Byrne’s maelstrom

With Loch Ness, non-site at Galleri Nordenhake Gerard Byrne returns to the fantasy of the photograph's documentary power.

Gerard Byrne, Figures (Some analogies surveyed, and organized into concrete poetry and conceptual film forms, on dates between 2001 – 2011), 2001 – 2011.

In a 1979 draft of a theory of the relationship between “site” and “non-site” Robert Smithson speaks about the relation a diagram, a drawing, or a topographic map creates with the thing or place to which it refers. He describes his sculptural installations, for example The Non-Site (an indoor earthwork), as “three dimensional logical picture[s].” They are abstract, Smithson asserts, but The Non-Site (an indoor earthwork) nevertheless represents an actual place in New Jersey (the Pine Barrens Plains). “It is by this dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it—this is The Non-Site.”

But if “non-site” for Smithson is the bordered-off, concretized, internal, while “site” is the unenclosed, peripheral, outer, then the place or site in Gerard Byrne’s work—Loch Ness—is already a “non-site.” When Byrne re-actualizes Smithson’s dialectical pair of concepts, it happens when it is no longer so self-evident to conceive of “place” as something external. The natural object, the lake and its possible inhabitants, are already from the outset technological objects. If Smithson transforms places into alien objects, Byrne is more interested in how construction creates new places.

Gerard Byrne, Loch Ness, non-site, installation view.

In spring 1933 reports were published in The Inverness Courier about a monster and were followed by many eyewitness accounts and photographs. In 1934 appeared the famous “Surgeon’s photograph,” and the image of Nessie as a sea-monster somewhere between a seal and a plesiosaurus was established. The first reports came from people who were riding around for pleasure in cars or on motorcycles through the natural surroundings when they sighted this unexpected creature, which often literally crossed their path when it moved down toward the lake.

In Burning with Desire the historian of photography Geoffrey Batchen describes the birth of photography as a result of a desire to photograph—to see how the world looks as an image (not so much to document the world). This proto-photographic desire is manifested in examples of observing the landscape through a Claude glass as one traveled along in a carriage. A little more than a hundred years later it isn’t the desire for images that creates this media machinery, but the desire for an action and a site where this action can take place.

Gerard Byrne, Conger eel or basking shark?, 2001 – ongoing.

One of Gerard Byrne’s works at the Nordenhake, Conger eel or basking shark, consists of documentations of two spreads from The Inverness Courier, photographed in a stand placed on a filing cabinet, something that points to a place in an archive or library (a place for the production of knowledge) rather than toward the newspaper’s original context as a mass medium for maximum distribution. Interchanges between contexts and the interest in the histories of technologies, especially that of photography, is an equally apparent motif in the exhibition as insight about how our history is produced through technologies. The black-and-white photographs of the newspaper show clearly its technological disposition. That the pictures were taken on black-and-white film in chemical-optic photography is accounted for by the film company’s marking “Kodak 100 TMX” visible on the copy. (Parenthetically, it is of course provocative that it is precisely film from Kodak, the company that most seems to embody the difficulty of negotiating the transformation from analog to digital photography.) The work indicates in this way the potentialities of the photographic document and its limitations. We see that the issues of the newspaper from which the photographs are taken are from 31 October 1933, but no visual access is offered to the text. The characters’ forms are blotted out by the film’s grain; headlines and advertisements are readable, but not what the article is reporting.

Gerard Byrne, East, South-South East, North-West, South-South East, North-West, again East, 2001 – ongoing.

Perhaps photography’s historically central position as a technology for construing facts, creating documents and thus history is precisely the sounding board for Byrne’s insistence on analog photography. In the exhibition’s first room the spectator is met by various groupings of black-and-white photographs. Like the photographs from The Inverness Courier they reveal clearly that they are analog photographs: taken on film and later manually copied on fiber-based paper. What is often cut away in the mounting or concealed by a passe-partout is shown clearly here: the prints are a bit dented after having been air-dried without warm pressing, the edges of the photographic paper by the copying frame are of differing sizes on the various pictures, and at times are askew when the photographic paper lands awry in the frame. Dust from the copying is visible on the framed print, uneven intake of light from the enlarger… everything photographers and copyists exert themselves so much to hide are visible here. Why? A gesture of love toward a technology equally threatened with extinction as a sea monster? Possibly, but at the same time it is probably less a question of nostalgia for a certain medium’s disappearance, than an attempt to show the production of the photographic document, its material qualities: what had to stand back for photography’s transparency in the historiography of the medium.

