Irish artist-filmmaker Gerard Byrne, the subject of a new survey show at the Whitechapel Gallery, specialises in historical reenactment. He focuses not so much on key events of popular history but on the lesser-known cultural moments in which figures from the worlds of art, literature and philosophy have formulated their ideas. Instead of performing scripts created from scratch, the actors in his films re-enact magazine interviews from the past.
Gerard Byrne, 'Homme à femmes (Michel Debrane)', 2004. Single channel video projection with Dolby 5.1 audio. Duration: 38 min. Commissioned by BAK Utrecht. © Gerard Byrne.
The resulting films – by turns humorous, insightful, moving and self-consciously stagey – occupy a realm between drama and documentary. The transcripts that formed the printed interviews were, of course, edited before Byrne discovered them, hardly exactly accurate copies of conversations; the actors, director, editor and camera operators then add layer upon layer of interpretation.
This strange narrative space is illustrated as an architectural space in his films New sexual lifestyles (2003), in which a roundtable discussion about unconventional sex lives, printed in Playboy in 1973, is dramatised in a modernist glass space suspended in a forest. The cast is not chosen to match the original participants, differing in appearance, accent and dress. The conversation is stilted, as if Byrne is keen to keep the sense that a printed text is being narrated.
Gerard Byrne, 'A man and a woman make love', 2012. Multi-channel projection. Installation shot. Variable loop of approx. 19 min. Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel. © Gerard Byrne.
Sex is also a theme of two other films, one of which (Homme à Femmes [Michel Debrane], 2004) reenacts a 1977 journal interview between philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and journalist Catherine Chaîne. The actress playing Chaîne is kept off-screen, while Debrane – who plays Sartre – has the camera fixed on his face and gestures for the 44 minutes.
Gerard Byrne, 'A man and a woman make love', 2012. Multi-channel projection. Variable loop of approx. 19 min. Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel. © Gerard Byrne. The conversation concerns Sartre’s open relationship with feminist intellectual Simon de Beauvoir. Some of the most interesting sections are when his chauvinism and arrogance seeps through, but the form is as fascinating as the content. Byrne makes a point of a verité style, moving his handheld camera from Debrane’s face to linger on books in the corner or the pipe in his hands; he also only subtitles in English some of their French discussion, as if to emphasise that he is the arbiter of this constructed version of history.
The production processes inherent in Byrne’s work, and moving images in general, are evinced further in the multi-screen installation A man and a woman make love (2012), in which actors reenact a discussion about sex by the Surrealists; it is filmed in front of a studio audience and Byrne’s gaze strays backstage, showing the cameramen and women that film the actors on set. The aim of all these tricks is to demonstrate the contingency of what we think of as history. ‘I’m working from the premise that what constitutes “the historical” is constantly shifting, from one present to the next,’ the artist explains in the exhibition catalogue. ‘I’m interested in how the mechanics of our collective moment is constructed.’
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine