Cyprien Gaillard, Desniansky Raion, 2007, video still, 30:00 min video; image held here

In the ruins of failed Utopias there is one strong feeling: poignancy – the excess of the idea, the size of the hope, all but deflated and gone. Today of course the chance to feel this regret is not common; the post-Utopian world feeds on the fact that other ideologies have failed, the totalitarian infrastructures of hope replaced with the sieve of plural personal glories. Desniansky Raion by Cyprien Gaillard is a very fine work that offers us proof enough that the dislocation of weary, dead modernist aesthetics and Utopian ideology can be, and is, reinstated with belief and worth by young artists and that our pluralistic (innately postmodernist) culture can take delight in their ruins. The show is made up of a thirty-minute video work realised within the remnants of one idea of ‘Utopia’ as they are still to be found, with a series of engravings and a photowork in the adjoining room.

The video opens with Belgrade’s own town gate, a monumental building of odd, somewhat futuristic architecture speaking to us today of its own misguided or premature sense of supremacy. Belgrade happened to be my first experience of an ex-Communist country, of favelas on the edge of town, of huge motorways with a dearth of cars on them and planned apartment villages miles away from the original centre of the town (Nouvo Belgrade, where I lodged for a week). Then of course there were also the new personal assertions of freedom – huge black jeeps overtaking the decrepit trams and rusty Ladas, the twisted talk of nationalism, the pride in appearance. It felt like a long way to Utopia from Belgrade. It was this image of the Genex Tower, the Western gate of Belgrade, that greeted me when I walked into the vaulted warehouse space of Cosmic during the vernissage. I took my place on one of the benches as the image changed to a piece of wasteland, towerblocks in the background and a large gang of men, mostly dressed in blue with some wearing surgical gloves, assembling and ready for action. What followed was a rip-roaring experience of art: fun and high octane and not a little unsettling.

Cyprien Gaillard, Desniansky Raion, 2007, video still, 30:00 min video; image held here

When I was back in Ireland I hitched a lift up to Dublin off a friendly Polish truck driver who left me at Tesco’s large depot in north Dublin. I walked from there along a road that cut its way through some muddy fields until I reached Ballymun; a squad bike let loose in the fields surrounding the towerblocks, one or two horses, and a beautiful dearth of cows or sheep or tractors: the DMZ between the bucolic and the urban.  Ballymun was extraordinary in that it hoped to transplant a whole slice of Dublin’s demography to the outer edge of a city that at the time was stagnant, if not shrinking. It was a grandiose plan to give home to a people somewhere ‘in’ a city in a new manner, the new modernist habitat all the rage in post-war Europe. And it failed, like most of the rest. Luckily, the country can rectify the monstrosity once created, and they are relocating the denizens of the towerblocks to low rise, suburban housing with accompanying civic facilities. Ireland can do so due to the economic position the country has found itself, in thanks in part to a newer, much quieter, pluralistic Utopia, the EU. A country like the Ukraine is wallowing in the collapse of the USSR, trying (literally) half-heartedly to establish some sort of independent democracy free of Moscow. The people of Desniansky, an über-Ballymun on the edge of Kiev, would appear to have lost all but the personal determination needed to give themselves the freedom that the totalitarian environment they find themselves in cannot offer. I think it is this expression that unrolls in the first part of Gaillard’s work.

Cyprien Gaillard, Desniansky Raion, 2007, video still, 30:00 min video; image held here

To a haunting soundtrack, rising itself out of some unknown breakdown, the group of men, after offering their fists to the sky, march off up a hill, like warriors at dawn. We then see them marching, almost in two organised columns, down wide parade streets, the towerblocks ever present in the background. This would appear to be an army. When I first saw the piece, the strangeness of the images gave itself over to the allurement of the music. Something should be said about that: the music is a mixture of strings and electronica (performed by The Landsc Apes, taking their cue it seems from Mr Koudlam); with a low murmuring lament sung over it, it builds and drops and builds again and soon we see our gang in a parking lot; the camera is elevated and suddenly pans right into the sky for a moment, before dropping suddenly onto another motley crew, another army dressed this time in red. At the vernissage there was a palpable sense of surprise and anticipation when it suddenly became apparent what was going to happen: this was a standoff, this was an urban battle between the blue guys and the red guys with nothing but their fists, boots and bellies as their accoutrement.

