Cyprien Gaillard

Text by Emma Enderby

The Land of Cockaigne, 2020 in the engraver’s studio © Cyprien Gaillard Courtesy: the artist and Berghain Photo: Max Paul

The Land of Cockaigne, 2020 in the engraver’s studio © Cyprien Gaillard Courtesy: the artist and Berghain Photo: Max Paul

Cyprien Gaillard presents us with what humanity leaves behind as it moves through time: obsolete modernist architectures, relics of industrialization, Mexico’s tourist destination Cancún, forgotten public monuments and artifacts, minerals, and material related to deep time and prehistoric life. The artist works within a range of media and subjects that are often united by the  connection between past and present through locality, or what happens in public space when politics, aesthetics, and ideology shape, define, and collage our shared landscape. The human is always present within his work—often, however, only in what is left behind through architecture, sculpture, and material. For this reason, the 18th-century concept of the ruin has frequently been associated with Gaillard. As writer Andreas Huyssen notes in his formative text Nostalgia for Ruins, “We are nostalgic for the ruins of modernity because they still seem to hold a promise that has vanished from our own age: the promise of an alternative future.”[1]

The exhibition HUMPTY \ DUMPTY, which takes place in two acts across Paris—at the Palais de Tokyo and Lafayette Anticipations—sits within this framework. While installed within an institution, the works take us outside, responding to the city itself, the cipher being Paris’s current major restoration for the 2024 Olympic Games. Gaillard presents us with the contemporary dialectic of the ruin. The “Authentic Ruin” as coined by Huyssen to describe the ruins of the 18th and 19th centuries is no longer possible in our late capitalist state, as he postulates, the “ruin of the twenty-first century is either detritus or restored age.”[2] This is the dialectic: the ruin itself is the restoration. Gaillard’s chosen title, HUMPTY \ DUMPTY, playfully responds to this notion—a symbolic, failed attempt at repair.

The title recalls Gaillard’s seminal video Nightlife (2015), which weaves image and sound together in order to observe the legacies of political resistance across time and space, their histories left to us through artifacts of modern history. The video opens with Rodin’s The Thinker, purchased for the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1917 when the city was one of the wealthiest places in America, and originally installed as a public artwork on the steps of the museum. Then, during the city’s dramatic economic decline in 1970, the radical left-wing group the Weather Underground Organization was likely responsible for the destruction of the sculpture’s legs by placing explosives beneath it. The only evidence left at the scene was “Off the Ruling Class” inscribed on the side of the remaining pedestal. The sculpture was never restored and left this way on public display, with then museum director Sherman Lee qualifying the decision in stating:

Cyprien Gaillard “HUMPTY DUMPTY” at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2022. Photo: Timo Ohler

Cyprien Gaillard “HUMPTY DUMPTY” at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2022. Photo: Timo Ohler

Cyprien Gaillard “HUMPTY DUMPTY” at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2022. Photo: Timo Ohler

Cyprien Gaillard “HUMPTY DUMPTY” at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2022. Photo: Timo Ohler

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put The Thinker back together again. But is it not even a more significant work, damaged as it is? No one can pass the shattered green man without asking himself what it tells us about the violent climate of the US in the year 1970. It is more than just a work of art now.[3]

Humpty Dumpty is an apt allegory, as nothing can undo the collapse of Cleveland. The sculpture represents the city’s fate, the harsh realities of its change scaring the green man. The Thinker sits between times and carries Cleveland’s history with it.

It is in this chaos, this flux, that Gaillard finds his interest: public space holds visual documents of time—buildings, sculptures, and places hold memories of use, trauma, and adaptation, and betray erosion and deformation caused by environmental or human forces. Time continues its process of form-making begun by the architect, sculpture, and public planner. This recalls Gaillard’s frequent referencing of Robert Smithson’s interest in dissevered timescales, and his theory of entropy as the inevitable and continual change or deterioration of systems, societies, and objects. Gaillard has been known to quote Smithson, quoting Vladimir Nabokov: “The future is but the obsolete in reverse.”[4] Our cities are palimpsests shaped and reshaped, demolished, restored, preserved, or redesigned. What Susan Sontag describes as the “involuntary collage-principle in many of the artifacts of the modern city,”[5] our places are collaged with memories and the intertwining of times.

