I pushed aside a curtain at last year’s Documenta art show in Kassel, Germany, and came upon surrealists discussing sex. There, in the darkness of a seedy hotel room, were André Breton decrying homosexuality and Yves Tanguy professing cool indifference. From brothels to masturbation, all aspects of eroticism were being explored, Kinsey-style, by actors in 1920s dress.
The piece, A Man and Woman Make Love (2012), is a five-screen installation made in the form of a television play with a live studio audience. Created by the Irish artist Gerard Byrne, it will take pride of place in the survey of his work opening at London’s Whitechapel Gallery on Thursday.
Both film-maker and photographer, Byrne is fascinated by how we construct a sense of the past. His projects grow out of long-forgotten texts – conversations, interviews, advertisements from magazines, say, or from the radio. A Man and a Woman is based on a series of round-table discussions on eroticism that the surrealists held privately, but with an eye to publication, between 1928 and 1932.
“It’s a bizarre, batty work – I’m still coming to terms with it,” laughs Byrne, when we meet at his Dublin studio. The transcript of the surrealists’ discussion had been sitting on the artist’s shelf since 2008, a text in search of a project. At Documenta, it found its moment. “In Kassel, when I’ve said I’m an artist, people ask for my autograph,” he says, wincing slightly. “What interested me about the surrealists’ text was that a group of self-proclaimed artists had got together to discuss eroticism, which is a profoundly universal experience, but somehow they were doing it from the privileged position of being artists. I’m interested in what people feel they have a right to speak about artistically. So, on the most basic level, I’m asking, ‘Can art or artists say anything significant about sex?’ ”
Byrne, 43, lives and works in Dublin, while also teaching in Copenhagen. The subject matter of his other projects includes a debate on minimalist art; the reminiscences of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; and Daily Mail stories about the Loch Ness monster in the 1930s. 1984 and Beyond, a film first shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale, is based on a round-table in which the science-fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and others aired their views on the future. It was published in Playboy in 1963 but the writers’ unexpected optimism (given the cold war, Cuban missile crisis etc), coupled with the hammy acting and the unspecific setting, leaves you uncertain as to what you’re seeing.
“Newsstands”, an ongoing photographic project, is also in the Whitechapel show. Though less striking than Byrne’s films, these pictures go to the heart of his concern with history. “A news-stand is constantly shifting, so with these single prints I am trying to lock in a certain cultural moment,” he explains.
In the 1990s, while many of his fellow fine art graduate students in Dublin headed to London to do their masters degrees, Byrne opted instead to pursue his studies at New York’s New School for Social Research. He re-emerged, at the end of the decade, steeped in post-structuralist theory – roughly, the idea that, in the social sciences, there is no fixed truth, only an ever-shifting field of discourses – and with a desire to use ready-made texts as the basis of his art. That in turn led him to the idea of filming with actors – the link being “bodies”. “Implicit in any text is the idea of a body,” he says. Isn’t that a kind of heresy? I ask. Post-structuralists aren’t supposed to be concerned with objective reality, let alone bodies – the discourse, surely, is all.
Byrne, however, is no orthodox post-structuralist: though concerned with establishing rules for his work, he seems happy to break them. “The very act of rendering the surrealists’ discussion visually is probably a transgression,” he says with a smile. “It should simply exist as a historical document – and no more than that.” He pauses. “Perhaps the idea of depicting the body is a Catholic thing. Transubstantiation: for a Catholic the bread has to become the body. Why?”
Soon after leaving college, theory and practice meshed for Byrne. He saw a 1980 National Geographic advertisement in which the then Chrysler chief executive Lee Iacocca discusses the ideal car with Frank Sinatra. For a former student fascinated by notions of “text”, “discourse” and “the death of the author”, it was perfect. “I knew I wanted to find a way of working with actors that involved text, but I didn’t want to be an author. And suddenly here was this ready-made text in the form of a dialogue.”
The result was Why It’s Time for Imperial, Again (1998-2002), a brilliantly deadpan film in which smooth car salesman Iacocca explains to Sinatra, as a consumer-everyman, why Chrysler’s latest model is the car for him, as they stroll through a derelict area of Queens, New York. Though the conversation dates from 1980, they touch on the energy crisis and the state of the car industry: it still feels current, and Byrne is pleased that a New York gallery chose to screen it last November to coincide with the presidential election.
“It’s not a directly political work – there’s no language that goes beyond the language of the car advert – but it resonates with this trope of American politics, raised again by Mitt Romney, that the model for democracy is business: the idea that” – he snorts – “if you can run a big company, you can run the country.”
From cars to sex, Byrne wants his art to highlight absurdities and raise questions about how we view the past. I remark on the affinities between his films and immersive works such as the theatre group Dreamthinkspeak’s Hamlet, which takes place on all sides of a promenading audience, or Stifters Dinge, Heiner Goebbels’ “performance without performers”, which was restaged as an installation in London last year.
“They’re kindred spirits,” Byrne agrees. What separates his work, though, is the strict way he defines boundaries. “Some of my works are sprawling, ambitious productions. But at the same time there is a sort of circumspection. I am working mostly with images and in an orthodox way. And I’ve always chosen to show them in a gallery, as opposed to drifting into theatre.”
It’s strange, but also deeply satisfying, that works that take as their starting point the abstruse tenets of post-structuralist philosophy can turn out to be so complex, funny and full of food for thought.
Gerard Byrne, Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, January 17 to March 8, www.whitechapelgallery.org