The Recovery of Discovery

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Cyprien Gaillard, The Recovery of Discovery, installation views, KW Institute for contemporary Art, Berlin, 2011

The Recovery of Discovery is a 2011 exhibition at Kunst-Werke Berlin by French artist Cyprien Gaillard. Consisting of a single large-scale installation of a pyramid of cases of beer in the sky-lit main gallery space at Kunst-Werke, visitors to the exhibition were invited to climb the stepped array of the stacked boxes, use them for seating, and to freely open and consume the beer contained inside.

The installation was on view for two months,[1] during which time the pyramid, initially totaling 72,000 bottles, was gradually torn apart, consumed, and its debris, including shattered glass bottles, left scattered throughout the gallery space.


Gaillard used imported Efes beer for the installation, a brand favored among the large Turkish immigrant community in Berlin.[2] The brand is named after the modern Turkish name for the ancient city of Ephesus, built by the Greeks in Asia Minor (the western coast of Anatolia, in present-day Turkey).

The artist has spoken about his intention to juxtapose the accelerated ruination of his pyramid over the course of its exhibition run with the ancient architectural ruins it is in part making reference to. The exhibition's press materials specifically cite the Pergamon Altar,[3] on permanent view close to Kunst-Werke on Berlin's Museum Island, as a reference point for Gaillard's installation. The Altar was constructed in the first half of the 2nd century BC in Pergamon—like Ephesus, a Greek city in Asia Minor. Excavated by German engineer Carl Humann in the 1880s, the architectural fragments that make up the Pergamon Altar were removed from their site in present-day Turkey and relocated to Germany, where Italian restorers reconstructed the monument in a purpose-built museum that first opened in 1901. The huge altar structure is famous for its 20 meter-wide stairway, the steps of which have been a popular spot for visitors to the museum to sit, rest, and take photographs.

Gaillard's installation seeks to promote a corresponding public interaction with his own stepped installation, drawing visitors into a perhaps unwitting relationship with the history of displaced monuments, as he also interweaves that history with that of the contemporary displacement of Turkish guest workers in Germany, and the imported goods of a globalized economy.[4]

Violence from above and below

In a conversation with the exhibition's curator,[5] Susanne Pfeffer, in a publication accompanying the installation, Gaillard has addressed the work's reference to the appropriation of cultural monuments by colonial powers, and the vexed issue of repatriation and restoration. The artist remains equivocal on the issue, acknowledging the value of preservation that often goes along with relocation to museum contexts. Gaillard additionally highlights the futility of the search for an authentic experience of ancient architectural sites—the desire to look at 'the original' is oftentimes fruitless, given the extent to which historical context and overzealous attempts at reconstruction mean we can only be looking at a highly altered object when we view monuments in-situ.

Pfeffer cites the writing of German art historian Martin Warnke,[6] and his distinction between the idea of vandalism "from below" and "from above" in the context of the destruction and restoration of monuments. If vandalism from below is characterized by a blind destructive mania without a specific purpose, vandalism "from above" can frequently take the form of restoration, conservation and urban planning. For Pfeffer, The Recovery of Discovery’s self-destructing monument engages with each of these impulses, and even suggests their mutuality.[7]

Drunkenness, sovereignty, and instability

Gaillard has related anecdotes about being hungover on foreign trips, and standing looking at a ruined monument as he, himself, felt 'ruined'. He has discussed the role of alcohol and intoxication in The Recovery of Discovery, specifically relating the effects of alcohol on body and mind to the destruction of the initially-perfect form of the pyramidal stack of beer cases.[8]

The artist notes the frequency with which alcoholic beverages are branded with gold-embossed crowns and named after kings, gods—or in the case of the Efes beer imported for The Recovery of Discovery, after an ancient city manifesting a once golden age. Gaillard identifies the tendency with a kind of 'sovereign subjectivity' of drunkness: feelings of well-being and command over one's place in the world, that can so quickly flip toward aggression or loss of control when over-intoxicated.[9]

Hal Foster has elaborated on this instability in writing on The Recovery of Discovery. Initially noting the potential antagonism of a publicly-funded arts organization spending 40,000 Euro on 72,000 bottles of beer for an art installation (at a time when German tax payers were balking at the idea of bailing out Greece through the EU), Foster goes on to elaborate:

"the nasty remains of the installation did not present a rosy idea of community. For foregrounded here was not so much the irreducible antagonism in the social that relational aesthetics is said to gloss over, but rather the psychic instability of the crowd as seen from Gustave Le Bon, through Sigmund Freud and Elias Canetti, to recent students of hooliganism - an instability that renders the installation insecure as both structure and event."[10]

Place in Gaillard's broader practice

Cyprien Gaillard, La grande allée du Château de Oiron, 2008
Cyprien Gaillard, La grande allée du Château de Oiron, 2008. Detail.

The Recovery of Discovery reflects an ongoing exploration by Gaillard of issues around architectural monuments, what constitutes something worth preserving, and how sculptural displacement and changes of context can release new meanings and energies.

