Cyprien Gaillard: Cities of Gold and Mirrors

Art House at the Jones Center, a contemporary art space in Austin, just reopened in a brand new building designed by New York based architects Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis. By far the most stunning of its six inaugural shows is Cities of Gold and Mirrors, a film by the young French artist and recent recipient of the Prix Marcel Duchamp, Cyprien Gaillard.

Art House at the Jones Center. photo by Michael Moran

Cities of Gold and Mirrors is filmed in 16 mm in Cancun, a city that was developed by the Mexican government as a tourist resort in the 1970’s. The film combines scenes that document radical and uncanny culture clashes. We see buff, barechested American college students in a palm studded park chugging bottles of Tequila which are emblazoned with Mayan iconography on their labels. We see dolphins idly swimming past Brutalist architecture and a gang member dressed in bright red, bandanas covering his hair and face, performing a ritualistic dance in the ancient El Ray ruins that sit on the edge of this hedonistic Mecca.

Cyprien Gaillard. Cities of Gold and Mirrors, 2009. 16mm film transferred to video. Courtesy of the artist and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London.

The film also takes us through the interior of one of these contemporary spaces, empty of people and covered in vines. It is unclear if we are watching a modern ruin, abandoned and overtaken by greenery or if the plant life is yet one more decorative trope meant to evoke the tropical ecology of this beachside resort.  Finally, a shiny example of steel and glass architecture (a genre that the artist Dan Graham has warned is emblematic of a culture of corporate surveillance) implodes into a pile of dust.

Cyprien Gaillard. Cities of Gold and Mirrors, 2009. 16mm film transferred to video. Courtesy of the artist and Laura Bartlett Gallery, London.

Using architecture as a model to track competing cultures and their impotence in the face of the ravages of history, Gaillard concocts an ominous image. At some points within the film it seems as if the dolphins and vines that hover around the ridiculous behavior of drunken cultural imperialism and the Mexican complicity with the artifice of this resort are the only ones who will survive. The soundtrack that repeats through each scene is from the 1980’s TV show Mysterious Cities of Gold which is about Spanish Conquistadors. By evoking the rise and fall of Mayan, Spanish, Mexican and American influences on this site, we see and feel both the power of greed and the certainty of its eventual demise.

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