The works within HUMPTY \ DUMPTY speak to this history of Paris. At Palais de Tokyo the first work you see in the show is a found sculpture—thousands of locks that have been removed from bridges throughout Paris sit in the bags in which they have been stored. These locks had been placed on bridges by lovers, and were taken away due to the potential damage they might cause. In sum they are a collective and unauthorized intervention within urban space between participatory public artwork and communal vandalism. Gaillard has also invited and borrowed other artists’ and artisans’ works, such as a stain piece by Daniel Turner rubbed on the gallery wall with metal dust taken from the elevator suspension cables of the Eiffel Tower now getting a facelift for the 2024 games. Gaillard has also melted asbestos removed during other restorations in the city into crystalline Cofalit paperweights and sculptures—the source for the monolithic Lafayette Anticipations sculpture is from the Palais de la Découverte, a science museum located within the Grand Palais and which is under renovation as captured in Gaillard’s video of a sandblaster on one of its staircases. The Palais de la Découverte’s collection holds a mineral display that interested Gaillard, and which speaks to our curiosity in the material history of the Earth, asbestos itself being a natural mineral dangerous once woken.

Gaillard’s interest in how the prehistoric is brought to the surface by humans and for humans is apparent in Ocean II Ocean (2019). In this video, he traverses public transport systems to explore deep time and humanity’s impact on the landscape. When the camera focuses on one-hundred-and-fifty-million-year-old ammonites embedded in the stone walls of Moscow’s subway stations, with the flickering of the trains passing by, we not only see Soviet-built public space, with all the ideologies it holds, but far beyond that to the history of the Earth. Time collapses within our urban environments, and here, in this subway, it is within the walls as a document in which world time is compressed as deep data. The soundtrack for the work is a steel drum orchestra, instruments traditionally fabricated from oil barrels and thus former containers of fossil fuels. The subways run on this energy, from the ancient fauna and flora crushed into the earth. The walls around the trains and the speed of the trains are thus intwined, telling a story of the rise and fall of sea levels, temperature fluxes, the ice age, the movement of the earth, and the reshuffling of geological strata by humans for our shared fascination and collective use of what comes from ancient earth. Gaillard points to the ambiguity between natural formations and artificial constructions and continues this line of inquiry with the found footage of decommissioned New York subway cars being dropped into the Atlantic Ocean by the Metropolitan Transport Authorities to become artificial reefs. They are taken back into the earth by the seabed and the world that lives there; in a sense this is a form of restoration, reestablishing, or reimagining what has been taken or lost.

When it comes to architectural or sculptural restoration, a conceptual framework is often followed by conservators. Lines are drawn between the “uniqueness” of a thing’s original state and what came after. Gaillard queries this divide, triggering us to question if time’s impact is perhaps integral to the understanding of the object, for what if this micro-archeology can tell us more about the world than its original state? Materials store information about time’s process. The environment in which an object lives is not static or timeless—it is highly specific, defined by political, social, cultural phenomena, with this history contained by the object itself. The Thinker is a perfect example, as are the de-installed gargoyles from the Cathedral of Reims, which Gaillard secured on loan for the exhibition from the Palais du Tau and created a new method for their display—hanging in space, freed from the plinths on which they usually sit. These gargoyles were damaged and removed from the cathedral following the World War I bombing and subsequent fire in 1914. Their waterways were filled with molten lead from the building’s roof, creating strange creatures that spewed a now hardened lead. Unlike The Thinker, the gargoyles no longer sit at their intended public site. However, they have been left on display in their changed state, and so hold the memory of a great war, of fire, as well as lead itself: the naturally occurring toxic metal found in the Earth’s crust, its once widespread use resulting in extensive environmental contamination.

Throughout HUMPTY \ DUMPTY, Gaillard brings an underlining division to the surface: what is cared for and restored in the public realm versus what is left behind. Sometimes what is ignored offers us a potential understanding of a decade and humanity’s role within it. In Gaillard’s work KOE (2015), which has been reshot and renamed Formation (2021) for Palais de Tokyo, the camera follows flocking, exotic rose-ringed parakeets through the city of Düsseldorf. The birds are not native to Germany but were brought over from Southern India originally as pets. The birds, which became common and therefore lost their exoticism, are no longer sold in pet shops. As Gaillard described it, they now live in a limbo space.[6] The birds have been left, not removed, and so bring the history of colonialism, imperialism, migration, and fashion into the fabric of the city, highlighted by the fact that they mainly live on a luxury retail street—economic wealth cannot be detangled from a colonial past.

