Gerard Byrne restages historical discussions in a major survey at The Whitechapel Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 23 January 2013

Exhibition review: Gerard Byrne – A State of Neutral Pleasure, Whitechapel Gallery, London, until March 8 2013

Film still in which a writer in a suit stands in a garden with a modern art sculpture
Gerard Byrne, 1984 and beyond (2005-7). Film still© Gerard Byrne. Image courtesy Whitechapel Gallery
Being comprised of seven major video works running from between eight and 65 minutes, dwell time at this show by Irish artist Gerard Byrne is considerable. And forget getting comfortable and settling down with popcorn: two of the most notable works are five-channel sprawlers which will have you roaming around the sculptural white slabs onto which the films are projected.

The main draw is the UK debut of the film Byrne took to dOCUMENTA last year, A man and a Woman make Love. Keen observers will notice there are zero women in the main film, as a group of gentlemen discuss eroticism and sex. They drink wine, smoke and fire questions at one another.

But despite their period dress and the occasional cutaway to reveal a studio audience, here is no ordinary television drama. The script these men are following is taken from a 1920s discussion by the Surrealists. To be sure, it is much more interesting than Downton Abbey, but it is no less dated.

Black and white montage with shots of male actors with closed eyes
Gerard Byrne, A man and a woman make love (2012)© Gerard Byrne. Image courtesy Whitechapel Gallery
Byrne not only brings the Surrealists to life, he examines how they might fare in the age of television. The answer is: not all that well. Shots step back from the discussion to show their dependence on a mix desk, a film studio, an audience. Worst of all, on one channel, the film plays out in a suburban kitchen where it is ignored by a pair of women at home.

Another qualified celebration of an artistic movement can be found in the other UK debut here at Whitechapel: A Thing is a hole in a Thing it is Not. Once again full use is made of all five channels, as we witness a radio interview, a car journey by night, a performative sculpture, and a gallery full of minimalist works complete with museum staff and visitors.

There are layers and layers of mediation. The radio interview features Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Dan Flavin, using actors and the original broadcast made in 1964. The car journey is accompanied by an actor’s recitation of a famous artist’s statement by sculptor Tony Smith. The performing sculpture is a Robert Morris piece and in the gallery is a photographer who is training his lens on us.

Thanks to this, the on-screen gallery bleeds into the space here at Whitechapel with its monolithic screens. The episodic film encourages a self-conscious drifting around the gallery, not unlike what might be inspired by a room full of minimalist sculpture. But as the action plays out, we seem to move further and further away from the movement that inspired it.

Both these works are complex and a bit opaque. Byrne has compelling things to say about the mediation of art history, but quite what those things are could take some winkling out. 1984 and Beyond, displayed on monitors upstairs, may be the last piece in the show, but it could just as well serve as an introduction. It is the easiest "get" here.

This time the artist found his script in the pages of Playboy magazine, which in 1964 gathered the leading science fiction authors of the day to speculate about life in the future. Byrne restages this discussion in what could be a 1960s building which conflates modernism with the misguided optimism and warnings expressed by the participants.

Of particular note is the episode in which they discuss a day in the life of a space age bachelor. Taking it in turns, they outline a frankly hilarious scenario; the fact the actors are Dutch, but with excellent command of English, only seems to unlock the comic potential. It is reassuring in this time of climate change and global instability to find the future is unknowable.

Byrne’s interest in magazines is the prime mover for much of the show. No less than five of his film works here pick apart interviews, discussions and, in one case, an advertorial from the pages of one of his disposable sources. And of the photos also on display, the most interesting are three stunning silver gelatin prints of European newsstands.

The artist has refused to pin down the names of these pieces, leaving it to galleries or publishers to fix them with a title. At present they are called Three months and twenty days Ago, Eleven months and twenty-one days before and One month and six days Ago, all for fairly self-explanatory reasons.

Pieced together from magazines, Byrne’s presentation of 20th century history is, of course, skewed. He takes ephemera and gives them startling new life in more or less permanent form. The naivety and folly of our past is clear. But in the age of new media, are we not surrounded by more of the same.

The archivist of the future, heir to the artist in question, should find much to interest and smile about.

  • Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-6pm (9pm Thursday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @_TheWhitechapel.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contempporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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