review by Eleanor Nairne
Time eddies in peculiar currents for the artist Gerard Byrne. For ten years he has been investigating the region of Loch Ness and its famed monster, and his findings are now on display at the Milton Keynes Gallery. In the first room, the viewer is confronted with a colossal knotted tree stump. Sawn to reveal a cross-section of grain, the rings are rendered as a wall drawing behind and used to plot the history of sightings dating back to 1523. An absurd cadavre exquis emerges from the fragments of eye-witness accounts that claim to have seen an ‘elephant trunk’ (1960) attached to ‘a head like a camel’ (1919) on a beast with ‘a neck like a giraffe’ (1934). Byrne’s evocative photographs capture the mercurial body of water and the surrounding regions, while a dulcet Scottish voice washes in from the film playing in the gallery next door. Chronologies collide in the myth of ‘Nessie’, who is believed to belong to a primordial age, like a zoological anachronism. ‘If Newton really thought that time was a river’, asks the character Austerlitz in W. G. Sebald’s novel, ‘then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow’‘
Byrne presents his evidence with all the theatrics of a classical empiricist - from the clinical exhibition title, through to the white display cases and the naming of works as ‘figures’. But truth is everywhere at stake. Figures 31-62 are hung in topographical clusters. The simple compositions document a mesmerizing landscape that encourages the wishful thinker. The still mountains dramatize any movement in the waters below, such as the sole arm of a swimmer, reaching mid-stroke into a small arched silhouette. These are analogue photographs, whose scenes have emerged on film in a developing bath just as the gestalt form appears on the mind’s eye. Visually, they reference the iconic shot of ‘Nessie’ by Dr Wilson, which was published in the Daily Mail in 1934 and revealed as a hoax in 1994. Indeed, they relate to the popularization of photography made possible following the invention of the Brownie camera. ‘Nessie’ was written into the popular imagination by the ‘snapshot’, in a moment enamoured with the photo-chemical magic of a newly attainable process. As the Kodak slogan read, ‘you press the button, we do the rest!’
The artist’s own documentation is interspersed with photographs of bound volumes of the Inverness Courier. Printed at a scale that makes the newsprint illegible, they frustrate their apparent purpose as source material. One double-page spread is framed in Perspex, so that the scrutinizing viewer is met with a reflection of their own face. Our desire to believe hangs over these commercial tabloids, which are typically held responsible for whipping up a frenzy of interest in the mystery with the hope of boosting sales. The slick presentation of works (the vinyl photo corners, the window mounts, the wooden frames) also playfully alludes to such pioneers of Land Art as Robert Smithson, and their rhapsodic relation to nature. Even Byrne’s lettering is in the Gill Sans typeface, a subtle component of the visual identity of the work of Richard Long. The visitor is given oral testimonies that have been transcribed, and written accounts that have been read aloud, as Gerard Byrne explores the Loch Ness Monster believing in nothing but the adage of Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message.