What is done and what is left undone within a city landscape also highlights a wider value-driven collective consensus, one that speaks to an understanding of urban renewal as a microcosm of broader international debate, and how our experience is defined by social, political, and economic forces. Of course, the Eiffel Tower is repainted every seven years, and is receiving extra special treatment with the upcoming games, but other public monuments, perhaps in liminal spaces or outside economic frameworks or away from the public’s interest are left, going unnoticed and disappearing in the collage. Gaillard borrowed two such objects for this exhibition: Käthe Kollwitz’s Mutter mit zwei Kindern (1932–36), which usually sits somewhat unceremoniously outside the Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum in Berlin, Charlottenburg on a makeshift low brick plinth, and the other, Paris’s Le Défenseur du Temps, a clock. This latter work weaves together motifs within Gaillard’s work—a preoccupation with time, public art, restoration, and materiality—and is installed as the central artwork within Lafayette Anticipations. The sculpture’s usual location is on a quiet backstreet near the museum. The fantastical automaton clock created by Jacques Monestier in 1979 was designed to spring into motion every hour from 9am to 10pm when a brass warrior swings a sword at a crab, a bird, and a dragon, and at noon, 6pm, and 10pm, when all three animals attack the warrior simultaneously. This colossal object, however, stopped working in 2003, decommissioned due to a lack of funding for maintenance, and not considered in the recent push for restoration sparked by the Olympic Games. Gaillard relocated the clock to the museum, after he arranged for its dismantlement and restoration by PRÊTRE et Fils, master clock conservators in Besançon, however, choosing not to return the clock exactly to its original form but let part of its history, visible on its surface, remain. The clock—made of steel, brass, and gold leaf—was covered in detritus, such as soot and bird excrement and weathered with age. While this has been removed from most of the sculpture, the warrior remains untouched.

Gaillard shows us that all material surfaces are sensors, what Gilles Deleuze called a “diagram”—the active and living relationship between exterior forces and inbuilt material properties. The environmental forces impressed upon an object do not cause a perceivable linear change but are aggregate and indecipherable—the past appears to us on objects as fragments, as material ruin. In Gaillard’s restoration of Le Défenseur du Temps, 1979 and 2022 sidle up next to each other, with all the years in-between, collapsing the two moments in history. Time is also played with in other aspects of the sculpture. While restoring the mechanics of the clock to have it perform during timed moments in the exhibition, Gaillard also created a soundtrack for its activation. The battles are accompanied by songs released in 2003, the year the clock held its last battle, but just the lyrics, creating a sense of jamais vu, where the familiar becomes unfamiliar, strange. The clock itself has also been interfered with for the exhibition so that it moves backwards, counterclockwise—its function of telling the time made obsolete. At the close of the exhibition, Le Défenseur du Temps will be returned to its public location, back to moving clockwise and once again disappearing into the urban landscape, but with a new history attached to its material.

The clock is something between public artwork and design-oriented municipal tool, what historian Miwon Kwon terms “art-as-public-spaces,”[7] where the works function within the landscape, not outside of it, as opposed to sculptures that have no functional use and appear as discrete sculptures in urban landscapes, making a stark distinction between art and public space. For Gaillard, “art-as-public-space,” and an interest in philosopher Walter Benjamin’s writings on the slippages between an everyday and aesthetic experience that manifests in the cityscape, has informed his approach to the making of public art.

In collaboration with Andro Wekua, Gaillard installed a two-person public bench in a skybridge in the main Soviet-era housing complex in Nutsubidze, Tbilisi. The bench quietly slips into the landscape, and for many is likely not seen as art, but as a space to rest, meet, and talk. Others might notice its unique location, or its materiality. Made of diabase, a rich green with golden veins of subvolcanic rock, it is distinguished from the concrete, modernist location. At the edge of Taunusanlage Park in Frankfurt am Main, is another public artwork by Gaillard: Frankfurter Schacht (Frankfurt Shaft, 2021). The park, situated between Frankfurt’s financial and red-light districts, is in part a sculpture park where monuments and sculptures are almost forgotten, seemingly rarely visited as art but which form just another fixture of park life, their bases covered with detritus: cans, cigarette buts, needles. Gaillard pushed against the tendency to add just another sculpture, instead creating a work that does not announce itself as art but integrates into the landscape as some sort of grey municipal shaft, an anti-monument. However, like the bench, the shaft also serves. If you pull open the structure’s unlocked door, the interior reveals itself as an onyx cylinder, a beautiful, quiet enclosure, which is also a functioning urinal. It is a place of release. In another communal toilet, this time in Berlin, is another quiet work by Gaillard. Engraved directly on the door of one of Berghain’s toilet cubicles is a curious scene: a version of Bruegel the Elder’s The Land of Cockaigne (1567), which portrays three men—a peasant, a clerk, and a soldier—sleeping off the excesses of overconsumption. The work, Land of Cocaine (2021), was originally commissioned as part of an exhibition, when the club was not in use due to the pandemic, but remains there as a permanent installation. Public toilets are used to being canvases, new layers are inevitable—texts, images, drawings—for those that use them. When reinstated as a club, Gaillard’s work stops functioning wholly as art and becomes just another surface that will undoubtedly change and be changed. The artist understands that public space does not condition a viewer for art’s reception or recognition, and so refuses to even try. It is the situation and place that remain fundamental to the artist’s framework, integrating his sculptures into the existing function of the location, under the flag of public art. They are defined by their location and provide the frame to understand them—they interrogate site.

