Gerard Byrne’s name has been coming up regularly in the wider art world: in 2007 he represented Ireland at the 52nd Venice Biennale and in the summer of that year he received extended essay on his work in Artforum; then the March 2009 review in Artforum of his U.S. solo debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; and last October’sArt in America review of his exhibition at Lismore Castle Arts (yes, it is an actual castle). The centerpiece of the Lismore Castle exhibit was Byrne’s A thing is a hole in a thing it is not, a multi-channel video installation that has made it across the ocean to the cavernous hall of the Renaissance Society where it is the title of the exhibition and the sole work on view.
It’s the last week to see this work from the preeminent Irish artist, the subject of which fits into its Chicago location surprisingly well. Presented on large, angled white walls that echo minimalist sculpture in form, the five video projections that Byrne presents all address the legacy of Minimalism. This is a legacy we are still grappling with, for better or worse, as a tour of Chicago’s galleries, art fair, MFA shows, or emerging and alternative spaces will prove.
The video vignettes that Byrne presents emphasize their rootedness in a very particular moment in history and art. In one video, hands on a typewriter, the universal symbol of a bygone era, bang out a letter from filmmaker and theoretician Hollis Frampton about his friend Carl Andre as the narrator reads the letter aloud. A second video recreates Robert Morris’ 1962 performance/sculpture Column. Another video casts actors in the roles of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and critic Bruce Glaser to recreate a 1964 radio interview, and a fourth video recreates Tony Smith’s seminal car ride along the then-unfinished New Jersey Turnpike in the early 1950s, the account of which was published in 1966. The period atmosphere of each is heightened by Byrne’s cinematography, particularly close-ups that focus on analogue clocks, the wavering needles on dials and equipment, on the vintage details of the car, and on smoking, which is copious, indoors and guilt-free.
The emphasis on this particular period in the 1960s is juxtaposed against the fifth video that, through similar cinematographic emphasis, appears to be quite contemporary. It predominantly features an urbane Dutch narrator, dressed in contemporary fashion, who seems to be filming some sort of television special on art in general, and Minimalism in particular. As he moves through the icy Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, we see representative examples from Flavin, Judd, Andre and Stella. Byrne presents the narrator figure with all the signifiers of “art suave:” the European accent, the dark suit coupled with a dark button-down shirt, a goatee, slicked back hair that’s graying but not fully gray, and, the most important art signifier of all, the cigarette, which is carried around by the narrator like a baby, but is unlit the whole time, even in the penultimate act of absurdity when he takes a supremely satisfied drag in front of a Dan Flavin fluorescent tube work.
Through these five videos Byrne presents key points in the history of Minimalism, right up to current reception. But it is history, and Byrne repeatedly points to that through the vintage details and by highlighting the very specific art history that Minimalism evolved in response to during the 1950s and 1960s. Byrne has also installed automated shutters on the projectors that serve to distance us as they occasionally snap shut over the lens, blacking out the projection and leaving only the spoken words. The audio of the projections bleed over each other to indicate the simultaneous discourse and its muddled reception. Though frustrated reception would fit into Byrne’s conception for this project, the total audio experience in this presentation was more maddening than anything else and felt accidental rather than intended. I struggled to hear the soft-spoken actor playing Frank Stella over the banging of Hollis Frampton’s typewriter echoing loudly from the other end of the hall. Viewers who don’t have extremely keen hearing and some patience will probably also end up annoyed or totally unable to hear the audio except in fits and starts.
I’ve seen a lot of watered-down minimalistic art, particularly in the past two years or so, and as curator Hamza Walker notes in his essay for the exhibition, “[Minimalism] is a past from which we are hardly extricated.” If I had a class of aspiring artists I would bring them to A thing is a hole in a thing it is not so that hopefully they might see a story of how Minimalism grappled with the issues of its time, and by understanding that, hopefully move past minimalism's continued chokehold. Ironically, by telling the story of Minimalism and its hold on us still, Byrne has created something distinctly of our moment.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant: Chicago