Gerard Byrne

London, UK

A country road. A tree. Evening. Somewhere between Tonygarrow and Cloon Wood, below Prince William's Seat, Glencree, Co. Wicklow: Gerard Byrne: A country road. A tree. Evening. Somewhere between Tonygarrow and Cloon Wood, below Prince William's Seat, Glencree, Co. Wicklow (2007) Images courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London. © Gerard ByrneGerard Byrne: A country road. A tree. Evening. Somewhere between Tonygarrow and Cloon Wood, below Prince William's Seat, Glencree, Co. Wicklow (2007). Images courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London. © Gerard Byrne

By Charlene K. Lau

Gerard Byrne
Whitechapel Gallery
January 17 – March 8, 2013

Irish artist Gerard Byrne’s first major retrospective in the U.K., A State of Neutral Pleasure demonstrates the complexity in his oeuvre and ways of working. As a thinking-artist’s artist, Byrne plays with concepts of time, narrative and illusion in his photographic, film and video works. Layers of truth and perceived truth are interwoven with staging and highly-controlled production.

On my visit, the multi-channel video installation A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010) was screening, projected on various drywall blocks propped up around the room like outsized canvasses. As the projections turn on and off and move from one “screen” to another, the viewer is forced to shift focus both literally and figuratively. The audio component of the piece – a 1964 radio broadcast of a discussion between Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Frank Stella – works in tandem with the sculptural quality of the drywall blocks, which, like Minimalist objects themselves, encourage one into choreographed movement around the space. Curiously, the audio is the original historical recording, separate from what Byrne calls the “mime” of the actors’ movements of the imagined physical interactions of Flavin, Judd and Stella captured on video. This is further complicated when video of a Tony Smith character driving or footage of Minimalist objects in museums is interspliced with the radio broadcast projections. It is all very confounding, but in the most positive sense of the term.

A Man and a Woman Make Love: Gerard Byrne: A Man and a Woman Make Love (2012). Multi-channel projection, variable loop of approx. 19 min. Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel. © Gerard ByrneGerard Byrne: A Man and a Woman Make Love (2012). Multi-channel projection, variable loop of approx. 19 min. Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel. © Gerard ByrneThe work New Sexual Lifestyles (2003) encompasses photographs and filmed re-enactments of a 1972 Playboy debate on changing (or unchanging) attitudes on sex and sexuality. For me, re-enactments like these immediately call to mind the thespian gold of Colm Feore in François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993). There is something about the contemporary reinterpretation of a historical moment that, when done exceptionally well, seems to alter history. Byrne transports the viewer to a specific time and place seamlessly, navigating easily between past and present. By watching these videos, we peel back the layers of time and understand our contemporary moment. In this way, we make what Walter Benjamin calls a tiger’s leap into the past. In quoting the past, history is proven to be nonlinear, as it is constantly being re-written through the lens of the contemporary.

Byrne’s photographic series of C-type prints entitled "A country road. A tree. Evening." (2006-2008) attempts to locate the setting for Waiting for Godot. Visually, the images run counter to its ambitious task, offering up lush, colour-saturated images of, well, country roads and trees lit by unknown light sources. They are like candy in comparison to the other works in the exhibition, yet maintain the same highly-styled aesthetic. Initially, I discounted them too quickly for their purely aesthetic value, taking for granted that Byrne’s pieces make the complex look so clean and simple. Beneath the works’ surface is the subtext to question what is before us, both historically and that which is physically in front of us. As the old adage goes, things are not always what they seem.