By Peter Goddard
Laughter is the sound of animals in distress, helpless and pathetic. Broken at the waist, holding on for dear life. Whole groups at bars, restaurants and in theatres, being tortured and pretending that they are enjoying it.
— "Sense of Humor" from The New Sins, Anonymous
Actually, it's no big secret: The New Sins (2001) is by David Byrne. And that is why the ex-Talking Head is going ahead to talk about it "and what it means to do public art," he says.
"What is it that we look at? Is it advertising or art of something that just has been thrown together?"
In conjunction with Contact, the Toronto photography festival, Byrne's pokerfaced photos of found things and evocative landscapes will be placed in transit shelters along Queen St. throughout May.
Each image is accompanied by a section of text from The New Sins that goes on to count "Beauty," "Sweetness," "Charity" and "Hope" among today's more inexcusable excesses. (Wisely, shopping is not included, or the book and its pictures would not have been allowed within 10 blocks of Queen St., David Byrne or not.)
While here, Byrne will also give a $150-a-ticket lecture, "Evil Art and Good Advertising," noon tomorrow at Brassaii restaurant (461 King St. W.). It will deal in part with the intellectual space — "I don't think we have a word for it," he says — where art and advertising overlap. "Some of it is blatant but some of it is hidden," he adds.
Extracting the extraordinary from the ordinary, and vice versa, is Byrne's leitmotif these days. "That the new sins are disguised as virtues should not be surprising," goes the text in The New Sins. "Where would one least expect to find the devil? In a church, temple, mosque or synagogue, of course. Where does one least expect to get sick? At the hospital, in the care of doctors and nurses. But where do most illnesses originate?"
Byrne's pocket-size tome may well be mistaken for the kind of inexpensive Bible or religious tract found in hotel rooms, right down to the gold lettering and trim on the cover. There's even a "this is a gift from" page inside, along with a double-page fold-out showing the circles of hell in Byrne's version of "The Inferno," printed in both English and Spanish, the language used on the flipside of what is also called Los Nuevos Pecados.
"I don't think anything I've said (in The New Sins) is so outrageous," he says. "Some of the pronouncements they make (in the Bible) are just as far out."
The New Sins, "translated out of the original tongues," as the cover explains, doesn't mention any author. As precedence, Byrne points to the Bible — "the other book," as he calls it — which doesn't offer any author's name, either. Byrne has from time to time persuaded hotels to put copies of his own tome in some rooms.
Is Byrne still fooling around? Well, no and yes. Designed by Dave Eggers of McSweeney's magazine and the novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Byrne's foray into religion isn't entirely soaked in irony. Typical of all his work, the text and images both walk the tightrope between earnest evocation and hyper self-awareness.
If you "come to accept" the essential cynicism that's at the heart of The New Sins, you will "then find a strange calm centre, a new model, a place of astonishment and peace," he writes in the most straight-faced manner possible.
Created originally for an art biennale in Valencia, Spain to go with its theme, "The Passions: Vices and Virtues," The New Sins should also be seen as an art piece that appropriates a famous mass-produced medium for the purpose of tweaking the famous message. It follows in lockstep with Byrne's last book, Your Action World (1999), a super-slick package that aped the corporate-friendly appearance and go-get-'em tone.
A certain amount of religious iconography shows up in the book's 80 photographs. A bust with Jesus' face is framed in a shop window surrounded by eyeglasses. A distorted, anguished Christ appears in another. Four pale white dresses hang in a closet as if waiting for a first communion. But mostly the book is a catch-all of images of mostly mundane objects contrasting with dramatic landscape photography.
"I've been taking photos a lot, so I now have a huge database," he says. "It's as if I have my own stock photo library. Only when I go back to them do I realize I have been drawn to certain things. Right now, I realized I've taken pictures of portions of those wraparound ads they put on buses and vans.
"When I was going to art school, I wasn't drawn to photographers. I felt more of a connection with pop artists or conceptualists. With them, the photo was looked at as an art thing. It was looked at as documentation. This was a complete break from (American photographer) Ansel Adams. It was a utilitarian thing."
Byrne has always worked comfortably in the space opened up by the crossing of art and commerce. (It should be remembered that "Life During Wartime," with the line "This ain't no disco," was a major disco hit.).
"In the early to mid-'80s in New York, galleries started showing a lot of (photographs by) Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall," he says. "To be a bit cynical about it, it was a triumph of marketing, a way to convince the collector that something that can be reproduced any number of times has the same worth as a painting.
"The galleries thought, `We'll make (photos) as big as paintings and we'll frame them like paintings.' And they did it. They had to do it to stay in business. It was like selling luxury cars but not cheap cars. It went a long way toward making us look at things differently. And I don't think this is a bad thing."
He remembers with admiration when the business-savvy Japanese artist Takashi Murakami first arrived in New York.
"He was from a generation of Japanese artists where new art was an unknown," says Byrne. "He saw it immediately as a business. His reaction was totally commercial, and I thought, `This is pretty smart.' Artists are starting to play with media that deal with business. I remembered seeing a number of shows (in New York) that featured that sort of thing.
"There's a big change here. It used to be that artists were proud to be stuck off in a garret. To want public attention was thought to be unseemly. Now part of the craft is in understanding people. It's all a kind of performance in a way."