The romantic wholeness of now Republican-captive politics and economy is shattered. Artist Cyril Duval, who works under the nom de guerre Item Idem, considers how extremely mediatized American culture and avant-garde policy leaders are inspiring Stygian attitudes toward the future. In his first new work, entitled “NUII,” two millennials (Eric Lyle Lodwick and Henry Stambler) assume a phantasmagorical journey where their individualities disappear under one collective identity of anti-capitalism. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl called this symbolic life “participation mystique.” Too, the project summons thoughts on the dialectic tension between Apollonian and Dionysian realities as intuited by Friedrich Nietzsche. Document spoke with Duval to learn more about this new work of art, an excerpt of which is previewed exclusively above.
Derrick Gaitér—A common maxim today is: “If you are neutral in times of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Yet the notion of “good work” is quite relative and not absolute. Is this film intended to be divisive or counterproductive toward a more utopian future?
Cyril Duval—Manichaean moral classification as a vocabulary is at the core of [society’s] problem. I truly remember the [George] Bush Jr. era and the suggested antagonism between forces or axes of good and evil. Steve Bannon proudly compares himself to Darth Vader. There is an ongoing and terrifying form of rhetoric that is attached to current days’ demagoguery. We are really navigating in pure science-fiction territory, to be honest! Donald Trump and his acolytes are purely following the rules of the Disney/“Star Wars”/Batman playbook. Possibly the way our disturbed world naively channels those pop culture-slash-dystopian genres finds an echo with the type of work that I am doing with “NUII.” If you look at it under the visual codes of specific artistic genres, my self-produced film channels among others, the stylistic aesthetics of fashion and also codes of Hollywood blockbusters with a very sharp aesthetics and swift camera moves, I like to qualify this as the aestheticizing and fetishization of violence and destruction. I have no idea if my work will stand as counterproductive or affecting changes, but it is a testimonial of my time on this planet, a documentation of our contemporary emotional landscape.
The desert stands as a metaphor for escapism and empathy for the environment, but also as the ruins of civilization or a postcard from the future we should try to prevent.
Derrick—Do artists have a responsibility to reflect the times in which they live?
Cyril—Absolutely, now more than ever, the clock is ticking. The independent watch group of scientists behind the “Doomsday Clock” has announced its reset at 2 minutes and 30 seconds before midnight—the closest mankind has been to annihilation since 1953. Our morally challenging epoch is calling for everyone, artists included, to do his or her share. For a while now, I have been interrogating myself on what it means to be an artist in a time of moral crisis and it has brought me over the past 18 months to conceiving and directing “NUII.” I’m often caught saying that artists’ social functions are to act as “filters” or “prisms.” We can and should discuss important and difficult topics while simultaneously opening windows of abstractions that suggest rather than assess the exact parameters of a situation. I believe that it’s primordial for artists to put out bodies of work that reflects poetically the socioeconomic shifts of our societies, but through alternate manners. To make myself clear, we are not hear to provide analyses, answers or solutions, but rather to craft poetical forms that might help with providing new intellectual ideas or emotions in order to advance society. We build bridges, but our practices should not necessarily be following classical notions of beauty, relevance or morale.
Derrick—Tell me about the shooting location for this project.
Cyril—I recently moved to California in search of inspiration. The landscape, the nature, the modern age aesthetic, and the ethereal feel have provided me with many emotions, and I guess that environment is fulfilling me in the same way than artists—James Turrell, Larry Bell,or DeWain Valentine—from the “Light and Space” movement from the ‘60s embodied that Southern Californian feel. I have this naive idea planted in my head that somehow any artist who visits the desert once has to then shoot a road movie. I somehow became a “desert queen,” so to speak: I will travel there as often as I can, and in relation to Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point,” I had to make my own little desert statement. For production reasons—as I was illegally burning objects and fireworks in nature—those ghost towns became the perfect locations to mimic the dystopian future of disarray I was hoping to portray. There is definitely my appeal for the whole punk-western Hollywoodian aesthetic that is at play here; absolute nature as the nucleus point where civilization dramatically ends. The desert stands as a metaphor for escapism and empathy for the environment, but also as the ruins of civilization or a postcard from the future we should try to prevent.
Derrick—How different was your approach to this film comparative to others you’ve created?
Cyril—This was my first step out of the format of a short “art video,” and the first film I had the guts to direct alone. All my previous video works were results of collaborations with directors or issued through our collective, Shanzhai Biennial. With “NUII,” I acted simultaneously as director, producer, and art director. I wanted to work with piñatas for years, so of course when Trump started running and made his comment about Mexican immigrants, I knew I had found my angle. I organized a host of material objects in blatant rejection to mass-market consumerism for an exhibition entitled “9800” within a former bank by the Los Angeles Airport. J. Shyan Rahimi and the 501(c)3 Foundation that curated and produced the event supported my effort and also co-produced the film that followed. What was initially presented as art objects became props for a larger production that would at last unravel on Inauguration Day for the American Premiere of “NUII”. First exhibited within a bank, then sacrificially celebrated within a church. It felt like the rightest way for me to finally give birth to this new work.
Derrick—Describe your relationship with artist Cheng Ran, in particular, collaborating with him on this effort.
Cyril—Cheng Ran and I met when I was living in Shanghai in 2013; Leo Xu, a mutual friend and gallery owner, introduced us. We immediately got along and as I was asked by the publication “Visionaire” to produce a short video under the idea of “good tidings.” I decided to invite him to collaborate and interpret with me this idea of emotional cleanse. The result was our short film—shot on his birthday and released on mine—entitled “JOSS” and probably the work I am the most proud of in my 10-year career. Through referencing Fischli and Weiss’ “The Way Things Go” and the end sequence of Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point,” we directed an orgy of visual complacence by setting on fire Joss funeral paper objects from China that deals with consumerism. I have been working with those folkloric artifacts for a while now. What is to me the most interesting aspect of my research with those objects is how they simultaneously deal with religious beliefs and the afterlife, but also evidently tackles fascination for consumerism and modern-day icons.
Derrick—Is it the image of wealth or the desire for wealth that causes much corruption in the capitalistic world today?
Cyril—The two notions are intrinsically linked: The production of images suggests and constructs pathological desires and envies. In a cultural world led by the Kardashians, we elect the leader we deserve, a cynical reality TV star like Trump. Our frenzy for consumption on social media feeds doesn’t make us any better in helping shape the world as a better place.
Derrick—“NUII” expands on the cathartic promise of ritualization. Through rituals, one sees the same outcome repeatedly. In a sense, that too is part of the definition of insanity. To what extent is it insane to depend on cathartic rituals?
Cyril—I’ve approached those both films (“JOSS” and “NUII”) with similar ideas of purification and how folkloric rituals found locally all over the world often deals with the same idea of alleviating the soul and human experience. We are definitely living in an era of worship of false idols. Might it be medieval religions desperately trying to secure control; autocratic systems of power commanded by the need to be dominated and empty of critical sense; soulless reality television stars and, of course, financial supremacies of all kinds as the ultimate consequence resulting from the failure of capitalism. Attitudes of worships for someone like me—an agnostic—is a little disturbing, but I find interest in studying those beliefs, not in a scholarly fashion, but more through the politics of poetry.
Utilizing a technique named Method of loci, “NUII” is the reflection of the artist’s own human experiences. Cyril Duval (Item Idem) is a French conceptual artist based in Los Angeles.