George Byrne









Artist | George Byrne

Duration | June 4, 2022 – July 30, 2022

Venue | Powen Gallery map


Where to flee?

The Real Abstracted by George Byrne’s Photo Collages

Article by Jay Chun-Chieh LAI


There is no denying that George Byrne's artistic practice demonstrates a relatively unambiguous context that follows from 'New Objectivity Photography' to ‘New Topographics’ , and the artist has always rendered a distinct aesthetic judgement and style on how to 'distance' himself from the real world. New Objectivity Photography is not, strictly speaking, a genre or an art movement, it is, to be more accurate, an aesthetic; its initial subject of rejection was the German Expressionism, an artistic style which was overly sentimental and subjective, sometimes even dramatic. Leading proponents of New Objectivity Photography such as Albert Renger-Patch, August Sander, and Karl Blossfeldt all attempted to represent landscapes, be it portrait or industrial, that wipe out human traces, albeit human-made; even Sander's ambitious photographic project that features portraits of the people of the twentieth century showed a clear ‘restraint' in representing the human image as objectively as possible. This change in attitude towards calmness may have come from the collective fatigue of the time, not only in Germany but also in other countries and nations severely depleted by the Second World War, where photographers not only had the capacity to focus on their surroundings, but also longed for a sense of 'order' and stability. The ‘New Objectivity Photography’ eventually influenced and led to the ‘New Topographics’, which points to urban and industrial landscapes in which human traces permeated. Contrary to earlier forms of landscape photography that celebrated the pristineness and beauty of nature, the artists of the New Topographics brought in more fabricated vocabularies and embedded them into the latent texts under the lens that kept a seemingly objective distance, to become, what I would call, a complex of visual narratives.


To understand the so-called New Topographics from the perspective of textual narratives might be a bit unorthodox; after all, the objective, or even indifferent 'documentation' of human-made landscapes was what the New Objectivity Photography and New Troppgraphics sought to present. Nonetheless, we have to admit that it is not documentary photography, nor is documentation its purpose. It is the composition, the walk and the flâneuring in a city that actually describe the story in the image, and the (language) descriptions referred here should not be understood as the technical visual language, for instance, the depth of field, the scale, or the gravitational force of colour filed, since it subordinates only to image. On the contrary, whether it is New Objectivity or New Topographic photography, or even George Byrne's profoundly 'pictorial' photographs, the subject of photography carries the capacity for narrative. In other words, the images in George Byrne's work are not merely subjects photographed (the object), but a complex of 'image-text' with a proactive discourse. It is a kind of compounds of texts that outnumbers objects and is more restrained than ‘symbols', floating, and yet at the same time layering on top of each other in the frame. Characteristics like the complex of image-text and how the frame constructs an ‘image within an image’ reminds me of Foucault's view on the works of Manet and Magritte, especially the fun in images that points ‘beyond the image’ and the 'frame outside of the frame' constructed by the mirror image, which may serve as a reference for the argument of this statement. The image within an image manifests an outside-in approach whereas the frame outside of the frame is a display of the inside-out. The interior and exterior as seen separated in George Byrne's work not only capture the audience’s point of view (i.e., where they are at) but also distinct and reveal his inner world to the audience.


The texts or symbols in George Byrne's work may not, like Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe/This is not a pipe, be a direct challenge to the inevitable ‘(interpretative) spatial glide’ between the spoken and the reality, but they are also an attempt to reveal what lies beyond the image. The way it is presented is to make the above-mentioned space for the glide visible in the image; thus, the illogical appearance of shadows will therefore directly produce a space that is within the image. Or, as the audience marvels and wonders at the familiarity and strangeness of the urban sceneries, the artificiality of the image elements such as palm trees and white clouds, even if they are real, strongly suggest a space that exists beyond the image. The titles of his series are intriguing and echo the above point, whether it is the 'post-truth' that replaces reality and is believed to be true, or the visual compilation of the 'Exit Vision', which I prefer to understand the term ‘exit’ being contemplated by the imagery of an 'escape scuttle', that transforms to be ‘beyond the camera’, is intended to present us with a kind of loophole. A loophole that is a flaw in the reality through which one can escape beyond it; and the so-called flaw already exists in the visual material that is not indestructible. It could be in a vent of a building that you never notice, or it could be 'there' as pointed by the illogical directional sign, or it could be somewhere you know it is not real but somehow hoping that it would be? As Žižek argues, "unveiling the hidden (sometimes manifesting as 'performing')" accomplishes what it hides (1). And the performing itself is the language, and that which is approached by it is the reality (truth).


In terms of technique, George Byrne uses image collages to create spatial 'singularity', producing space that is both real and filled with spiritual energy. The spatial singularities created by the artist rely entirely on scenes in the real world and visual elements, including meaningless traffic signs, repetitive wall switches, misplaced shadows, and objects and symbols that appear in absurd locations, all of which lose their original interpretative context. The singularity is what is commonly understood as a black hole, and while the physics of it is extremely complex and beyond the scope of this statement, the infinite size of this singularity in its tendency to be infinitely small, yet possesses a relatively balanced power is perhaps what Byrne is seeking. In an interview, he talks about his experience creating with image collages: 'The moment when the perfect balance of simplicity, aesthetic beauty, and the complexity of visual tension is achieved, it is as magical and unpredictable as scoring a last-second three-pointer in the G7 finals of the championship (2). However, whether it is a critical point in time (the moment of achieving perfection) or a spatial singularity (the achieving of absolute equilibrium), in terms of urban space, it is functionless and is of discontinuity; and in terms of language, if the work is, as I have said, always narrative, it is speechless, a speechlessness that resembles being dumbfounded. This explains the eerie but comforting silence of his work; it is as if nothing has happened yet, and, at the same time, everything has. Looking at his work is akin to going through an urban retreat, or doing an urban yoga, which allows us to slow down in this hectic and fast-moving world, to examine the distance from reality, and to understand our inner reality.