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Catherine Marshall on John Byrne

Catherine Marshall, Irish Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

"John Byrne is the contemporary visual equivalent to the poet in ancient Irish society who used sharp wit to expose hypocrisy, mediocrity and pretentiousness. In his art practice Byrne examines issues from a comic perspective, reducing monuments of political, religious and cultural division to the ridiculous. His approach varies from performance to film to tableau re-enactment and he has used all of these very effectively to undermine prejudice and stereotype. "

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A Shout in the Street

Declan McGonigal - Tuesday, January 01, 2008

"John Byrne's practice could also be described as a strategy... (his) approach reminds me of an expression which is used in rural Ireland. 'Whistling past the graveyard'. It refers to the fear passing a rural graveyard at night. In order to bypass that fear you would whistle a cheerful tune as you passed. "

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Dublin's Last Supper

Jane Powers, Irish Times magazine - Saturday, July 03, 2004

"....The process started many months earlier with John wandering the streets of Dublin looking for suitable candidates to fill the seats at his table.... ....all the 'apostles', are exemplary, and hard working- eager to give this hyper, talkative and quirkily creative artist their very best. Their collective goodwill fills the room with a pleasant, excited glow. Thirteen very different souls have come together to be captured in a remarkable art work...."

Would you die for Ireland?

Marianne Hartigan, Sunday Tribune - Sunday, October 19, 2003

"....Most impressive was John Byrne's video where he simply stopped people in the street.... and asked them would they die for Ireland?.... it seemed somehow very moving that so many (men and women) would answer yes.... Byrne is one of surprisingly few Irish artists who consistently deals with issues focusing on Ireland, it's history, and Irishness"

Luke Clancy, CIRCA Art magazine - Saturday, November 01, 2003
"Would you die for Ireland is the title of Byrne's little hand-held sparkler of a work.... (he) takes a typically adroit approach to the question, offering not to interpret the historical issues literally, but instead to lift one salient point of the Emmet story bodily into the contemporary era"

The Border Interpretative Centre

Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

"The new show at Dublin's Temple Bar Gallery entitled The Border Itself, documents a remarkable cultural experiment. When the Irish Border had it's own interpretative centre. "

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Sean O'Hagan, The Observer Review - Sunday, March 18, 2001
"....This piece of art provocation.... (Byrne) has chosen the Irish border, literally and metaphorically, as the focus for all his anxieties and obsessions about his divided self, as the starting point for an often surreal investigation of his Northern Irishness.... Byrne's work is slightly mad but strangely instructive...."

Niamh Anne Kelly, Art Monthly - Thursday, March 01, 2001
"As in common with the best of satire, this project carries with it connotations of uncomfortable truths that are generally left under examined"

Press on other work

Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times - Wednesday, September 16, 1998

"Among Your Own" (Arthouse gallery, Dublin 1998) entails an altogether less respectful attitude... The images... use artifice to get beneath the skin, and after reading through Byrne's bitingly sarcastic commentary on growing up in Northern Ireland, and learning how things work there in terms of such realities as religious bigotry and the border, you do feel you've had a glimpse of what it is, or was, really like...."

Emer O'Kelly, The Sunday Independent - Sunday, October 19, 1997
"The third one-man show I saw, John Byrne's 'A Border Worrier' (The Project, Dublin 1997) is in a class of it's own. The performance art element is powerful, as Byrne engages with a barrow load of grass tufted earth, moulding it and willing it into a character that will ease his obsession with 'the border'.... But this is no nationalist polemic, more a superbly externalised piece of comic neurosis, a thinking man's coming to terms with a heritage that mixes violence and distress in almost equal parts. It's also strangely moving and wonderfully funny."

Live art magazine, UK - Wednesday, January 01, 1997
"....John Byrne presented 'Space / A Man With Guts. 'Within the abstract lines drawn on his blackboard was exposed the shape of the province. His lazerbeam monologues spun round the nature of Space, Performance, The Troubles and Loss of Faith. With the realisation that the province he'd now created was sore, he lovingly rubbed cream within it's borders to make it better. The simplicity tore the heart."

