Afternoon Dust

Gerard Byrne: A State of Neutral Pleasure

The first time I came across the work of Gerard Byrne was while I was working on the 2010 Whitstable Biennale. We were showing his 2004 film Homme à femmes (Michel Debrane), in which the eponymous actor plays the role of Jean-Paul Sartre in a reconstruction of an interview with the philosopher regarding his relationships with women. Every morning I went to the gallery to switch the projector on, returning to switch it off at the end of the day. My viewing of the film thus consisted of a number of fragments built up over the course of a fortnight, some repeated several times; presumably there were also parts I did not see.

I mention this fragmentary and partial viewing experience because it would seem to be something valued by Byrne himself, if A State of Neutral Pleasure, the current installation of his films and photo works at the Whitechapel Gallery, is anything to go by. Homme à femmes is single-channel, but for this major solo exhibition Byrne is also showing two multi-channel films projected onto a number of large leaning rectangular boxes. The boxes are so positioned as to prevent all of the projections from being viewed simultaneously. Viewers are thus encouraged to move around quite a bit, and are often forced to choose between one channel and another.

As with the Sartre interview, the rest of the films on show in the exhibition are all elaborate and theatrical restagings of historical conversations and events, often involving prominent artists or intellectuals. 2010’s A thing is a hole in a thing it is not recreates three canonical moments from the history of Minimalism (Tony Smith’s account of a night drive on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, a radio interview involving Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd, and Robert Morris’ 1961 sculpture/performance Column), juxtaposing them with a staged present-day installation of Minimal art works in an anonymous white cube space. The latter appears to mock art institutions’ presentation of Minimalism as a class of objects for optical consumption: a gallery functionary is shown checking that the works sit exactly straight on the wall or floor, and when an audience is finally allowed in, they stare at the art with the same rapturous absorption that Michael Fried accused Minimalism of undermining. (Not incidently, the quote from a biography of Jonathan Edwards used by Fried as the epigraph for his infamous anti-Minimalist essay ‘Art and Objecthood’ appears on the wall in another part of the exhibition.) Other films deploy similar strategies using different subject matter: A man and a woman make love (2012) reconstructs conversations around love and sex involving various members of the Surrealist movement, while 1984, and beyond (2005-07) recounts discussions between science fiction writers of the 1960s on the subject of the future.

From one perspective, then, Byrne’s work appears as a satirical take on how artists and their legacies are retrospectively perceived, coupled with a blunt point regarding the inevitable fictionalisation of events and personae in the construction of historical narratives. And yet, one senses that what motivates him to shine such an intense and unflattering spotlight on these figures and their present-day reception is a genuine interest in and appreciation of their work; it is precisely because their contributions to art and thought are valued that critical attention must be paid to every aspect of their discourse, including their misogyny or their sometimes uncritical attitude towards the sublime. And it’s not just a matter of how the works have been marketed and consumed in more recent times: A thing is a hole lampoons the way Minimalist works are presented in contemporary white cubes as mediators of transcendent experience, while attempting to represent that same transcendence in the soft, abstract glows of its New Jersey Turnpike reconstruction.

The title of the show, then, could be interpreted as an ambivalent reference to the notion of disinterested pleasure found in Kant. We know that there are no neutral pleasures, built as they are upon a supporting framework of interests, some of which turn out to be unsavoury; yet we cannot abandon the notion that there may be something of universal validity in them. We want the future proposed by the assembled science fiction writers — at least, we want there to be a future — even as we wince at the chauvinism and naive techno-optimism from which their visions are woven. Byrne’s work attests to the ongoing shared responsibility to re-examine and re-think history in ways that acknowledge the pleasures derived not only from the great heroes and art works of the past, but also from the narratives we have built up around them.

A State of Neutral Pleasure runs until 8th March 2013.