Cyprien Gaillard, Desniansky Raion, 2007, video still, 30:00 min video; image held here

And as the music continues to build, the two groups march toward each other, the strings swooping, the front rows’ arms interlocked, one or two red flares rocket into the blue gang, the first volley…and then boom, they meet and the music drops a big phat beat and its all arms and legs and a dreadful sense of adrenalin and excitement and disbelief as what must be two hundred men trash it out for reasons unknown. What is exhilarating is also scary and uncomfortable; the reasoning I came up with was primordial, base and atavistic: the schoolboy delight in violence, the impassioned warmonger, tactical hatred for the enemy and naturalness in violence. It’s carnage, it’s great viewing. There is so much going on that it is hard to make out what is actually happening, the music thundering on, the odd beating on the fringe catching your eye. Then the scene turns on itself like the movement of a hurricane and the blue guys retreat – those that can. Cut to a bridge, to a last stand. The blue guys regroup in its centre, they are somewhat caged in; the red guys shape up and, when all ready, move forward into the compact space of the small bridge until boom, the music drops its beat again and its like two crackers smashing into each other, all trashing limbs and flailing uselessness. A boot through the air, another flare, a man climbing the cage-like siding, jumping down feet first into the opposing mob. The blues lose and run away and all that’s left are the cheering, victorious reds, and a whole lot of questions as to what just passed: who are these people, was it authentic, why did it happen? Ultimately though I’m uninterested in these questions; as a piece of footage, shakily shot and accompanied with the great soundtrack, the uneasy excitement it stirs up makes it successful in its own right as a visual testament to the bestiality of man and the search for expression when faced with a fundamentally dehumanized environment.

Belief in Man as the end and starting point of all things, the measure of the universe is one trace of the Age of Enlightenment that suffered a lot of criticism since the gas chambers of Nazism and Uncle Joe’s Gulags. When are man’s achievements too great that they outdo him and his individual puniness? The literature to the exposition opens with a quote from Diderot, one of the grand men who opened up reason for all:

«Il faut ruiner un palais pour en faire un objet d’intérêt.»

Cyprien Gaillard, Desniansky Raion, 2007, video still, 30:00 min video; image held here

This sentiment mostly points to the third part of the video, where one towerblock is the canvas for a large light display and firework display until it is lit from within, finally self-imploding spectacularly, again to a thumping soundtrack. But then of course a palace was for the few: Diderot’s palace was a Louvre or a Versailles, it wasn’t a municipal, high-density public palace: the enlightenment project of modernity wished man to fashion the world according to his abilities and capabilities, to stamp his mark in order for him to succeed in improving his lot all the more, to construct new Utopias for one and all. And Desniansky Raion shows, I feel, one end of that Utopian vision while at the same time answering that much-asked question of late (and indeed perennially) in visual-art discourse as to how visual-art practice can recreate or represent this Utopianism. Perhaps modernism did outdo itself, selling us all short, and this work does succeed somewhat in making an object of interest out of its sad, jaded and somewhat awe-full ruins.

And then lastly there are the engravings in the back room, taken from the series Belief in the age of disbelief, the title itself pointing to the further endorsement of those tired-out Enlightenment ideals. They comprise landscapes lifted from the seventeenthcentury with a towerblock dumped delightfully in their midst. I am not sure to what extent this helps making a palace out of the nasty style of the HLM, but it clearly speaks of what its wants to do: the choice of media, the black-and-white anachronism of engraving, the rural and the urban. It’s easy and it’s simple, its success showing the immense achievement of the video.

Cyprien Gaillard: Belief in the Age of Disbelief Les deux chemins au ruisseau / étape VIII, 2005, etching, 18 x 20 cm; image held here

Like an afterthought or confusing codicil, the last work is Remnant of fictive wars (Part 6), a photograph of Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty literally being blown out of the water: gravel having been replaced by exploding water. I couldn’t help feel as soon as I saw it that he had every right to destroy or ‘execute’ Smithson’s jetty of carefully transplanted and rearranged earth: Gaillard had just (in the last part of the video – a helicopter ride over the bleak, snow-covered Desniansky Raion nexus ) brought us over the odd, eerily organised blocks of Desniansky Raion, where one thinks of the pagan arrangement of dolmens or menhirs, or the ludicrous probability of defunct civil servants planning out on sheets of paper where and how thousands will live, the completeness of organised planning in all its soulless majesty, so that by the time I had sat through the full thirty minutes of the video with these bleak monuments and their fascist, favelado spectrum, I couldn’t help but see Land Art suddenly as a quaint disturbance far off on the horizon.

Cyprien Gaillard: Real Remnants of Fictive Wars VI, 2007, Lambda print, 100 x 150 cm, edition of 5; image held here

John Holten is a writer living in Oslo, Norway.