22nd March 2007 — 4th May 2007
1963, Playboy magazine published a lengthy panel discussion between
twelve famous sci-fi authors in which they speculated upon what the
world might be like in 1984. A restaging of parts of this discussion,
filmed with Dutch actors, forms the centrepiece of Gerard Byrne's first
UK solo exhibition at the Lisson Gallery. Excerpts from the film are
displayed across three video screens, which, along with twenty black
and white photographs, comprise an installation called 1984 and Beyond.
The discussions featured in the film are often quite fascinating and engaging in their own right, as this odd cabal of good-natured, chain-smoking boffins speculate and ruminate idealistically upon the future of such things as technology, politics, sex and everyday life; as well as deliberating on the rather more clichéd sci-fi preoccupations of immortality and the likelihood of making contact with aliens. It almost goes without saying that the authors' far-fetched predictions haven't come to pass, but the aphoristic philosophy on display often proves to be as telling today as half a century ago. As one of them concludes: 'Few aliens are apt to be so startling as man himself'.
It's perhaps true to some extent that Byrne has simply taken some intelligent and entertaining observations and appropriated them for his own art. But the originality of the piece really lies in the manner in which the discussion is re-presented, re-imagined and utterly re-contextualised, and the way that Byrne cleverly turns the film into a meditation on the subject of time itself. The film has been edited into a number of short vignettes, which are displayed in no apparent chronological order across the three screens of the installation. There is a peculiar, slightly dreamlike quality to the scenes, imbued partly by the unusual, incongruous, and otherwise unpeopled spaces that the actors find themselves in; and enhanced by a couple of dialogue-free scenes, where the protagonists are left to loll reflectively around in their surroundings. This sense of dislocation is most apparent in the sequences set in a rather wonderful-looking sculpture garden (at the Kröller-Müller museum). The effect of all this, combined with the achronistic, episodic, and repetitive structure, is to make the whole thing appear as if it is happening somehow 'outside of time' (it made me think, oddly enough, of Alain Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad), elevating the authors' speculative musings to something more universal.
Elucidating the shortfall between fantastic expectation and flawed reality seems to be one of Byrne's preoccupations with this piece, and some of the twenty photographs that line the walls of the installation hint at this too. Images of trendy 'engineered' shoes, of the slick machinery of a fast-food restaurant, of a moulded swimming-pool fixture, all begin to suggest the ways that progress actually ends up manifesting itself: not as the utopian visions of a coterie of screwy intellectuals, but as the banal, peripheral material that stealthily proliferates around us. One quietly moving image depicts a woman sitting on a sofa staring blankly, or perhaps sadly, out from the window of a high-rise apartment, towards the tops of skyscrapers beyond. It elaborates a markedly different narrative of progress to that envisaged by the men in the film, suggesting that the complex depth and pain of real experience will always remain largely obscured in, and by, such idealistic discourses as theirs.
Most of the other work in the exhibition also derives from outside source material, but of a very different kind. Several pieces take their cue from the famous stage direction that sets the scene at the opening of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: 'A country road. A tree. Evening.' On display are four photographs which depict just that, taken in different locations in Ireland which, according to the press release, 'would have been familiar to Beckett when he wrote the play'. Aside from the fact that this assertion is somewhat unfounded, and that Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in Paris, the bizarre inference to be drawn from this comment is that Byrne believes that Beckett had a specific geographical location in mind when he composed the play. In fact, surely the inverse is true: the play is set nowhere, or perhaps everywhere. The triumvirate of elements that comprise the setting - tree, road, evening - is sufficiently minimal, and precise, in order to allow the deep symbolism of each element to resonate with an audience. This is lacking in Byrne's images, and I don't really know what he's trying to say. Is it that Beckett's pared-down version of things is too abstracted from the real world? Maybe, but without the Beckett reference the images remain just vaguely dramatic, gaudily lit, rather ugly photographs. Similarly, his reconstruction of Alberto Giacometti's tree sculpture for an 1961 production of the play is of passing interest, but ultimately seems like a superfluous exercise.
It's a shame that the Beckett derived pieces feel so uninspired, because 1984 and Beyond is an intriguing, subtle and complex piece of work. It would great to see Byrne's interest in Beckett manifest itself in more interesting ways in the future.
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