Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX

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Gerard Byrne: A state of neutral pleasure
Whitechapel Gallery
17 January - 8 March 2013
Review by Tim Walsh

‘A state of neutral pleasure’ is a survey of Irish-born artist Gerard Byrne’s creative output from 1998 to 2012, presenting seven video works, accompanied by a number of Byrne’s photographic series shown across the three major spaces of the Whitechapel Gallery. Byrne’s latest work, ‘A man and a woman make love’, joins two of his earlier works, 2010’s ‘A thing is a hole in a thing it is not’ and 2004’s ‘Homme à femmes (Michel Debrane)’ in a rolling schedule, projected on to large, slanted projection surfaces.

In ‘A man and a woman make love’ (2012), André Breton, Yves Tanguy and Raymond Queneau join a full cast of Surrealists in a sort of historical sitcom, filmed for television in front of a live audience. In its original iteration at Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, the work was installed in the ballroom of Kassel’s Grand City Central Hessenland on Königsstraße. Throughout the 34-minute, multi-channel work gaping holes break through the historical fabric created by Byrne - the shot drifts backwards to reveal the edges of the set; later on it cuts to a mixing desk where editors watch smaller monitors of the action on stage; at another point we see another figure working at a computer, a dog lying at their feet.

Between these moments Breton, Tanguy, Queneau and the rest of their phallogocentric coterie bounce ideas off each other, workshopping their sexual mores and preferences in a tangential and ultimately puerile display. In the gallery space, automated shutters attached to each projector flick in front of the lenses intermittently, blocking the image - only for another shutter to retract on the other side of the space where the conversation continues. The viewer, trapped in the middle of the art world equivalent of a shooting gallery, is forced to scuttle around the space frantically, looking for vantage points between the screens. After an intermission of abstract footage submitted by other artists, Byrne’s earlier single channel work ‘Homme à femmes (Michel Debrane)’ screens, recreating an interview with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre where he muses on his unconventional relationship with Simone de Beauvoir and is asked what his requisites for success are for a relationship, responding ‘For her to take up the position she enjoys in my life.’ Upstairs in Gallery 9, 2003’s ‘New Sexual Lifestyles’ depicts a recreation of a 1973 Playboy roundtable on the boundaries of sexual behaviour. Al Goldstein describes his relationship in a more outrageous vein, “If my wife cheated, I’d kill her. She’s part of my property’ I feel I own her, the way I own my car.”

In Gallery 8, a new series of huge silver gelatine prints show the typical news-stands that are dotted around the streets of European cities, their shelves stuffed with newspapers from across the globe. The series speaks of the impermanence of now; the stationary stand becomes a sort of tardis. As Byrne says in an interview with the exhibition curator Kirsty Ogg in the accompanying catalogue, ‘[Headlines] aspire to describe a deep sense of the historical portent of this day, but by tomorrow we will somehow be disenfranchised from these accounts.’ We’re left with the mere knowledge that they are from the past, nicely referenced in their titles, ‘One month and six days ago’ (2012-13) and ‘Three months and twenty days ago’ (2012). Next to these prints, ‘‘68 Mica and Glass (a Demonstration on Camera by Workers from the State Museum)’ (2008) on 16mm film is projected on to the side of a plinth. Trapped in what Byrne calls a ‘performative loop’, conservators tenderly install Robert Smithson’s 1968 work ‘Untitled, 1968 (Mica and Glass)’. For Byrne, the effect of history is easily conjured if you have the right ingredients and necessary conditions. Additionally, the construction of Byrne’s works reveal the fallibility of admired figures whose reputations might appear founded on the past’s benefit of the doubt. They each get a subtle dressing down, showing the misogynistic leanings of Sartre, the grotty minds of the Surrealists and the perversity of sexual boundary pushing of Playboy’s ‘board of experts’. These are not history’s eureka moments. They reveal parts of people you may admire that you do not want to know. But this isn’t a cynical ploy to tell us that history is mere smoke and mirrors. The effortless way Byrne deploys historical tropes may appear to demystify the ‘truth’ of the past, but rather it helps us to look realistically at how the past is put to work in the present as part of on-going cultural production, thanks mostly to its recursive, transformative value.

‘A state of neutral pleasure’ is a testament to the complexity of an artist who has grappled with diverse, fascinating subjects in a manner that helps us to reconsider any assumption that the past is holy, permanent or out of bounds.

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