David Gray in Iraq

Nothing to remind us of the end of civilization quite like a luminous, washed out, endlessly repeating loop of David Gray singing the title word of his hit song "Babylon."

"Artefacts" (low-quality excerpt), YouTube user concretezen

At the center of Cyprien Galliard's show at MoMA PS1 is a 2011 piece called "Artefacts." In it, the 32-year-old artist-documentarian (famous for his film "Desniansky Raion") takes over a large dark room to project languid washed out clips of contemporary Iraqi. There are shots of its abandoned buildings, hands holding up pieces of ancient artifacts found in the sand, camouflaged figures patrolling with machine guns, green laser beams on broken walls, all flickering out of a giant 35mm film projector that sits at the other end of the room like a disused weapon. 

These are interspersed with video of the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate that King Nebuchadnezzar II ordered for the inner city of Babylon in 575 BC. Once one of the world's fabled wonders, and made of blue-glazed brick with rows of golden, bas-relief chimera and wild cows, it was unearthed by German archeologists in the 1930s and sent to Berlin, where its lived, at the Pergamom Museum, ever since. The anodyne gallery walls provide an uncanny milieu for the ancient wonder, which is sort of the key to the whole work: everything eventually comes to an end, if not subsumed by sand then homeless under halogen track lights.

The score is the haunting lynchpin: a luminous, washed out, endlessly repeating clip of David Gray singing the title word of his hit song "Babylon." As the placard on the wall reports, the song was played by American soldiers at loud volumes for military prisoners as a form of torture. (Music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails and Rorschach also shares this distinction.) "We'll see how it goes," a museum guard, a young woman in large librarian-style glasses, told me on the first day of the piece's installation. She reported that last year, another artwork, which featured an incessant loop of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah," had pushed a number of museum staff into a kind of delirium. 

But there was another level of intrigue here, she acknowledged: the 35-mm film playing through the giant projector was slowly decaying, in postmodern, melancholic fashion. The film and the music are on a permanent fade-out, locked in a slow death spiral. It's fitting that the footage was all originally shot by Galliard on his iPhone, as if to say, this is what HD, 21st-century triumphalism looks like when it hits the ground, at the end of many other centuries.


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