Art Criticism

Gerard Byrne


A country road. A tree. Evening. Somewhere between Tonygarrow and Cloon Wood, below Prince William’s Seat, Glencree, Co. Wicklow, 2007, Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London, © Gerard Byrne

Gerard Byrne works from the premise that what constitutes the historic is constantly shifting and that there are a series of presents. In his artistic practice the interview and conversation become scripts to be performed in order to open up a number of critical possibilities. The texts he employs are found rather than, to use his word, “authored” and, therefore, considered devoid of baggage. He makes films and videos, working with actors, as a way of engaging in a critical debate around notions of representation. His subjects range from a conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre, to science fiction writers Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov discussing the future. For Byrne art is discourse rather than being the subject of discourse.

Over the last 10 years he’s made a number of works using text appropriated from magazines. These have allowed him to question how the mechanics of our collective now are constructed. Magazines are a barometer of a certain cultural moment. They encapsulate the zeitgeist, yet are transient and easily discarded. Using articles from the recent past he attempts to unlock ideas about the present. A piece from a 1973 issue of Playboy becomes both material and motif in the restaging of a discussion on the sexual mores of the day. But there are odd disjunctions. The cast speaks with Irish as opposed to American accents as the original participants would have done and the conversation about swinging and group sex now seems both anachronistic and naïve.

The installation “1984 and beyond” (2005) takes another discussion from Playboy. Here a group of famous science fiction writers muse about the future. It’s not only their rosy view of what lies ahead that seems outmoded but that watching ourselves mirrored through recent decades allows us new insights into the present. These re-examinations from our recent history illustrate that the past is palpable and that things might well have taken a different course. Time is presented not as linear but as palimpsest, something complex that can be manipulated.

Born in Ireland in 1969, Byrne graduated from the National College of Art & Design in Dublin before attending The New School for Social Research in New York and becoming a participant in the Whitney Independent Study Program there. In 2007 he represented Ireland at the 52nd Venice Biennale.

Now the Whitechapel Gallery has mounted the first major U.K. survey of his work from 2003 to today. This includes seven major film installations, a series of photographs and the U.K. premiere of his multi-screen installation, “A man and a woman make love” (2012), recently shown at Documenta 13. This is a reenactment of one of only two of the Surrealist group’s published roundtable discussions. The emphasis is on the masculine and misogynistic nature of the group in this restaging of the first of 12 conversations about sex and eroticism initiated by André Breton in 1928. Not a single woman takes part despite the discussion revolving around questions of sexual reciprocity. Men wave pipes in smoke-filled rooms and discuss the female orgasm, while musing on sex with nuns. Surrealist notions of masculinity have largely gone unchallenged but, here, Byrne reverses John Berger and Laura Mulvey’s articulation about the supremacy of the male gaze so that these men become central to the viewer’s attention. In his recreation Byrne uses humor and irony to deconstruct idealized notions of early 20th-century bohemianism, illustrating how we construct fantasies of the past. What the piece suggests is that, despite their perceived radicalism, the Surrealists were very much products of their time.

In A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010) Byrne’s five films trace Minimalism’s emergence and impact. The narratives often appear fragmented. Screens suddenly go dark and there is a sense that one is missing something crucial. There’s no clear structure, so you need to spend a while building up a sense of what you see. The work suggests that it was in the ’50s and ’60s, when criticism took on a newly influential role, that a new codependency was established between artist and critic.

Photographs of French tabacs or newsstands suggest their encyclopedic nature by catering for all tastes and interests. Yet their provisional nature is suggested by the constantly changing nature of their stock of publications. This transience is emphasized in that the title of the work is changed each time it is shown, leaving the problem of naming to the institution in which it appears. Byrne’s interest in theatricality is emphasized in the series of photographs that take their inspiration from the famous stage direction that sets the scene at the opening of that most famous of Irish plays, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Though there is a paradox here, for Byrne seems to be trying to suggest specific geographical locations in his brightly lit photographs, whereas Beckett was using these minimalist elements as universal symbols. And this is the problem with much of Byrne’s work. Informed, clever and witty though it often is, it does seem to strive very, very hard to insist that it is being intelligent and serious

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