Luke Clancy on John Byrne

Reflecting on John Byrne's Exhibition at the Fenton Gallery in Cork - Wednesday, June 01, 2005

"It is probably only those on the outside of a difficult situation who approach it with circumspection. Those inside cultural or political problems can perhaps afford to regard them with less earnest correctness. These days it seems we are all to ready to jump through hoops in our anxious determination to ensure that each situation of cultural difference or difficulty that we encounter is treated with the appropriate gravitas and that no cause is ever given for offence. "

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Equestrian Project

Ballynun Gets new local hero Irish Times Roisin Ingle - Friday, September 10, 2010

"IF THERE was an award for the most democratic piece of public art in Ireland, a magnificent new sculpture due to be unveiled next week in Ballymun, Dublin would gallop away with it. The sculpture, by artist John Byrne, references classical equestrian art but toys with tradition by placing the figure of a teenage girl from Ballymun – resplendent in bronze tracksuit and velcro-fastened runners – as the bareback rider on the horse.

Misneach , “courage” in Irish, is a stunning piece of work to rival that other classic Ballymun equine pop culture moment from The Commitments , where a horse is seen being led into a lift because “the stairs would kill him”.

Byrne was commissioned by Breaking Ground, the Per Cent for Art scheme that accompanied Ballymun’s redevelopment, to create a piece of public art for the area’s town centre. In a YouTube video of the making of Misneach Belfast-born Byrne explains he was interested in subverting the military sculptures found in squares and towns across Europe, which invariably feature military men astride horses.

“These things are commonplace in European towns and cities – nearly always men military men the great and the good as it were, but of course one person’s hero is another’s tyrant,” Byrne says.

He also wanted to celebrate the tradition of young people riding horses bareback around Dublin.

The artist, who made Dublin’s Last Supper mural for the city’s Italian Quarter, was aware of John Henry Foley’s bronze horse used in the Gough Memorial in the Phoenix Park, near where he lives in Cabra. The work by Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor was blown up in 1957 and sold by the Office of Public Works to a member of the Guinness family who gifted it to an ancestor of Gough’s, Sir Humphrey Wakefield. Byrne discovered that Wakefield restored the monument and resurrected it in the grounds of his home at Chillingham Castle, Northumberland. “I thought he would tell me to take a jump but he was delighted when I asked if I could copy his horse,” says Byrne.

From the beginning, a young local woman was always going to feature on the horse to assert the idea that people from all walks of life can be as heroic as the most celebrated, mostly male, mostly older public figures.

Back in 2007 open auditions were held in Ballymun to find a teenager between 13 and 18 who had a genuine love of horses. Eventually, 20 teenagers were photographed on horseback and the then 17-year-old Toni Marie Shields was chosen. She was scanned using state-of-the-art 3D software to make a mould for the work. Her mould and the mould from the model of the Gough horse were then combined to make the bronze sculpture. A soft green patina applied at the end of the process gives the work an antiquated feel and the effect is of a sculpture straight out of the 18th century. “Ah, it’s lovely but it’s huge,” was Toni-Marie’s response when she first saw herself in bronze, one-and-half times life size. The work, which is awaiting its inevitable nickname, will be placed on a hand-carved stone plinth just inside the gates of Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun and resited on Main Street when the Metro rail project is completed. "

“Ballymunderful” Dermot Bolger Irish Daily Mail 21 September 2010

- Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"..what is most fascinating about Misneach (the Irish for courage or great-ness) is that the figure astride the stallion is no military hero or politician or other figure we were all raised to look up to. Ballymun people do things differently and when you look up at Misneach you are staring at the striking figure of a tracksuit-clad local woman…she was 17 when she was chosen from a shortlist of 20 Ballymun girls to be the model and is 20 years old now as the monument was finally unveiled after 3 years of work by artist John Byrne.

There has been some adverse comment from people who feel that an image of track-suited girl riding a horse bareback may add to the negative stereotyping of Ballymun as some sort of Wild West.

But what strikes me about Misneach is the striking confidence of the pose and poise of the bronze figure ..who is quick to point out that while she was thrilled to be chosen as the model for the rider, ‘this is not a statue of me...it belongs to all the people of Ballymun and in all of Ireland’

She is right in this assertion because what is wonderful about Misneach is a sense of democracy and equality in John Byrne’s sculpture. This is a celebration of the ordinary and yet an assertion that no life is ordinary and that no young person should be bound by an limit beyond their imagination…..There might seem to be little to celebrate in Ireland now but John’s Misneach is a bold celebration of the confidence of youth, of how each generation strides forward with renewed hope into the future.

