In July and August 1963, Playboy magazine published “1984 and Beyond”: a two-part round-table discussion concerning the future, involving 12 science-fiction writers. Among the authors involved were Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. It is a document at once of its time and oddly out of it. Speaking in the midst of global and national perplexity – the Cuban missile crisis had come to a head the previous October, the civil rights march on Washington took place in August, and US confidence was to suffer a catastrophic blow in November of that year – the 12 seers are almost comically optimistic regarding life as it might be lived two decades thence. They conjure a world of routine space travel, lunar colonies, economic ease and social and sexual freedom – though predictably, this last seems to apply mostly to a sci-fi avatar of the standard male Playboy reader.
Quite the most striking anachronism in the article, however, is not the fanciful detail of the writers’ predictions, but the very fact of their feeling so confident in the future itself; such happy divinations seem now decidedly out of date. It’s partly this historical strangeness that inspired the Irish artist Gerard Byrne to make 1984 and Beyond: a three-screen video installation, first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007, which takes the Playboy piece as the script for a wryly stilted sort of drama. Twelve Dutch actors of varying competence, dressed in stagey approximations of 1960s attire, play the writers in question. They speak their lines with a knowing Brechtian distance from the source material, even as they lounge around smoking and warming especially to the theme of erotic liberation. And the whole is set among postwar modernist interiors in Holland, so that the viewer is still less sure which historical milieu the artist intends and how it might relate to our own present.
Byrne was born in Dublin in 1969 – he still works in the city, and teaches in Copenhagen – and, since the mid-1990s (but especially since representing Ireland at Venice), he has amassed a body of work with an amazing range of reference and subtlety of style. On the evidence of recent and current shows in Glasgow and at Lismore Castle in Waterford, he can be counted among the most erudite and ambitious young artists at work today. 1984 and Beyond was recently installed at Tate Britain, where it provides an austerely engrossing introduction to the work of an artist of supreme intelligence and wit: a rare conceptualist whose videos, texts and photographic series are both visually ravishing and intellectually complex. His work often concerns itself with the history of art and exhibitions (in this respect, he’s hardly alone among contemporary artists); but at the same time he maintains a level of playfulness and humour that can be surprisingly accessible and engaged with popular culture, whether it’s the history of men’s magazines or the “evidence” for the Loch Ness monster.
Part of the fascination of Byrne’s art lies in his deadpan approach to his sources. 1984 and Beyond is but one of a series of works that take old magazine articles as their starting points. In his 2002 film Why it’s time for Imperial, again, based on a 1981 Chrysler print advert that featured Frank Sinatra and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, he had two actors earnestly repeat the original’s macho advertorial guff as they wandered the decayed streets of Long Island City. And in New Sexual Lifestyles (2003), he set another Playboy discussion – this time on the future of sex – in a modernist glass pavilion in the Irish countryside. Here, the native actors’ accents are somewhat absurdly at odds with the 1970s libidinal utopianism of the likes of Linda Lovelace and Al Goldstein, editor of Screw magazine. For all their laconic humour, these films are also devious essays on just what constitutes a script, or even a literary artifact.
Indeed, Byrne can sometimes seem a very literary artist, fascinated by the ambiguities of language and by precisely what is gained or lost in the translation from text to image. Theatre has long been a preoccupation – an early installation seemed scurrilously to combine props from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! But such references are never merely a matter of homage or reconstruction. Something more ambiguous is afoot, for example, in his photographic series A country road. A tree. Evening, begun in 2006. Taking his title from the opening stage direction in Waiting for Godot, Byrne photographed anonymous stretches of roadside in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains: such places as might have been frequented by Samuel Beckett as a young man, on his habitual walks with his father. Lit by luridly coloured theatrical lights, these scenes are both hilariously literal and distinctly un-Beckettian; they use elaborate visual means to say something elegantly minimal about the act of turning words into performance, while cunningly reminding us of Beckett’s throwaway claim that he based the set of Godot on Caspar David Friedrich’s Man and Woman Observing the Moon.
