Art Impersonating Art: Gerard Byrne

LONDON, UK: While visiting the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End I was introduced to the work of artist Gerard Byrne, whose work impressed me enough to do a bit of post-viewing research. Simple enough, the Whitechapel Gallery describes Byrne as:

“Renowned for his films installations which re-enact conversations from specific historic moments, Irish artist Gerard Byrne’s (b. 1969) work explores the way we understand the present through revisiting the past.”

Indeed, two pieces displayed that caught my attention were based on actual articles from media archives of the past. The first was a simple framed magazine article of Frank Sinatra and Lee Iacocca discussing the Imperial car. In the early 80s Sinatra (a friend of Iacocca’s) promoted the Imperial in adverts pro bono. Sinatra appeared in the standard variety of advertising campaign vehicles such as print, TV commercials, even sang in a song written for the car: “It’s Time” (Bulanda, 2012).

This snippet of advertising history was reenacted in a video installation of Byrne’s a few years ago titled, “Why It’s Time for Imperial, Again.” Seemingly reading from another script, both the New York and London press had similar commentary in their reviews of the piece. The New York Times: “It could almost be a Beckett play.” And again in The Guardian: “How they go on, like a couple of Beckett vagrants.” The Beckett reference surfaces in other reviews and articles of Byrne. Perhaps it is the mutual Irish ancestry but I suspect it has more to do with the starkness and other artistic characteristics of their work. Whatever it is, it leaves room for more exploration.

Playboy 1963For me the memorable installation in this exhibition centered on a July 1963 Playboy article called “The Playboy Panel: 1984 and Beyond.” The original article from 1963 is bizarre in its own right: Playboy invited 12 panelists comprised of well known science fiction authors to discuss the future. This conversation was then reproduced into a two part, 25-page article for the magazine appearing in the July and August 1963 issues. Reading the piece is a bit like eavesdropping on a random group of highly creative intellectuals in a hotel lobby. With the current events of their time shaping (or limiting) their imagination, each shared their thoughts on what the future will look like, covering all aspects of life with vividness you would expect of fantasy writers: life on the moon (a future of “lunarian” colonists), ideological, political (Communism vs. Capitalism and the outcome of the Cold War), fanciful and social. There is even a detailed description of a future first date – from the male perspective of course. The panelists included: Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Rod Serling, Theodore Sturgeon, William Tenn, and A. E. van Vogt.

Inventively, Byrne created a reenactment of the panel discussion using the 1963 article as the script. Dutch actors played the parts of the original panelists, walking through each frame with ease and less stiffness than the actors in Imperial piece. They are dressed in vintage 60s style with props of cigarettes (noticeably smoked outside – a giveaway to it being taped in modern day), half empty highballs, retro styled eyeglasses, and true-to-era hairstyling while impersonating American accents to varying levels of success. The impersonations seem to be characteristics of Byrne’s work; always slightly imperfect in acting ability, this is what makes it charming. The video is played on a loop of different parts making the video more digestible in smaller segments of 5 – 10 minutes each. One segment is currently posted on the Whitechapel Gallery’s webpage for Byrne.

Read more on this from The Guardian.

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