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January 14, 2011

Rennaissance Society gives minimalism maximum exposure

The title of Gerard Byrne’s exhibit, A Thing is a Hole in a Thing It is Not—taken from a quote by Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre—suggests that it’s the boundaries of something that give it its shape. The Renaissance Society presents Dublin-based Byrne’s video installation as a window into the myth of the Minimalist movement and as a display of the movement’s conventions on its own terms.

Though each video vignette draws from other artists examining an aspect of Minimalist philosophy, Byrne refuses any kind of neat summary about the movement in his illustrations. One of the videos features Tony Smith, the renowned Minimalist sculptor, as he drives down the at-the-time-unfinished New Jersey turnpike. The landscape that passes is filled with quiet sounds and dusky imagery. Another recreates artist Robert Morris’s 1962 performance Column in eerie, urgent, near-silence—cutting between shots of a ticking watch and the titular column as it is yanked to its side on a stage.

Yet another sets the audio of a 1964 radio interview with the artists Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Frank Stella to a series of shots of a period-style newsroom, complete with actors, to reenact the recording. Byrne juxtaposes tight, narrow shots of microphones, coffee cups, and various ephemera of the sound studio with equally close shots of the actor’s faces never speaking, almost like another piece of the scenery. We both see and hear the artists, but never both at once.

In what is perhaps the most striking vignette, a smartly-dressed tour guide leads us through exhibits at the Van Abbemuseum in Holland, giving an affected explanation of the relationship between art, viewer, and space. The scene, interposed with various shots of a focusing camera lens or a curious viewer staring back at us, calls into question the whole convention of art and art connoisseurship, yet avoiding any direct condemnation of the stuffy art world represented by the narrator.

The exhibit is appropriately stark, the gallery filled with large white slabs leaning together to serve as screens. Scattered overhead projectors display the video clips while speakers play their accompanying soundtracks. The various sounds—everything from near silence, to a conversation, to the rhythmic clacking of a manual typewriter—blend and bleed together in the relative emptiness of the room, and it’s difficult to focus clearly on any one in particular. This sensation, combined with the exhibit’s heavy influence from other Minimalist artists, seems to present one of Byrne’s central points: No one piece exists entirely on its own. A Thing is a Hole in a Thing It is Not presents the space, and invites us to see the negative space, the thing that is the hole.

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