Shark fins weave through sun-dappled waters. A man in red, masked with a bandanna, dances in slow motion among ruins. The mirrored facade of an office building trembles before collapsing. Young French artist Cyprien Gaillard is not shy of seductive effects. These scenes are from Cities of Gold and Mirrors (2009), a 16mm film shot in the Mexican coastal resort of Cancún. Its synthesized soundtrack comes from The Mysterious Cities of Gold, a cartoon of the 1980s. That was also MTV’s golden era, and the film itself is as flashy as a good pop music video.

The Cancún area contains Mayan ruins, but was only established as a city in the 1960s, with tourism in mind. We watch a group of American teenagers, alighted from a tour bus, downing bottles of liquor in a single draft. They follow in the footsteps of the Spanish conquistadors who colonized Mexico. Gaillard sees every detail as a symbol, a stand-in, a fake. A hotel’s side is modeled, like a theme park, on Mayan stepped pyramids, while the relics of an ancient civilization are treated as a vaguely spiritual setting for tai chi. Cancún is imagined as a futuristic nightmare, using imagery that recalls dystopian science fiction: vegetation creeps down the tiers of a modernistic atrium; the spotlights of a nightclub’s ceiling loom menacingly like those of the descending spaceship in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Gaillard may be concerned with identifying the various cynicisms and betrayals of postmodern culture—the ways that capitalism and mass media have distorted history and tradition—but his vantage remains ironically postmodern. The artist is seemingly collusive, buying into and skillfully manipulating the language of superficial spectacle spoken by the culture he is observing. Science fiction is the flip side of nostalgia, and both are prone to sentimentality.

Gaillard’s Polaroid series “Geographical Analogies” (2006-09) is more persuasive because it brings an archival focus to the film’s themes. Vitrines contain groups of nine Polaroids in diamond-shaped grids, each laid over a concave base, emphasizing the individual pictures as solid objects that do not sit flat. The photos are set at 45-degree angles, but the images appear upright since they were taken with the camera held on a diagonal. Each cluster draws connections between locations across the globe. Urban obelisks are related to rural standing stones and dilapidated high-rise blocks. Gothic statues rhyme with pruned poplars. Taxonomy may have replaced the film’s stream-of-consciousness style, but the formal eccentricities are also like arbitrary occult parameters imposed on the content. Gaillard “sees signs,” elicits connections. He reveals the aura of lost worlds beneath the surface of quotidian reality. Disparate images reflect each other as if they were elements of a secret language—or are those correspondences merely serendipitous echoes? Gaillard allows the ambiguity to resonate. Where the film is swayed by its own subject matter, the Polaroids ground his wild flights of cross-referencing in pattern, design and artifice.

Photo: Cyprien Gaillard: Cities of Gold and Mirrors, 2009, 16mm film, approx. 9 minutes; at Sprüth Magers.