Between Image and Text
Gerard Byrne was at Catalyst Arts, Belfast, March 1999
Review by Siún Hanrahan
Gerard Byrne's show at Catalyst Arts in Belfast consists of four large, untitled colour prints on aluminium accompanied by a four-scene audio drama, 'Treatment', made in collaboration with Sarah Pierce. The photographs are of unoccupied office spaces at night, taken from outside. The audio drama presents what seem to be snippets of a pulp fiction plot. The spaces Byrne presents and his visual decisions in presenting them are unremarkable. Other than discerning that each of the photographs was taken through a window, our perception is not challenged. As Sontag observed, 'What it once took a very intelligent eye to see, anyone can see now'. So what are we being asked to look at? One possibility suggested by this particular juxtaposition of images and audio drama is that the relationship of image to reference be superseded. As a kind of caption, this fragmented, slapstick drama indicates that the photographs are no longer expected to 'speak for truth'. The relationship between image and 'text' invites imaginative projection into the image rather than beyond it to the world.
The audio drama invests the images with a wry humour. Quickened by the tongue-in-cheek drama, the flatness of Byrne's photographs seems 'deadpan' and otherwise unremarkable details seem incongruous. The lone, rather polite looking chair of 'no title #2603' seems an unlikely candidate for a 'Reservoir Dogs'-style torture scene. (The affinity with Weegee claimed by Byrne may well be on the basis of this flair for bringing the incongruous together.) In return, the sheer inconsequentiality of some of the photographic details mentioned in the text reinforces its light-hearted nature. For example, a heavy discussion of a 'deal' and an ominous 'loan' is punctuated by 'do you like the colour', presumably prompted by the innocuous pale green of 'no title #2603'. Thus, the audio drama serves as anchor in relation to the photographs; it indicates the correct level of perception, in this case an ironic understanding of the photographs.
The imaginative projection into the images set up by the audio drama also serves to open them up to multiple connotations. The photographs and audio drama combine as fragments of a wider narrative so that the viewer/listener is shifted from a 'pure spectatorial consciousness' in relation to the photographs toward a more 'magical fictional consciousness'. Within this dynamic the audio drama can be understood as a spur to the imagination to invest the images with alternative narratives. One difficulty with this, however, is that the invitation to imagine alternative narratives is cut short by prompt re-plays of the audio drama.
Returning to my earlier question, what does this juxtaposition of images and text (the audio drama) ask us to look at? The press release accompanying the work points to 'the tenuous, contemporary roles of architecture and photography, "the ancient arts of inscribing and describing space", as they become increasingly eroded by new technologies'. In terms of photography, the possibilities of reworking the photographic image afforded by developments in computer-based image production have increasingly undermined the authority attributed to the photograph in describing space. That even 'straightforward' photographs such as these are affected is acknowledged by Byrne's explicit combination of image and text. Image-text works are a form of 'constructed photography' in that we are made aware of the conceptual engineering of the artist. The work thus suggests that 'concentration on the literal surface of things and on subject matter that seems to speak for itself' is misguided.
In terms of architecture, a key to the work's rejection of the revelatory power of the 'literal surface of things' may lie in the plot of the audio drama. The illicit goings-on in each of the scenes seem to involve computers one way or another. Thus it may be that Byrne's 'eroding technologies' refers to the impact of the mobility of computer-based businesses and the alternative concepts of space involved by computers (virtual reality) on the architectural inscription of space.
'New technologies' have ushered in an information society in which the majority of the working population is involved in the manufacture of information. Computer-based businesses are highly mobile and do not require that the actual space in which they are situated reflect any singularity about this or that particular business to any great extent. The spaces photographed by Byrne are ordinary and familiar. They are between owners and will probably be so again. The nature of one as opposed to another of the businesses that has passed through this space does not seem to have exerted particular demands of, or have left particular imprints on, the architecture. Consequently, the architecture's inscription of space tells no particular story.
Overall the work is significantly more effective as an exploration of the tenuous contemporary role of photography than of architecture. It is humorous and raises interesting questions about the relationship between image and text. If, as has been suggested, it is our experience of the process of construction that counts in art, this is clearly successful work. For my own part, I would have liked to find more to say about the images themselves.