Just as Gaillard is attracted to Smithson’s ideas on entropy, the exhibition HUMPTY \ DUMPTY resonates with Smithson’s dialectic of “sites” and “nonsites,” a theory centered on the interaction of outdoors and indoors, place and displacement, dispersed and contained, natural and built. By pulling the outside in, Gaillard weaves together the fragmented histories found in our cityscapes and shows us how memory and matter are intrinsically linked. Through exploring matter’s change, be it by nature or restoration, Gaillard establishes a relationship between people and things, and presents us with a world where geological, environmental, and cross-generational histories are knowingly or unknowingly weaved into our everyday lives. For Gaillard, the past is always stalking the present.

View of Le Défenseur du Temps being dismantled for restoration by PRÊTRE et Fils for Cyprien Gaillard’s exhibition HUMPTY \ DUMPTY, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris, 2022 Photo: Max Paul, 2022

View of Le Défenseur du Temps being dismantled for restoration by PRÊTRE et Fils for Cyprien Gaillard’s exhibition HUMPTY \ DUMPTY, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris, 2022 Photo: Max Paul, 2022

View of Le Défenseur du Temps being dismantled for restoration by PRÊTRE et Fils for Cyprien Gaillard’s exhibition HUMPTY \ DUMPTY, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris, 2022 Photo: Max Paul, 2022

Frankfurter Schacht, 2021 Courtesy: the artist and MMK Frankfurt am Main Photo: Timo Ohler


Andreas Huyssen, “Nostalgia for Ruins,” Grey Room, no. 23 (Spring 2006): 8.


Huyssen, “Nostalgia for Ruins,” 10.


Quoted in David Norr, “Fragment. Fidelity: Cyrpien Gaillard’s Nightlife,” in The Infinite Mix: Contemporary Sound and Image, exh. cat. (London: The Store and Hayward Publishing, 2016), 102.


Robert Smithson, “The New Monument and Entropy,” Artforum 4, no. 10 (Summer 1996): 26.


Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin Group, 1961), 270.


Cyprien Gaillard in an email to the author, September 2022.


Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 60.

Cyprien Gaillard
Text by Emma Enderby

CURA. 39
Are We Eternal Beings?
Fall Winter 22-23

Cyprien Gaillard (b. 1980, Paris, France; lives and works in Berlin). He received numerous prizes such as Arken Art Prize and Award for Best Experimental Short Film, Melbourne International Film Festival (both 2016), Preis der Nationalgalerie (2011), and Prix Marcel Duchamp (2010). Selected solo exhibitions include Fondation LUMA, Arles (2022); Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2021); Museum Tinguely, Basel (2019); K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2016); MoMA PS1, New York (2013); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2013); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2011); KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2011). Significant group exhibitions include Fondation Carmignac, Porquerolles (2022); Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki (2022); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2021); Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2020); 58th Venice Biennale (2019); 13th Biennale de Lyon (2015); 54th Venice Biennale (2011); Gwangju Biennale (2010); and 5th Berlin Biennale (2008).

Emma Enderby is a curator, writer, and lecturer of modern and contemporary art. She is currently the Head of Programs and Research, Chief Curator at Haus der Kunst, Munich. Previously, she was the inaugural Chief Curator at The Shed in New York, and worked as a curator for the Public Art Fund, NY and the Serpentine Galleries, London. She also worked in exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Whitechapel Gallery, as well as in Public Programs at The National Portrait Gallery, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.