Nightlife is a 3D film made by artist Cyprien Gaillard using remnants of colonial history that can be seen in our contemporary landscape. This collision of sociopolitical realities gives rise to a stunningly beautiful narrative that unfolds to the accompaniment of words sung by Alton Ellis, one of the most expressive voices in the history of Jamaican music. Two versions of his song Blackman’s World are played on a loop, with the resigned refrain “I was born a loser” changing into the declaration “I was born a winner.”
Shot entirely at night over two years in Cleveland, Los Angeles and Berlin, the four-act work tells a story of revolution, resistance and resilience. Both poetic and historical, the narrative thread begins at the foot of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where the sculpture was partially destroyed in a 1970 bombing orchestrated by the militant political group known as the Weather Underground. The camera then transports us to Los Angeles, and a curious nocturnal dance of some of the city’s lush vegetation made up of exotic plants imported there for the 1932 Olympics. The film’s third segment is built around a slow, dazzling rise through the air: using a drone, the artist offers us a novel view of a fireworks event held at Berlin’s Olymiastadion, the site of the 1936 Olympics. The camera finally descends to an oak tree, now full-grown, received by Jesse Owens at the Berlin games and planted by him at the high school in Cleveland where the famous American Olympian trained. The subjects are linked together and flow along to the endlessly refashioned refrain, “I was born a loser / I was born a winner.”
The power of this immersive work stems from its ability to connect History and Nature, by repositioning us in our power relations with respect to those two elements. Presented several times since it was made in 2015, Nightlife is distinctive for its ability to engage us in a perceptual, critical and philosophical experience based on a telescoping of time. It reframes the scars left by historical events. Its beauty is born of the clash of realities.
Gaillard’s process is rooted in a visual archaeology based on the erosion of physical forms, social meaning and the historical gaze. With a keen interest in ruins, he focuses on the heritage and future of architecture, and the recurring nature of time. Born in Paris in 1980, he lives and works in Berlin. Winner of the Prix Marcel-Duchamp in 2010, Cyprien Gaillard is one of the outstanding artists of his generation.