Gerard Byrne b. 1967
New Sexual Lifestyles (2003)
Duration: 6 minutes

Amanda Coulson
Issue 80 January-February 2004

Gerard Byrne’s mini-retrospective opens with the installation New Sexual Lifestyles (2002), a more complex expansion of the approach also seen here in Why it’s Time for Imperial, Again (1998-2000), a 16mm/DVD piece with photographic elements that was shown at ‘Manifesta 4’. There Byrne was presented to a wider international audience with this humorous re-enactment of a conversation between Lee Iaccoca and Frank Sinatra used as an advertisement for the new Chrysler car in a 1980 National Geographic magazine. By situating actors in shabby locations - which contrast with the glossy aesthetic of both the highbrow magazine and the car manufacturer’s desired image - and accentuating the stilted dialogue by focusing on their faltering delivery, Byrne addressed the construction of reality in the media and how, over time, accepted contemporary attitudes and desires can become amusing, peculiar or even aberrant.

In the new piece, a series of five large-format photographs depicts a spacious 1970s interior, the setting of another re-staged conversation that is screened on three television monitors. The original debate was published by Playboy in 1972, with questions ranging from the prosaic (‘Do affairs ever help a marriage?’) to the more particular (‘When many swinging couples get back together, is it true they belittle their lovers’ performance to decrease jealousy?’). In the re-enactment the same attention to fluffed lines underscores the unease between actors and dialogue: their speech and surroundings are decidedly 1970s, but their dress is contemporary. Here, though, an innovation heightens the exaggerated staginess of the scenarios: in moving from one monitor to another, you realized that not only are the same questions and answers refilmed and recaptured from new angles time and time again, but also that the multi-channel DVD is set to select and play these randomly, endlessly re-presenting the re-performances.

While the work’s eminent artificiality and bluntness of dialogue are unsettling, even more so is the temporal displacement effected by the incongruity in costume and settings. In an era marked by AIDS, it is chilling rather than amusing that one character’s only worry in contemplating an orgy’s ‘social rules’ was ‘What should I wear? How should I get out of what I wear?’ Another subtle element that creates dissonance is that, to judge by their accents, many of the actors are from Ireland - a country associated with sexual repression rather than freedom. Indeed, at the time of this conversation’s original publication Playboy was prohibited there.