At times, Byrne’s written sources are less high-flown or historically telling, at least on the surface. Perhaps his most playful and absurd project to date has been Case Study: Loch Ness (Some possibilities and problems), a continuing investigation of the documentary enthusiasm brought to bear on the mysterious waters and their apocryphal tenant. In a series of texts, slideshows and audio recordings, Byrne traces the history of the Nessie craze whipped up in the pages of the Daily Mail in the 1930s. Again, it often comes down to the treachery of language. The loch-side investigators’ ludicrous efforts to describe what they have (or haven’t) seen sound a lot like Hamlet and Polonius arguing about cloudscapes: “a camel . . . a hedgehog . . . a serpent with a horse’s head”.
On the face of it, Byrne’s most recent work looks to be engaged at a more arcane level with the history of art itself. A Thing Is a Hole In a Thing It Is Not was first installed in April at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and is currently on show at Lismore Castle Arts in County Waterford, the contemporary art gallery founded by William and Laura Burlington in 2005. Byrne has made work before about the legacy of American artists such as Robert Smithson; here, he takes his title from an enigmatic statement by the sculptor Carl Andre. There are four videos in the installation, each a more or less oblique response to the impetus and afterlife of the minimalist sculpture of the 1960s. Byrne’s videos are all about the ways that minimalist works resist and give in to their own staginess, and how they cope today with the contingent setting of the modern museum.
If that sounds a topic only for art-world insiders, consider the first film that greets you at the Lismore show. In 1960, the minimalist artist Robert Morris staged Column, a performance in which a large grey sculptural plinth stood vertically; a string was pulled and the thing crashed to the floor. The original staging was both a demonstration that sculpture – as Morris himself argued – was then tending more to the horizontal, and an extremely minimal sort of choreography. (Morris had intended to stand inside the object himself and tip it over, but hurt himself badly in rehearsal.) Byrne’s seven-minute re-enactment, interspersed with shots of a theatrical light and a stopwatch that ensures the sculpture falls after precisely three and a half minutes, is certainly an art-historical witticism – but it’s also genuinely tense and very funny. He’s contrived something like an inanimate slapstick, reduced to the simplest kind of pratfall, while in the strict timing and meditative shadows there are echoes of Beckett’s play Catastrophe, itself a semi-sculptural reflection on stage conventions.
The strictures and accidents of museum display have also been a recurrent theme in Byrne’s art, represented in the current exhibition by a video shot at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. Byrne’s camera pans elegantly over sculptures and paintings by Morris, Andre, Frank Stella, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. Museum invigilators and members of the public interrupt the pristine setting, photographers frame shots of the works, and the camera regularly cuts away to discover light fittings and electrical fixtures that resemble the art itself. The minimalist artists were rigorous about the cool visual terms in which their work was photographed, but here the sculptures invade each other’s space, moving bodies ruin their pure lines and a cleaner arrives to remove a small drift of dust from the ordered precincts of a Morris piece. The whole is punctuated by an actor’s slightly hammy delivery on-screen of a newspaper review of a minimalist exhibition.
The most engaging, though initially bewildering, of these videos is based on a radio discussion between Flavin, Judd and Stella broadcast in New York in 1964. The hour-long conversation forms the soundtrack to Byrne’s imagery, with the three artists answering questions on “the evolution of the new abstraction”, while on the screen three actors in a radio studio drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes, look intensely at one other and conspicuously do not ever speak the dialogue in the recording. The disjunction between acting and documentary is disorienting, but in place of the absent artworks being described on tape, Byrne encourages the viewer to focus on the textures of clothes and sound equipment, the shape of microphones and the swirl of smoke: material things that somehow rhyme with the blank, symmetrical sculptures we cannot see.
Byrne is an artist who often leaves his viewers suspended between times, unsure if what we are seeing and hearing is historical evidence or the latest news. The Lismore show includes photographs from his series Images or Shadows of Divine Things, also currently on display at the Common Guild in Glasgow. Black-and-white photographs seem to depict the America of the 1960s: truck stops, classic street scenes, fragments of 20th-century architecture. But they are in fact contemporary, and all (or, in a typical twist, almost all) taken by Byrne in recent years. Yet again he deposits us in the future anterior, wondering what might have been.
1984 and Beyond is showing at Tate Britain as part of BP British Art Displays. Byrne’s solo exhibition at Lismore Castle, Waterford, runs until 30 September. Images or Shadows of Divine Things is at the Common Guild, Glasgow, until 26 June.
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