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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.

Byrne first came to public notice in 2000 when he created Border Interpretative Centre . The project, in which Byrne explored the effect of the border on Irish life, while at the same time aiming sharp barbs at the heritage industry's tendency to commercialise every aspect of culture, was shut down after a week but the political message it spelled out was far reaching.

This was followed three years later with Would You Die for Ireland?, a short film of random interviews with pedestrians on the streets of Dublin, Cork and Belfast, including the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, caught on a city-centre walkabout. The question alternately yielded moments of high seriousness and hilarity as immigrants, tourists and natives alike expanded their chests and proclaimed their death wishes or gazed in astonishment at the interviewer.

While much of Byrne's work relates very specifically to his experience of growing up during the Troubles, he has also looked beyond Ireland at some of the icons of art history as vehicles for his anti-classical satire. Dublin's Last Supper (2004) offers a re-enactment of Leonardo da Vinci's famous fresco in Milan, that subtly suggests that the Renaissance has finally come to Ireland in the form of café culture, while at the same time pointing to growing pluralism in Ireland, and the new religion of consumerism.

While comedy and satire are correctly seen as cerebral artforms in comparison to the more emotional appeal of tragedy, Byrne's tableaux carry a real sense of seriousness. However much the viewer might laugh at the posturing of Orangemen when shown on Byrne's catwalk in Belfast Fashion Week or admire the wit of We were a south facing family , the tragic effects of political and social conditioning are all too visible. These works force the viewer out of the artworld's tasteful white cube and into a responsible evaluation of the real world beyond. For all his visual sophistication, Byrne's true antecedent in Irish culture is Jonathan Swift, the literary equivalent of his subversive approach.

Representing Art in Ireland , The Fenton Gallery, Cork ¤65 "


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