Cyprien Gaillard: ‘Cities of Gold and Mirrors’ Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

“I, who have felt the horror of mirrors
Not only in front of the impenetrable crystal
Where there ends and begins, uninhabitable,
An impossible space of reflections”

—Jorge Luis Borges, Mirrors (in Dreamtigers)

History forgets. Obscures, revises, obliterates, but principally, forgets; forgoes, forges afresh: an histoire. What should be a deeply layered, patinated place, Cancún, the object of Cyprien Gaillard’s Cities of Gold and Mirrors, is no accretion of meaning, no accumulation of memory, no swimming vortex of Proustian reminiscences, nor even a synthesis, a synthetic space. It is a simulation of a place, a simulation of itself. And it is a perfect illustration of the mechanisms of history. The mirrors, the method; the gold, the motive.

Looming over the Mayan ruins at El Rey is a large brutalist hotel building. Crudely quoting the architecture of the ruins, it at once affirms their existence and negates them, implicating them in its own assimilative narrative and compacting history. (1) The ruins become an adjunct to the hotel, and what may have separated them is severed. US students on holiday for Spring Break drink Mayan-themed tequila in front of Mayan-inflected buildings and, far from transitory visitors, alien ‘others’, they are the occupants of this space. Its history is their history, annihilating and reconstructing in its own image.

The philosopher Jean Baudrillard argues that “our culture dreams … of an order that would have had nothing to do with it, and it dreams of it because it exterminated it by exhuming it as its own past.” (2) And this is what is happening here, in Cancún, Mexico’s ‘party city’: the past is recreated as a product of the present.

An entirely new city in the state of Quintana Roo, Cancún arose out of coconut plantations and fishing villages in the 1970s as an instrumental project to foment tourism in the region. Built around several Mayan sites, it functions as an augmented version of Mexico itself; of the tropes familiar as ‘Mexican’ to an outsider. Bizarrely, a simulated Mexico overlays ‘real’ Mexico; a perfect amalgam – the only price, however, that the ‘real’ is no longer locatable. This is a place at odds with itself because it has forgotten itself.

Cities of Gold and Mirrors refers explicitly to the Japanese-French animated television series Mysterious Cities of Gold, an adventure set during the Spanish invasion of South America. Acting as both cultural touchstone for Gaillard’s generation – and in that sense implicating himself – and consequently a demonstration of the process of historicisation, the series stands for conquests then and now: the revisionist history (a tautology, because history is by its nature revisionist, seeing again) of the conquest of pre-Columbian societies, and the conquest of the real.

“Disneyland is presented as imaginary,” Baudrillard writes, “in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” (3) In other words, Mysterious Cities of Gold spins an imaginative fantasy around a real history, but the history itself is no more real than the fantasy. As Noam Chomsky points out, “the story of Europeans in the empty New World “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.” The quote is from the standard high school textbook [at the time of the quincentennial celebration in 1992], written by three prominent U.S. historians.” (4)

This place is forgetful because it has to be. In order to exist as the only instance of itself, in which all other iterations of the place are redrawn as relative to one alone, it must acquire the past as an asset of its own. And this is very much about assets, about property, and it always has been. Just beneath the surface of Cities of Gold and Mirrors is a narrative which speaks of ownership and occupation: of land, of people, of history itself. The geographer and cultural theorist Denis Cosgrove has shown, persuasively, how landscape not only speaks of and for power, empire, conquest and occupation, but that after the conquest, after the slaughter, the occupiers tend to recuperate traces of indigenous settlers in their own image. Here, there are no Mayans, but there is Mayan tequila, Mayan hotels; the Mayan ruins have become the garden for the Mayan hotel — an adjunct to it, not its progenitor. It is no coincidence that the name of the hotel is ‘Dreams’. Sterilised, denatured, the pre-conquest civilisation walks once again in the service of its conquerors, who themselves march to the tune of the market.

