Gerard Byrne’s video installations at the Whitechapel Gallery have some points of interest; particularly his A man and a woman make love (2012), making its debut there. Far more interesting is the Viral Research exhibition upstairs.
Byrne recreates moments in history, but not moments most people would have heard of. A man and a woman re-enacts a 1920s conversation on sexual politics between members of the Surrealist Movement. It is entertaining to see this encounter filmed like a cheap Seventies sitcom, and I liked the switching perspectives on each screen; sometimes a screen went off altogether, forcing the audience to shuffle round the room to find the next one, like so many art-chasing sheep.
Other than this spectacle, Bryne is fairly inaccessible. His choice of arcane and archaic episodes may try to ‘explore the way we understand the present through how we view the past,’ as the blurb claims, but for me they didn’t throw light on anything and they’re frankly a little dull.
The pieces borrowed from the Collection Sandretto Re Rebaudenengo to make up Viral Research have a more visceral power. The only colours on show are black and white. The 8 hilt-less knifes that make up Eva Marisaldi’s Untitled (1994) are white, each blade enscribed with a target – ‘diplomatic people,’ ‘world fever’ or (my favourite) ‘some complication.’
Ptotr Ulanski’s Untiltled (Alpha and Omega) (2012) is black, in colour and deed. A selection of vases and pots hang sideways on the wall; the closer you get the more threatening they are, out of place and gravity, ready to attack or fall. The darkness glimpsed down their spouts is ominous, taken out of everyday context and poured down your throat.
This tone of extraordinary danger in the ordinary is carried through the show; Charles Ray’s eponymous Viral Research presents a variety of chemistry vessels filled with dark liquid, instead of the clinical cleanliness the viewer expects of such containers, and his black and white photograph Untitled shows a human figure casually strung up on the branch of a tree.
For a feminist slant on the same theme, Zoe Leonard photographs objects that are meant to be female aides. From a medieval chastity belt to a 1930s beauty calibrator to a set of gynecological implements, all look exactly like crude instruments of torture, and Leonard’s point is loud and clear (see the original 1930s beauty calibrator in the photo below).
This last is more than can be said for Byrne’s icily cerebral take on things, and on that basis, I recommend heading straight upstairs.
Gabriel Byrne and Viral Research run @The Whitechapel Gallery until 8th March 2013
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