(This) seems to me to cleverly subvert all our notions of who should be celebrated in a public statue…a celebration of the sheer joy and boundless hope of youth. This is not a statue of that creates any negative stereotyping of Ballymun because it is impossible to view it and think negative thoughts. "

This is serious: reflecting on John Byrne’s exhibition at the Fenton Gallery in Cork, June 2005

http://www.recirca.com/cgi-bin/mysql/show_item.cgi?post_id=1828 - Wednesday, June 01, 2005

" It is probably only those on the outside of a difficult situation who approach it with circumspection. Those inside cultural or political problems can perhaps afford to regard them with less earnest correctness. These days it seems we are all too ready to jump through hoops in our anxious determination to ensure that each situation of cultural difference or difficulty that we encounter is treated with the appropriate gravitas and that no cause is ever given for offence. It is therefore very refreshing for anyone to encounter John Byrne’s work for the first time, particularly the body of work in this collection, which reflects on the central issues of sectarian difference and political division in Ireland seen from the perspective of a Catholic upbringing in Northern Ireland at the height of the ‘Troubles\'. The first thing that strikes the viewer new to Byrne’s art is that it is often very funny. Byrne takes to himself the role of jester, refusing to be reverent and po-faced in his engagement with issues that so often have had quite deep and devastating outcomes for the people of Ireland. Living inside issues like the sectarian divisions of Northern Ireland is simply part of the management of a life and those at the heart of the matter, day to day, often adopt the most irreverent and cynical modes of making the situation tolerable.

No one knows more about the hypocrisies and corruptions inherent in the Gordian knots of Irish politics and culture than the Irish themselves, and none but the Irish are more adept at punctuating the pomposities and tub-thumping simplicities of the political and factional leaders, north and south. The jester stands amid these posturings and histrionics and subverts their adopted costumes of gravitas and divisional rhetoric with sugar-coated pills of basic wisdom and deftly aimed barbs of satire, designed to strike at the heart of the issue, often highlighting the inherently crazy and often ridiculous nature of the situation.

Byrne may often be at risk of not being regarded as ‘serious enough’ within an art world that is becoming increasingly socially engaged, because his work can be so very funny. Even his lectures amuse to the point where one tends to feel that something this amusing surely can’t have enough credibility to be truly significant. There is no affected gravitas in Byrne’s work, but that fact by no means lessens it force or its value.

Byrne has used irony, satire, parody over the years in a series of performative and gallery-based photographic and video work almost all of which, at its core, targets the sectarian and political minefield that is Ireland. Much of Byrne’s satire might be thought to be less urgent or necessary in a contemporary climate of post Good Friday Agreement, IRA decommissioning, a newly respectable (and electable), emergent Sinn F in, and a general downturn in violent activity in Ireland, but such divisions and their legacies do not simply evaporate, and they cling to the culture in deep and subtle ways.[1]

Much of Byrne’s interest in the work in this show arises from his childhood, and it is with a ‘faux naf’ and childlike directness that he approaches many of these issues. As a child crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Byrne expected to actually see the border, or something to indicate where it was, only to be disappointed that something so significant appeared not to exist in any tangible form. This original question was the starting point for him to create work about the ‘border post’ and the whole event of visiting the border as a destination in itself.[2] Ironically, at the opening of the Border Interpretative Centre the border was presented as the only thing that actually united the country. Byrne plays into the hands of those gullible or willing enough to believe the fictions he is proposing, while gently satirising our contemporary expectations that all sites of significance must and will be accompanied by the intervention of a framework with which, or through which, it might be ‘interpreted’.

There is always in Byrne’s work a desire to punctuate established mores and question accepted convention. The childlike and ironic position he often adopts allows him to ask more directly and pointedly why the Emperor is not wearing any clothes. If the non-Irish person is ever squeamish about dealing with these weighty matters as being ‘life and death serious’ (which they could well have been in the not so distant past), the Irishman is not. There has always been a healthy and perhaps necessary element of cynicism, sceptical reserve and outright parody directed towards the ‘serious’ issues in Ireland. Byrne is, in effect, a rather overt and public part of that tradition. Byrne’s presentation of himself as a ‘Roman’ Catholic is also quite childlike and hilarious, in that he has dressed up as a Roman Soldier from the days of Imperial Rome and engaged people in the street in conversation, the interaction usually arising from their asking him why he is dressed in such garb. The obviously ridiculous aspect of this intervention parallels the ridiculousness of describing Irish Catholics as ‘Roman’, particularly since the practice of the religion has been so different to the Italians’ and was once so threatening to the ‘Roman’ church. The place the Catholic Church has held in Irish society was until recently also quite different from in most other Catholic countries of course: for a long time the sectarian and the political were tightly interdependent in Ireland, due to the enormous influence a powerful church exerted over a pliant population with the full co-operation of a government equally in its thrall - a marriage of convenience that many consider to have severely retarded the cultural development of Ireland. In Belfast, even today the sectarian definition is still one’s primary identifying characteristic.