The US national parks – the model, as Cosgrove indicates, for all national parks; indeed, for the idea of a ‘national park’ itself – removed all trace of native American settlements only to reinstate and repopulate their ‘authored’ wilderness once more with model native settlers. “While John Muir was discovering in Yosemite an American Arcadia in which to play shepherd and to meet his God,” Cosgrove writes, “America’s native peoples were engaged in the final death struggle for their independence. In this sense the national park and the Indian reservation are twin geographical expressions of the same process.” (5) Baudrillard too observes this: “Americans flatter themselves for having brought the populations of Indians back to pre-Conquest levels. One effaces everything and starts over. They even flatter themselves for doing better, for exceeding the original number. This is presented as proof of the superiority of civilization: it will produce more Indians than they themselves were able to do.” (6)

In the third section of Gaillard’s film, a member of the LA gang The Bloods performs a ritualistic dance on and around the ruins of El Rey. Whether he is claiming the site and activating it as the lone real element in the landscape – functioning perhaps as a symbol of the dispossessed and ahistoric – or is merely another mirage, another image; a simulation of a ritual on a simulated ritualistic site, is unclear. Perhaps he claims it precisely via a sense of disjuncture. (7) After all, as historian Mircea Eliade asserts, “even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world.” (8) Either way, the figure forms a counterpoint to the ritual of the Spring Breakers, themselves grimly re-enacting a ritual whose purpose has been forgotten. But it is landscape – space – itself which emerges as the actor here, as throughout the film; indeed throughout Gaillard’s practice, which follows a deep interest in landscape, architecture and ruin. (9)

Space is a witness, able to testify — but also to be silenced, to be bought. And the spectre of the market lurks in the wings throughout Cities of Gold and Mirrors: a market which sees cities rise and civilisations crumble. With the demolition of a mirrored building in the film’s penultimate section, though, it is as if the simulacra are raining down, the illusion shattered. The mirror as symbol is powerful not only in Baudrillard’s theses about reflexivity and simulation, but for Jorge Luis Borges too, in whose writing the mirror, able to reproduce at will, figures as homologous with that which is monstrous; his fear, that the mirror becomes us, that the reflected challenges the reflector.

The mirrors shattered and props removed, Cities of Gold and Mirrors ends in a space of pure simulation: an incorporeal, dislocated environment in which all reference to the real is gone, all meaning weightless. As the lights of the nightclub scan the void, perfect cones bisecting absolute black, the illusion falters momentarily and reveals the machinery of simulation: the gantries that hold the lights, the ceiling that holds the gantries. And the projector chatters away as the loop turns full circle, unspooling light into empty space and implicating us, too, in this game of doubles.


1. A comparison might be – given the context of this exhibition and series – Denys Lasdun’s ziggurats at the University of East Anglia, not least for their formal similarity to, and contemporaneity with, the hotel in Cities of Gold and Mirrors. However, where Lasdun’s ziggurats quote an ancient culture that was out of reach and impossibly exotic – so as to make its artifice clear and to function as a formal structure, not a fully-realised pastiche – the Mayan references in the architecture in Cancún are imposed directly on the original site itself. So direct and so immediate is the reference that there is no sense of remove. The same could be said of much ‘polite’, historicist architecture in general, of course, particularly the retrogressive designs of some house-builders which go to perverse lengths to deny their age and assimilate with Georgian or Victorian housing stock. The Prince of Wales’ Poundbury is perhaps the apotheosis of this simulatory architecture.

2. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p.10 (italics in original text)

3. ibid., p.12

4. Noam Chomsky, Year 514: Globalization for Whom? in Hopes and Prospects, p.16

5. Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision, pp.82-3

6. Jean Baudrillard, ibid., p.11

7. He stands for disjuncture, for rupture, in that as a member – presumably – of a marginalised community he is conceivably re-capturing territory originally ‘conquered’ by a hegemony which conquered him too.

8. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, p.23

9. Particularly Modernist architecture, with its appeal to a total environment and the creation of utopian spaces.


This essay was written to accompany an installation of Cyprien Gaillard’s film ‘Cities of Gold and Mirrors’ as part of ‘Apparent Positions’, a series of four shows I curated for the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. More information at >