The artist has produced a series of works, beginning in 2008, in which the pulverized remnants of demolished modernist tower blocks are employed to create sculptural and landscaped elements in new architectural contexts. For La grande allée du Château de Oiron, 2008, the artist created a gravel pathway leading up to the Château d'Orion, a sixteenth century chateau in western France that is a designated national monument. Gaillard's new path was constructed from the rubble of demolished tower blocks that once stood in the Issy-les-Moulineaux suburb of south-west Paris. Ground down to small, roughly evenly-sized pieces, visitors to the picturesque gardens of the Château are unaware that the path they are walking on is made up of the remains of a former housing block. The work thus serves to introduce a hidden, destabilizing element in the context of the design of the Château and its surrounding park (which otherwise reflect the Renaissance ideals of symmetry and harmony between man-made design and nature).[11]

As curator and writer Claire Doherty has observed, Gaillard's project "contrasts two very different conceptions of reason and necessity. His grande allée asks us to consider what we choose to preserve and remember, and what is made from the ruins of the things that we do not. What is left is a quietly unsettled landscape, hovering between the various points in time when these structures were built and have been or will be destroyed, and our own footsteps on the uneven concrete gravel."[12]

Gaillard has made video works of the demolition of mid-century tower blocks such as Color Like No Other, 2007, and Pruitt-Igoe Falls, 2009, both depicting the demolition of buildings in Glasgow, Scotland. He has also produced a series of 'Cairns' from piles of modernist building rubble, photographed in the landscape to reference prehistoric monuments.

Linda Yablonsky has noted The Recovery of Discovery's themes of intoxication and disorder in relation to architectural monuments reflects some of the artist's video works including Cities of Gold and Mirrors, 2008, which juxtaposes images of American spring breakers partying at a decaying Mayan-themed resort in Cancun, and the three-part Desniansky Raion, 2007, which documents hooligans warring in the parking lot of a Russian housing complex.[13]

Unnatural ruins

Tom McDonough has aligned Gaillard's interest in architectural collapse with the writings of German theorist Georg Simmel.[14] For Simmel, the ruin provides us with a compelling image of nature reclaiming culture: "The upward thrust, the erection of the building, was the result of the human will, while its present appearance results from the mechanical forces of nature, whose power of decay draws things downwards."[15] The ruin thus provides a compelling prefiguration of death, allowing us to contemplate our own oblivion.

McDonough, however, questions Gaillard's figuring of modernist housing projects in terms of ruins, noting that their decay or destruction is more likely the result of economic forces that have abandoned them and their inhabitants—often with the express aim of forcing their erasure in order to make way for new privatized developments, as was the case in some of the Glaswegian estates that the artist has featured in his work. Focusing only on the moment of these buildings' destruction runs the risk of treating it as a natural event divorced from the social and political context that is its true cause.

However, McDonough concludes that the artist, in often highlighting the moment of violence in these destructive events, holds up a mirror to our own nihilistic fascination with architectural destruction, and in highlighting this collective 'death drive', signals its centrality to Neo-liberal economics. "Images of controlled explosions are first and foremost signs of capital's fundamental fluidity, its retreat from fixed form the moment profitability dictates a shift in geographic locale—and even the most durable of concrete structures can be forsaken as the economy dictates their obsolescence."[16]


  1. March 27 – May 22, 2011. See the Kunst-Werke Berlin exhibition page: "Cyprien Gaillard: The Recovery Of Discovery",, retrieved 31 January, 2022.
  2. See Susanne Pfeffer, "Life in the Museum is Like Making Love in a Cemetery", in Susanne Pfeffer, ed., Cyprien Gaillard : The Recovery of Discovery (Köln, London: Walther König, 2012), 7-16.
  3. "Pergamon Altar", Wikipedia, last modified 8 November 2021‎.
  4. Susanne Pfeffer, "Life in the Museum is Like Making Love in a Cemetery".
  5. Cyprien Gaillard and Susanne Pfeffer, "In Conversation", in Susanne Pfeffer, ed., Cyprien Gaillard : The Recovery of Discovery, 33-49.
  6. "Martin Warnke", Wikipedia, last modified 2 January 2022‎‎.
  7. Susanne Pfeffer, "Life in the Museum is Like Making Love in a Cemetery", 9.
  8. Cyprien Gaillard and Susanne Pfeffer, "In Conversation".
  9. Ibid.
  10. Hal Foster, "Vandal Aesthetics", in Susanne Pfeffer, ed., Cyprien Gaillard : The Recovery of Discovery, 51-52.
  11. "Cyprien Gaillard, La grande allée du Château de Oiron", in: Claire Doherty, ed., Out of Time, Out of Place : Public Art (Now), (London : Art Books Publishing Ltd, in association with Situations, Public Art Agency Sweden, and the European Network of Public Art Producers, 2015), 36-39.
  12. Ibid., 37
  13. Linda Yablonsky, "Beautiful Ruins", T Magazine, April 10, 2013. This and other articles on the work of Cyprien Gaillard are available at the site of Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, see: "Cyprien Gaillard",, retrieved 31 January, 2022.
  14. "Georg Simmel", Wikipedia, last modified 29 November 2021‎‎‎.
  15. McDonough quoting Simmel. See Tom McDonough, "Controlled Explosion", Bice Curiger, ed., 30 years of Parkett : Tauba Auerbach, Urs Fischer, Cyprien Gaillard, Ragnar Kjartansson, Shirana Shahbazi, (New York; Zurich: Parkett, 2014), 210-217.
  16. Ibid., 217