– Spring 2008

Why It’s Time for Realism, Again

Maria Muhle

'It is comparatively easy to set up a basic model for epic theatre. For practical experiments I usually picked as my example of completely simple "natural" epic theatre an incident such as can be seen on any street corner: an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how traffic accident took place.' Bertold Brecht, 'The Street Scene' Published in Willets, J. 'Brecht on Theatre', London, 1964. Gerard Byrne, Various views from the corners of Meeker and McGuinness Blvds, 2000 - ongoing, Fuji Crystal Archive prints, 50.8x61 cm. Courtesy of the artist

The current inflation of art practice that combines references to pop culture with modernist aesthetics has resulted in a profusion of works that, through a simple (sometimes simplistic) play of contrasts, reflect postmodern nostalgia -
often accompanied by an unfulfilled claim to offer a critical perspective.

Gerard Byrne's works include a multitude of popular references (science fiction, luxury cars, Playboy magazine, sexual practices, Frank Sinatra and familiar French intellectuals) and adopt a polished, modernist aesthetics, but he avoids focusing on simple contradiction or offering any hint of mourning, either for a past or present reality.

Byrne makes photographs, videos and installations of pristine appearance, adopting as a starting point published texts (interviews, roundtable discussions, advertisements or theoretical essays). These are then articulated in relation to modernist aesthetics, both in the 'content' of the artworks (through the use of a specific architectural background, for example) and their 'form' (through the works' clean, stylised presentation).1 Probably the most immediate and productive way to approach Byrne's work is by drawing a comparison with Bertolt Brecht's notion of epic theatre. Two recent videos, Homme à Femmes (Michel Debrane) (2004) and *ZAN-*T185 r.1: (Interview) v.1, no. 4 - v.2, no. 6 ... no. 21 - v.3, no. 9. (2007), make the parallels between the two especially evident. Both works restage interviews with famous people (or people who aspire to be famous) that were originally printed in periodicals, and in both the setting is similar: an actor, who plays the role of the interviewee, occupies the frame, and answers questions posed by an invisible interviewer. In Homme à Femmes the screen shows a white-bearded, elderly man answering questions in French to

  1. These characteristics were evident in Byrne's recent exhibitions at the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (10 June-21 November 2007) and at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Düsseldorf (5 May-8 July 2007). Most of the works I will be referring to throughout the text were included in these two shows.

  2. The interviews took place in 1973 and 1974.

  3. Brecht, in 'The Street Scene', proposes a 'simple' model for epic theatre, which is presented as the opposite of Aristotelian theatre. The latter aims to provoke an empathy between the audience and the protagonist, and a subsequent resolution through catharsis: actors are meant to faithfully mimic the characters they represent, so that the audience is irreflexively transported to a fictional world. Brecht maintains that theatre needs to do the opposite: it has to be clearly recognisable as theatre, as artifice, as fiction. Epic theatre needs to abandon classical theatre's fourth wall, and present situations in such a way that the audience realises that there is no necessity to them, so they become aware of their own social context and of the possibility of political change. See Bertolt Brecht, 'The Street Scene', Brecht on Theatre. The Development of an Aesthetic (trans. and ed. John Willett), London: Methuen Drama, 1964. Byrne also references Brecht explicitly in In Repertory (2005) - this time Mother Courage and Her Children (1939).

  4. The Unisphere from the 1964 New York World's Fair.

  5. Pohl Anderson, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Rod Sterling, Theodore Sturgeon, William Tenn and A.E. Van Vogt. The conversation was printed in Playboy in the July and August 1963 issues.

  6. George Baker, 'The Storyteller: Notes on the work of Gerard Byrne', in Vanessa Joan Müller (ed.), Gerard Byrne: Books, Magazines, and Newspapers, New York and Berlin: Lukas & Sternberg, 2003, pp.53 and 24.

  7. Ibid., p.24.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Jacques Rancière, 'Are Some Things Unrepresentable?', The Future of the Image, London: Verso, 2007, pp.109-42. For an explanation of the three regimes (the ethical regime of images, the representative (or poetic) regime of art and the aesthetic regime of the arts) see Jacques Rancière, 'The Distribution of the Sensible', The Politics of Aesthetics, London and New York: Continuum, 2004, pp.20-23.

  10. One of the best ways to understand Rancière's conception of the relation between documentary and fiction within art practice is through the films of Pedro Costa. These aren't just the simple depiction of the daily goings of heroin addicts and jobless immigrants from Cap Verde in Lisbon; they show these characters in a different position. For example, a former worker in the building trade by the name of Ventura is shown in Juventude em Marcha (2006) 'as a sort of lord coming from a distant country and a remote time', that is, as someone capable of questioning the order of things by adopting a role that is not his. J. Rancière, 'Image, Relation, Action: Questions About the Politics of Art', unpublished manuscript, n.p.

  11. J. Rancière, 'The Distribution of the Sensible', The Politics of Aesthetics, op.cit., p.24. See http://9scripts.info (last accessed on 12 October 2007).

  12. J. Rancière, 'Politics of Art', unpublished manuscript, 2007, n.p. The cauliflowers are a reference to Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941).