New York

James Byrne

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

In Phase, 1981, James Byrne has arranged four video monitors inside a square metal frame so that their screens radiate from the center, like the blades of a pinwheel. Hung by one corner from the ceiling this whole apparatus takes on a diamond shape; by playing the same tape on all four monitors simultaneously Byrne creates a pulsating electronic mandala. Camera movements, replicated fourfold in this strictly symmetrical format, lose their individuality and become part of an overall pattern. Side-to-side pans and tracking shots become tangents on an imaginary circle whose center coincides with the center of the diamond; up-and-down camera movements describe radii plunging into or out of that same circle.

The viewer’s first impulse may be to concentrate on one monitor in an attempt tb decipher the camera imagery of the tape and to translate the experience of the work into the more familiar one of watching TV. But Byrne provides little of interest on this level. His images are of pleasant but unremarkable summer-suburban scenes, all shown fairly close up so that any specificity of reference is lost. What remains are generalized forms, colors, and textures: leafy banks of shrubbery, gray pavement, glossy blue skies.

Byrne made the tape (shown as a loop) specifically for this four-monitor setup. Accordingly, many of the shots appear to have been chosen primarily for their graphic qualities. In tracking shots alongside metal fences, bars or mesh rushing rhythmically across the screens form dizzying optical patterns. In another repeated device Byrne shoots down along a stake or pole as he circles it slowly; the pole appears to wobble eccentrically inside the pool of space depicted on each monitor, recalling the optical disks Marcel Duchamp created for Anemic Cinema.

In emphasizing pattern over image Byrne undercuts the narrative implications of his piece. The tape’s three sections are more like movements in a musical work than episodes in a story. Images of trees, clouds, shrubbery, fence posts, and shadows on concrete recur throughout, edited in a slow rhythm that reinforces the peacefulness of the imagery; by panning across these scenes at different speeds and in different directions, Byrne causes the mandala now to collapse into the center like a whirlpool, now to rush to the edges like an exploding galaxy. Byrne’s soundtrack too follows this theme-and-variation format. The sounds of rushing water which open the piece reappear later, slowed down, as a deeper rumble. Atonal piano tinkling (Byrne’s own noodling) is also interspersed throughout the tape.

The hypnotic quality of Byrne’s kaleidoscopic effects recalls the feedback imagery that many early video artists found so entrancing. The infinitely receding spiral produced by aiming a camera at the monitor it was hooked up to was for many video students the first “artistic” effect they could produce, but it quickly became banal; the seeming paradox of infinite regress brought with it a too-easy mysticism. Byrne avoids the pretentiousness of much feedback work by the simple, obvious structure of his piece. He’s not conjuring electronic ghosts; he’s changing the way in which TV is usually viewed in order to create a new perceptual experience.

The four-monitor arrangement that Byrne uses in Phase has recently been used by Nam June Paik, also long concerned with transforming the usual TV-viewing situation, in his V-yramid, 1982. But Paik stacks his four-monitor units on top of each other, using a total of 40 sets, and plays a heavily edited and processed tape over them all. Compared to Paik’s frenetically babbling tower, Byrne’s work is like a quietly pulsing oriel.

As with any mandala, the focus of Phase is ultimately its center. All the dancing forms and circling lines direct attention to that center—and there’s nothing there, except the empty space between the overlapped corners of the TV monitors. Given the introspective, quasi-religious qualities of the work, that emptiness might be considered an intentional effect, but it seems more likely that Byrne simply couldn’t overcome the unavoidable presence of the TV cabinets that surround the screens. A TV set remains a piece of furniture, even if it does flicker and talk.

By the same token, part of the breathtaking, dreamlike quality of Phase stems from the contradiction of four clunky monitors floating in space; and part of the ironic challenge it poses to the dreariness of everyday TV comes from the fact that its effects depend not on esoteric technology, but on the imaginative transformation of a familiar experience. The empty center is a reminder of the simple terms Byrne uses to create his spectacular effects.

Charles Hagen