Boston

Gerard Byrne

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

“Nessie,” whose existence in a Scottish inlet has been ardently debated for centuries, lurked as a shadowy presence within Gerard Byrne’s magisterial US solo debut, which consisted of a multipart installation clinically titled Case Study: Loch Ness (Some possibilities and problems), 2001–2008. Is Nessie a terrifying monster, a wind-generated mirage, or a folkloric myth? Is s/he a figment of the collective imagination, or an ingenious marketing stunt devised to boost newspaper sales and local tourism? And might there be a correlation between the increase in sightings, the rise of popular photography signaled by the invention of Kodak’s Brownie 2A (“You press the button, we do the rest”), and the construction of a new road by the loch, all of which occurred in the early 1930s?

Byrne is interested not in solving the Loch Ness riddle but in intensifying its ripple effects. More specifically, he’s interested in finding a mode of representation that might adequately articulate the paradox of a myth fabricated from so many layers of “empirical evidence.” How can one render a phenomenon “seen” by so many, yet remaining invisible to most for so long? With such a question in mind, Byrne interspersed archival material with his own stagings, juxtaposing, for example, iconic images of the beast with black-and-white photographs he’d shot around the loch over the past eight years. The probable falsity of a “historical document” like Nessie’s notorious blurry head shot is brought out by the artist’s straightforward formal compositions, which approximate but don’t wholly fulfill the wish-image, showing a dog with its head in the water, a tangle of plants, or a twisted rope, and so suggesting how easily the eye can deceive. Byrne’s photographic appositions make studies of the potent phantasmagoria that can arise at the intersection of desire, perception, and mechanical reproduction. It remains for the viewer to decide whether anticipation paves the way for seeing (by smoothing out logical bumps to maintain desire’s thralldom) and to determine the ways in which technology mediates this collusion.

The phantasmagoric brew is made murkier by its being filtered into oral and written testimony. Across an expansive gallery wall, Byrne has stenciled a chronology of sightings, whose extraordinary details had been reported with seeming sincerity. How do we account for the bizarre apparition with a “head like a camel on a long neck with 4 limbs” (1919), “large body with giraffe-like neck” (1934), and “grey/black mass with elephant like trunk” (1960)? As if to illustrate the centrifugal dynamic of this narrative, Byrne has placed a tree stump at the foot of the wall and dotted its growth rings with small pins. Unlike the tree’s proliferation of rings, however, the Loch Ness narrative doesn’t grow unvaryingly outward from a central origin, but breeds in divergent directions as if serving various social functions.

Byrne’s fascination with the slippages and embellishments that occur between sight, speech, and inscription was also apparent in two wall-hung pieces displaying poetic arrangements of snippets of eyewitness accounts, meticulously footnoted. By transforming reportage into verse, he has widened the gap between the original speakers’ intentions and the readers’ interpretations. Like Balzac’s Sarrasine, as discussed by Roland Barthes in S/Z (1970), the monster in this “case study” is a plural text awaiting future readings, the viewer emerging as participant in its construction.

Nuit Banai