By Alistair McKay
As the singer of Talking Heads, David Byrne established himself as the high priest of ironic detachment. He was the man in the white suit, the Anthony Perkins of Wonderbread funk. As a film-maker, he transposed the fictional news of the supermarket tabloids on to the weird normality of small-town America and called the result, a trick-mirror distortion, True Stories. As an artist, he photographed armchairs, hotel rooms, and portable objects of devotion, as if to say something about alienation and the slippery nature of faith. He also made advertising billboards which attempted to sell ideas (a gun with dollar bills for wings was titled Democracy) and took pictures of leather-bound self-help tomes with titles such as Glamour: A World Problem, The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, and You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth.
The New Sins is his latest attempt to borrow the devotional robes of supernatural belief. It was commissioned for the Valencia Biennial, and designed by the American writer Dave Eggers.
It is a pocket-sized book with a leather cover. It looks like a Bible, and it reads like one too, for approximately half a second. It is a good half-second, though, in which it is possible to calibrate how much religion depends on design. Churches are built to inspire awe, Bibles are durable and unfussy, but with a hint of heaven in their gold, embossed type. In this mock Bible, the words are little parables of soullessness. The irony, among a number of ironies, is that Byrne may share the value systems of traditional religions, but he chooses to disguise this to make a broader point about the way value systems are sold.
Byrne's little red book is presented as a "laptop for the soul", to be consulted in times of need. It is crammed full of plausible-sounding bad advice. "Words are no good," the text states, "They're unreliable. Untrustworthy. It should be obvious by now that they won't stay put."
Between the bum steers there is some attempt to examine sin. Hope is: "a way of keeping people blinded, ignorant and servile, ignorant of the true and mystical beauty of the universe, a universe which is meaningless and amoral." Charity? "If sins can be bought and sold, where does it end? Can anyone buy his way out of a cosmic jam? Do all rich men and women, or those who at least inherit their daddy's money, go to heaven? Is God an entrepreneur?" Intelligence is bad: the more you know, the more you know what you don't know. Self-knowledge is dangerous, the more one knows oneself, the smaller one's opinion of oneself. Love is a lie: our loved ones don't really want honesty, they want better fiction.
This faux-advice is illustrated with Byrne's photos: a cloud, a pylon, a crow, a wedding gown, a baby doll, bleeding hearts, crime scenes, crutches. Ultimately, it's about the symbolism of religion, and the way it can be used as a substitute for moral enquiry. Faith is a journey beyond reason.
At least, that's what the book seems to be saying. It may, in fact, be saying something simpler - that words mean what you want them to, and so does the world. Or it could all be a joke. As the text argues: "Humour is the snap, the breaking point, the straw that breaks the camel's back and allows us to turn misery into something else. What is that something else? A cackling, ape-like non-verbal noise."
But let us do the unthinkable, and take the advice seriously. Let's accept that life is a quest for contentment, and that contentment is a feeling which comes about because of three conditions.
1. One has completed a task successfully.
2. One has been flattered by an associate.
3. One has finished a large meal.
In The New Sins, contentment is most often caused by the third state of mind, causing a post-prandial lack of oxygen in the brain.
Everything comes down to hot air.