Gerard Byrne's mini-retrospective opens with the installation New Sexual Lifestyles (2002), a more complex expansion of the approach also seen here in Why it's Time for Imperial, Again (1998-2000), a 16mm/DVD piece with photographic elements that was shown at 'Manifesta 4'. There Byrne was presented to a wider international audience with this humorous re-enactment of a conversation between Lee Iaccoca and Frank Sinatra used as an advertisement for the new Chrysler car in a 1980 National Geographic magazine. By situating actors in shabby locations - which contrast with the glossy aesthetic of both the highbrow magazine and the car manufacturer's desired image - and accentuating the stilted dialogue by focusing on their faltering delivery, Byrne addressed the construction of reality in the media and how, over time, accepted contemporary attitudes and desires can become amusing, peculiar or even aberrant.
In the new piece, a series of five large-format photographs depicts a spacious 1970s interior, the setting of another re-staged conversation that is screened on three television monitors. The original debate was published by Playboy in 1972, with questions ranging from the prosaic ('Do affairs ever help a marriage?') to the more particular ('When many swinging couples get back together, is it true they belittle their lovers' performance to decrease jealousy?'). In the re-enactment the same attention to fluffed lines underscores the unease between actors and dialogue: their speech and surroundings are decidedly 1970s, but their dress is contemporary. Here, though, an innovation heightens the exaggerated staginess of the scenarios: in moving from one monitor to another, you realized that not only are the same questions and answers refilmed and recaptured from new angles time and time again, but also that the multi-channel DVD is set to select and play these randomly, endlessly re-presenting the re-performances.
While the work's eminent artificiality and bluntness of dialogue are unsettling, even more so is the temporal displacement effected by the incongruity in costume and settings. In an era marked by AIDS, it is chilling rather than amusing that one character's only worry in contemplating an orgy's 'social rules' was 'What should I wear? How should I get out of what I wear?' Another subtle element that creates dissonance is that, to judge by their accents, many of the actors are from Ireland - a country associated with sexual repression rather than freedom. Indeed, at the time of this conversation's original publication Playboy was prohibited there.
The idea of restaging or revisiting in order to decode what is presented as 'reality' is also at play in the group of photographic works on show, as well as in the single film work A Crime Dramatically Re-constructed (1995-2000), which date indicates that 'return' is a pathology even in Byrne's working process. A group of untitled works, shot in New York between 1997 and 1998, first appear to be a series of empty stage sets or models; then the blurred and hazy lights dragged across the image's surface allow the viewer to recognize that they are abandoned work sites, captured by Byrne on nocturnal promenades. Nor are things what they appear to be in Loch Ness (2002), which looks like a simple documentary of the infamous lake and its surroundings in palpably contemporary times, though the captions momentarily confuse, with dates such as 1932 and 1967. One workaday view sees a hill looming to the left, a tree picturesquely hanging into the frame and the foreground scattered with modern fishing implements. It bears the caption '"Its skin seemed to be rough and of a knobbly texture. The colour was almost black," reported Mr. G. Jamieson, a fruit farmer, while driving near Jack's Quarry, Invermoriston, December 31st, 1933.' Indeed, all the captions concern 'eyewitness' accounts of Nessie sightings, and one realizes that Byrne is confronting the construction of the myth of Loch Ness - a myth that was aided by developments in photography itself.
A similar device is exploited in In the News (2002), in which the captions accompanying images of incidents culled from the news - the site of a car accident on a street corner, for example - incorporate texts not only from newspapers but also from essays by Bertolt Brecht or Walter Benjamin. The reference to Brecht is particularly pertinent since displacement was an essential component of his 'epic theatre', in which the moral of the story was delivered by proxy and never directly. With titles that lead the viewer beyond what is presented in the image into a world of doubt and uncertainty, Byrne does exactly the same in ingeniously using a figurative medium to engage with an abstract impression.
Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.
First published in Issue 80