Gerard Byrne: A state of neutral pleasure
Reviewed by Sophy Rickett
In Paris, in the 1920s, a group of surrealist artists and writers, convened by André Breton, held the first of a series of twelve round-table discussions on the subject of eroticism. The discussion is recreated in A Man and A Woman Make Love (2012), a multi-screen installation that provides the entry point into Byrne’s new exhibition Gerard Byrne: A state of neutral pleasure at the Whitechapel Gallery.
In the darkened gallery, five box-like screens are arranged in stacks; thick, solid structures angled upwards, and supported from behind, so that they seem to tumble around the space, tilted precariously. The picture shifts from screen to screen, one device amongst many employed by the artist to mitigate against any sense of narrative continuity. Byrne’s reconstruction was filmed for TV in front of a studio audience, who, along with the camera operators, crew and online editor, are shown in the film, alongside the cast of actors as they deliver their lines. In this way, the final work tells the story of its own creation, sketchy and subjective, and a product of a very specific ontology, combining many different forms.
There’s a lot going on both visually and also with the sound, as if the inevitability of missing something is integral to the work, emphasizing the partiality and uniqueness of any one viewers experience. The dialogue is a translation from the transcript of the original discussion, published in 1928 in La Révolution surréaliste. As the male protagonists lounge about, hypothesizing and pontificating, the air of authority and arrogance begins to give way to a sense of anxiety, uncertainty. The soundtrack is strangely monotonous, insistent and after a while the veneer of televised naturalism breaks down to reveal a sense of awkwardness and claustrophobia; a dark sort of truth.
The idea of ‘disclosure’, in the Brechtian sense, where the manipulative and ‘fictive’ devices of a medium are incorporated as a feature of the work, seems central to many of the pieces in this show. In Why it’s time for Imperial, again (1998-2002), the actor playing Lee Iacocca has an urgency to his delivery; at times it even seems as if he’s forgotten his lines and is being prompted. He seems stressed, anxious, alienated – and perhaps this in turn alienates the viewer, because it’s difficult to watch; you feel the opposite of empathy. In the same way, in New Sexual Lifestyles, (2003) another three-channel video shown on monitors, with sound, it’s not clear how much is being deliberately disclosed. There is something in the delivery of the dialogue itself, the mannerisms of the actors, which seems stilted, overdone. The naturalism of the original dialogue is re-routed into something altogether more awkward, more self-conscious, more removed.
The photographs in the series, A country road… (2006-ongoing) are on the face of it less open ended, more visually seductive. Inspired by the stage directions at the beginning of Waiting for Godot, each one shows a tree by a roadside, at dusk, soaked in lurid, coloured light. Seen individually, each image seems formally complete, but when hung together as series, even here, there is a sense of provisionality, as if the different elements can never combine completely; they can be placed together in the same frame, but there will always be a seam.
At the end of Gallery Nine, Byrne quotes from the journal of the American colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards.
‘If all the world were annihilated, …‘and a new world were freshly created, though it were to exist in … the same manner as this world, it would not be the same. Therefore, because there is continuity, which is time, it is certain with me that the world exists anew every moment. That the existence of things every moment ceases and is every moment renewed.’
As much as being about deconstruction and reconstruction, and the manipulative contrivances of all these different ontologies, this is a show about time; ellipses in time, lapses in time, and the millions of contingencies that determine each of our own experiences. It’s about the strange charge of the unexpected, when encountering something the second time round. And in the spirit of that, I’m going to go back.
17 Jan – 8 March 2013
Galleries 1,8 & Victor Petitgas Gallery (Gallery 9)