Gerard Byrne: A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not

Lismore Castle Arts, Co. Waterford

The four films that comprise Gerard Byrne’s A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not (2010) are installed, one after another, down the length of the Lismore Castle Arts gallery space. As with the Minimalist art that provides the films’ subject matter, there is more than one possible starting point here. Having chosen specific artworks and texts produced during the 1960s as his own point of departure, Byrne places both them and his viewers in an ongoing conversation. Indeed, it is from such conversations, we come to understand, that artworks themselves emerge. Together, the films pick up threads and weave them together to form an intricate pattern, with each element articulated in relation to the others. A choice between media, between critical positions, or between past and present, is not so much at issue in Byrne’s installation. Nor do we solve the obvious problems concerning myths of origin and originality that might arise from any process of re-enactment. Inevitable questions surrounding the veracity of documents, the authenticity of objects, the primacy of direct experience, are all raised but remain unresolved in these films. Byrne deliberately but delicately keeps them all in tension, or, to use his own term, ‘contiguity’.
Byrne has transposed our familiar exposure to Minimalist art objects and texts into something new through the mediation of film. And yet the experience of viewing these films is inherently one of negotiating sculptural objects, as they are projected onto four three-metre-high screens, which are freestanding, temporary, repeated units, designed to be re-staged in other venues. Their reverse sides remind us of the hollowness of many Minimalist objects, or the unfinished backs of stage flats. This minute attention to surface and finish, and the frank materiality of these objects, mean that the viewing conditions, as much as the films’ content, are acutely tuned to the visual and critical vocabulary of their subject. The installation nonetheless both provides and denies us access to the past, and it is this liminality, in which there can be no fixed relations, which allows us to create our own text, to find a specific narrative of Minimalism through the exercise of our own levels of attention.

Gerard Byrne: A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010). 4K video, installation shot.
Gerard Byrne: A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010). 4K video, installation shot.

So it matters little whether we start by viewing Robert Morris’s Column fall dramatically from upright to prone exactly half way through the seven minutes of the filmed performance; announcing, just as it did in 1960, how static sculptural objects were hence to be viewed as subject to time, and to the presence of bodies. This moment repeatedly punctuates the gallery with its loud bang, reminding us of Minimalism’s roots in performance through Morris’s participation with the Judson Dance Theater Group in New York. The original column was Morris’s first sculpture, built as a prop out of painted plywood for an event which actually took place on 14th Street, at The Living Theater. The choice of the Judson Church as the setting for Byrne’s footage links Morris’s piece with the habitual collaborations that took place there, and back in turn to their source in the work of Cage and Cunningham. Morris had originally planned to be inside the sculpture, and so it is his absent body that the filmed column conjures: standing and falling in the empty church, forever repeating a parody of death and resurrection, to the ticking of a watch.

Alternatively, the film at the other end of the gallery space posits another origin for Minimalism. An interview with architect and sculptor Tony Smith, published in Artforum at the end of 1966, included a brief but influential description of his journey on the unfinished asphalt of the New Jersey Turnpike at night. The trip itself took place in the early fifties when he taught at Cooper Union, but Byrne’s film collapses the moments of the journey onto the time of its recollection, which we experience through the sound track. The aesthetic of the film closely follows Smith’s eulogy of ‘artificial landscape without cultural precedent’ as we travel in the car with him and his students, experiencing for ourselves the vast darkness outside the car windows, ‘punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and coloured lights’. The temporal slippage between sound and image is made more evident by the use of a mechanical shutter, which is choreographed to pass in front of the film as it is projected in the gallery, and break our absorption in it.
The effect of this process is that, as with minimalist art itself, one is made aware of Byrne’s work as an inherently performative as well as cerebral experience. One might discover the hard way, for example, that the only place to hear Judd, Flavin and Stella discussing their ideas in an interview with Bruce Glaser in 1964, which forms the sound track of another film in the installation, is to stand precisely under the speaker provided. Sitting on the floor, or moving away will result only in minimalist mumblings. The voices are relayed into the gallery as a column of sound into which the viewing body must move and stand, echoing Morris’s sculpture perhaps, but also embodying the precision with which the disembodied words of the dialogue are being chosen. The intimacy of listening to the original broadcast is once again tempered by doubts about its status in relation to the participants on screen. We watch actors performing in a radio museum in Dublin, but never actually see them speak. Instead, the camera slowly trawls over the equipment in the smokefilled studio in a kind of technophile reverie, teasing our desire for what is absent into reading a glimpse of herringbone tweed trouser as a cipher for Frank Stella.
Stella’s work, Tuxedo Junction (1960), shares its title with Byrne’s exhibition publication, and also appears in the fourth film, shot in the chilly November light that pours into the galleries of the Van Abbemuseum; bringing ordinary daylight, the ideal viewing conditions for minimalist artworks, indirectly into the darkened spaces at Lismore. This was the first venue in Europe to collect and display Minimalist works in earnest, and as we see, is the final resting place of many of its objects, braced and wheeled around, in the ballet that is curatorial care, a reminder of the ultimate fate of art, and all us mortals. Before we succumb to being dusted around, like the Judd pieces in Byrne’s film, reflection on a final layer of this intertextual dance might furnish a potential key to this film, one which provided the initial cue for the whole project. The position of Michael Fried’s famous critique ‘Art and Objecthood’ (1967) as both antagonistic towards Minimalist theory and yet also a central text in its formation, had always struck Byrne as compelling. Even in this film, where the artworks and the camera appear to have their closest encounters, Byrne ultimately places his own viewpoint on Fried’s arguments out of reach. In this way he avoids closure, and instead offers minimalism to us as unfinished business. Both as source and resource for the art-making and art theorizing of the future, its texts remain open to interpretation and re-interpretation just as its objects are potentially available to us in an endless cycle of fabrication and re-fabrication. The silence and melancholy that pervade these measured works, as in Tacita Dean’s filming of art and artists, seem ultimately to offer us little we didn’t already possess, except perhaps the knowledge that the more forensically we probe and document the past, the further it recedes from our grasp.

A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not formed part of Gerard Byrne’s recent exhibition at Lismore Castle Arts, which was on view 24 April – 30 September 2010.