In the image We were a south facing family , Byrne re-creates an old group photo of his family and replaces his little boy’s head with his adult head. This spooky but also very amusing image also then implies that Byrne the boy is also somehow Byrne the man and it is interesting to reflect that the man now plays out and completes or resolves in some ways the fantasies, questions and problems of the child he once was. It is impossible not to laugh at this absurd conjunction, yet at the same time there is a certain note of pathos as one identifies with the ‘child man’ and the strange cultural conundrum that he inhabits. The final line from the text which overlays this image states “…but people in the North and the South have so much in common… I mean we share so much… we share… we share a border.”

The photographic series Castles of the border is even more direct, replacing the castles of Ireland, an ever-present reminder of oppression, from the Normans to the ‘folly’ castellated structures of the transplanted English, with the surveillance posts of Northern Ireland, only now being dismantled in the wake of the IRA’s arms decommissioning.

Belfast Fashion Week is an actual event, however unlikely it may sound as an event high on the radar of the global fashionistas. Byrne utilises it to create a photographic image of Orange Order stalwarts parading on a catwalk in their distinctive outfits of black business suit, bowler hat, umbrella and orange sash. This ‘costume’ surely is recognisable the world over as the quintessential dress code symbolising ‘Britishness’. Byrne’s re-contextualisation focuses attention on the irony of the ‘displaced’ and transplanted British culture of Northern Ireland, where much of the protestant population clings doggedly to identifiers of being British to the point of parody, just as the ‘British’ of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands grasp desperately at that same identification. It is yet another stereotypical Irish trope which defines position and identity within the culture.

Alongside the video Believers Byrne shows Would you die for Ireland? , a vox-pop analysis of contemporary Ireland in which Byrne catalogues in an unembellished way the responses of people in the street to the stark question, “Would you die for Ireland?” The results are often hilarious (an equivocating Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, raising the greatest laugh from the audience with whom I first saw this work). They are, in their unadorned veracity, a very telling insight into contemporary Ireland and its values. One of the most forceful positive responses came from a recent immigrant, while the response of most native Irish was decidedly equivocal. The Orange Order interviewee maintains the righteous posture one might have expected. It must be said that the initial showing of this work in Kilmainham Jail, as part of an exhibition to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Robert Emmet, was a more forceful context in which to regard this question and experience this work

Such work demonstrates the way in which Byrne’s investigations range across the broad landscape of Irish contemporary culture and also reflect the changes and clinging traditions that attend the Irish situation. Ireland today is fraught with a number of issues that arise when a culture is thrust so quickly into a world of consumerism and global capital. There is serious hand-wringing about the values lost, anxieties about Irish culture becoming little more than a realisation of stereotypes and mythologies for the amusement of the tourist trade, and within art, endless debates about what constitutes an ‘Irish’ contemporary art and how valid and appropriate such a question may be now that Ireland’s visual-art scene is also so directly engaged within an international one. Byrne is not alone in centralising much of his work to date at the heart of such matters, on which artists such as Se n Hillen , and on occasion, Dermot Seymour, Paul Seawright, Brian Flynn and many others have focused, but his questioning usually ranges further, sweeping across the widest gamut of issues currently inflecting all debates on what it might mean to be Irish, and to be a contemporary artist in Ireland in 2006. That this sweep also draws in key issues in contemporary art and culture of a global relevance demonstrates the range and breadth and application of his concerns

In some ways, one suspects, this is Irish work that would travel well. Outside Ireland myths and stereotypes about Ireland still prevail strongly, and Irish contemporary art and its issues still remain very low on the radar of international regard. Byrne’s work may appear at first to be an easy access into such issues, but at its heart lie some urgent critical questioning and a sophisticated engagement with vital issues.

Sen Kelly is an Australian writer, curator and arts project manager based in Hobart, Australia. [1] It is also noteworthy in Byrne’s recent work Believers (2005), that he turns his attention to art itself, questioning the values and assumptions of the art world and its institutions and traditions in much the same way he would interrogate cultural norms and values in Irish culture more broadly in his earlier works. This work was created as a commission for Cork 2005 Capital of Culture, and it reflects a timely investigation of the functions to which art may be put within such a context.

[2] The Border Interpretative Centre was the subject of a feature article by Brian Kennedy in Circa 94, Winter 2000."


Would You Die for Ireland - Friday, January 01, 2016

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