IMAGES OR SHADOWS OF DIVINE THINGS, an installation comprising black-and-white photographs that Gerard Byrne has been making since 2005, limns the specific sense of anachronism one sees so frequently in the Irish artist's work and served as an enigmatic introduction to this solo exhibition. Here is an America seemingly stranded in limbo between the mid-1960s and the present-day, an array of images at once familiar in terms of styles and subjects and vexed by a subtle disequilibrium. Street scenes worthy of Lee Friedlander or Saul Leiter abut shopwindows out of late Walker Evans and figures plausibly displaced from Robert Frank's The Americans; there are hints of the New Topographics in the fragments of modernist architecture and a truck stop's desert vista. Both the world depicted and the forms in which it is rendered appear four or five decades out of date, yet all--or rather, in a characteristic inflection, almost all--nineteen photographs were taken by Byrne over the past five years (though some were taken at his request by an American collaborator, Matthew Bakkom, a fact that the installation nowhere acknowledged). The whole seems a deadpan ruse by which the textures of the contemporary are shown to have changed little in half a century, and an ostensibly vanished past is arrested as it dreams of the future, our present.
Although this work focuses on a historically specific art form that persists as both artifact and unavoidable presence in contemporary times, a good deal of Byrne's work to date has been concerned with the reading and interpretation of actual texts--more exactly, he proceeds by turning a historical document or testimony into the script for a restaging or new performance. For example, his 2005-2007 video installation 1984 and Beyond, shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007, recorded a dramatized reading of a discussion among science fiction writers concerning the future, originally convened and published by Playboy magazine in 1963; their predictions of mass space travel and economic ease are certainly outmoded, but the more fundamental estrangement is in the very fact of their confidence in the face of the future. Images or Shadows also relies in part on a text: an excerpt from Perry Miller's 1949 biography of the eighteenth-century American theologian Jonathan Edwards, the same passage that serves as the epigraph to Michael Fried's 1967 essay "Art and Objecthood." Discussing Edwards's reflections on prefiguration and repetition. Miller writes, "If all the world were annihilated ... and a new world were freshly created, though it were to exist in every particular in the same manner as this world, it would not be the same." The passage adds a further suspicion to the historical intricacies of futurism and nostalgia in Byrne's installation, raising the possibility that what we are seeing is in fact a sedulous reconstruction of the past, with all the novelty unavoidably entailed in repetition.
The four new video works that formed the core of the show at Lismore Castle Arts take their place among a growing number of Byrne's films that react to or repurpose notable artworks of the 1960s and, more precisely, explore their fate among the protocols of the contemporary museum. (His 2008 film '68 Mica & Glass, for example, shows a stratified work of Robert Smithson's being assembled and disassembled, without apparent conclusion, at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen.) Collectively titled A Thing Is a Hole in a Thing It Is Not--recently exhibited also at the 2010 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, which commissioned the piece with the Renaissance Society in Chicago, in collaboration with the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands--these four videos are variously oblique and direct responses to the origins and afterlife of Minimalism. In part, they might be seen as contrary extrapolations from Fried's assertion of the "theatricality" of Minimalist sculpture, its supposed tendency to throw the viewer back into his or her own contingent lifeworld. …