Gerard Byrne, A serpent with a horses head, 2001 – ongoing.

Byrne inserts a wedge in the (already long since problematized) equalization of visual observation and truth: photography as a technology allied with the privileging of visual observation as the way to knowledge of the objects and the world. He does that by placing the photography’s index against the morphology of the image. That is: the “truth” of the image is not external in relation to the eye (and the consciousness) that observes it. We see the form of a tree root which from a certain angle resembles Nessie’s long throat, as it is represented in “the Surgeon’s photograph” from 1934, a picture which in turn is echoed in Byrne’s photograph of an arm that breaks the lake’s surface in a crawl stroke. But it deals less with a synthesizing equality of forms (as in a digital technology’s morphing, or in visual searching’s privileging of two-dimensional form). For Byrne morphology is more anthropological than technological. Meaning is created not through similarity but through difference.

Gerard Byrne, Some gestalt forms surveyed, and organized into primary structures, on dates between, 2001 – 2011. Site: Loch Ness, Scotland, 2001 – ongoing.

Gerard Byrne, Some gestalt forms surveyed, and organized into primary structures, on dates between, 2001 – 2011. Site: Loch Ness, Scotland, 2001 – ongoing (detail).

Byrne’s insistence on specifics and singularities (rather than on type specimens and general characteristics and features) is manifested in the work Some gestalt formes surveyed, and organized into primary structures, on dates between 2001–2011. Site: Loch Ness, Scotland, which consists of a museum display cabinet (painted darkroom grey) with a number of specimens of various forms of branches and twigs placed on photographic paper and exposed in side lighting. These “shadowgrams” bring to mind the work of Anna Atkins, who in the mid-1800s initiated her total inventory, in the form of atlases illustrated with cyanotypes, of Great Britain’s algae and seaweed, as well as of the collected varieties of British ferns. But if Atkins assumed a Linnean system with illustrations which aimed at classification of types, with Byrne it is the singularities of the forms which become the object of systematic invention (a conceptual natural researcher and display form which is in equal parts science-museum pedagogy and minimalism). The photograms do not show the forms but the shadows of the forms shaped from a certain perspective. The work reminds us of two modes of importance: taking a position in relation to the material one observes; and that photography is a Janus-technology—at the same time a site for projection and concretion.

What course of action can be pursued to describe something that does not allow for categorization, an anomaly in the classification system, a singularity whose very existence is an object of doubt? To describe a sea-monster, it seems the route goes through similarities, or the joining of natural forms: “a cross between a very large horse and a camel”; “a serpent with a horses head”; or likening Nessie to a technological artifact with unusual patterns of movement: “similar to an upturned boat, which sank as quickly as it rose.”

Gerard Byrne, Figures (Some analogies surveyed, and organized into concrete poetry and conceptual film forms, on dates between 2001 – 2011), film still.

The poetic dimensions of the descriptors’ montage of forms are emphasized on the soundtrack of the 9-minute black-and-white 16-mm film titled Figures (Some analogies surveyed, and organized into concrete poetry and conceptual film forms, on dates between 2001–2011). A recurring statement assures us that what was seen was not “a man-made object,” but regardless of whether Nessie is swimming around out there as the last example of an anachronistic life form, a living fossil, or isn’t, her existence is just as much produced as the worlds that our history, knowledge systems, artistic practices, technologies, and mass media produce. They are often as little visible as Nessie, whose existence is indicated in the form of a photographic document in one of the exhibition’s photographs of a whirlpool—the trace of the dive under the water surface, out of the field of vision.

Loch Ness, non-site enables the touching of these varied histories and layers. The gravitation of the vortex presses them together; the forms from normally separate strata are brought in contact. In the Byrnean maelstrom they are allowed, in a momentary and speculative way, to change places and lend their form to another discourse, another figure of thought (surfacing just like an object—a sea-monster—which briefly put normal forms of thought out of play): the exhibition as “site,” as a place to think through our histories anew.

Translation from the Swedish by Richard Simpson.