAAD, a grant that I got about three years ago. I did the Berlin Biennale four years ago, in 2008. And Adam Szymczyk, who was the curator of the Biennale, called me up and told me that I got the grant. I thought, “Perfect. I’m moving to Berlin.” I’d been in Paris for so long, so I thought, “Let’s give it a try.” And I stayed because it’s just great.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Where do you consider home?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I got to travel early on, so home was always the here and now. From the beginning you kind of think, “Well, where do I go back to?” I’m French but was kind of raised in the US. I grew up in San Francisco. I guess my great luck was that I was never attached to a specific place. What I want is to keep on moving, not really live anywhere.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Your next stop is New York, where you will have a solo exhibition at the MoMA PS1 later this year. Are you excited?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Yeah, I’m excited. I’ve never had a show in New York, and it’s probably the biggest show I’ve done so far in terms of space.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What will you show?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I can’t really say. But there will be a lot of new works. It opens in December.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Come on.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I can say that I’ll make a sculpture out of bricks from demolished buildings, second-hand bricks so to speak. I’ve been really obsessed by bricks lately. I just like being in America. It’s like the heart of the cyclone! It’s destroying the whole world, but if you’re in the center it’s actually quite calm.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Have you ever lived in New York?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I’ve spent two or three months at a time there.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What do you like about New York? It’s a city that has something special for everybody.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Good friends, good architecture, like the amazing Tracey Towers in the Bronx, which are some of my favorite buildings by Paul Rudolph and are about to be torn down. They are these two towers that look like a medieval dungeon made of concrete. Jet-skiing on the Hudson River between the buildings is also great.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I didn’t know you could do that.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I also love being in Manhattan and looking at the shore of New Jersey. All of these high-rises built on the cliffs, and how obsolete they look. You can sense the fear the New Yorkers have of the America outside of New York.
SVEN SCHUMANN — A glimpse across the Hudson into New Jersey is a glimpse into the real America.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — It looks so dark, like medieval New Jersey. But these are the places across America where I really enjoy being, cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You’re only 31 and have already done more museum shows than commercial gallery shows, with this tendency continuing in New York as well as with a show in LA at the Hammer Museum early next year. Is that kind of institutional recognition more satisfying than the fast money of contemporary art?
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Of course museums have no interest in making a quick buck. I believe in slow growth. The interest in my work has grown so much in the past years that my way of protecting myself is in the choices I make — choosing shows and turning things down. Plus, I’ve always wanted recognition more than money. I was always searching for that, and I think a lot of artists are like that. I think money is just a by-product of recognition. You don’t order food in a restaurant because you want to take a shit, you know?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Recognition also means more attention from the media. You have been criticized for being too much of a pop star, for example.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I don’t do interviews for the sake of being famous. Press helps me to get my word out, to get more people interested, to gain a larger audience. Just because I’m in magazines doesn’t mean that I’m a pop star. I’d just rather speak for my work myself than let someone else do it. It’s just a way to have a following and I think that’s great. I think any artist would be lying if he said that he doesn’t care about people following his work.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I agree in most cases.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — I want to make work that is critical, but I also want it to be popular.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Like good music.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — Exactly! You can dance to it, but cry at the same time. That’s really important to me. What drives me is not to look at other artists, but to look at directors and architects or even advertising, to look at the kind of audience they have and the messages they are throwing out there. They’re feeding these kids with just garbage. A lot of films are shit, and it happens on such a huge scale. As artists we are in competition with other things, other creative spheres.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But it also has to do with the personality of the artist; not everybody can do that. You need to be outgoing.
CYPRIEN GAILLARD — To me it’s kind of a necessity. If you build a pyramid out of 72,000 bottles of beer, you need a crowd to come drink it.
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