Unlike most investigations of Loch Ness, Gerard Byrneâ€™s new show is not at all interested in the existence of a monster. His first major solo exhibition in a UK public space is about Nessie as a photographic phenomenon rather than a flesh and bone saurian.
Speaking via phone, the Dublin-based artist explains that what piqued his interest in the place was its relation to the history of photography. “As a site it amounted to a kind of cardinal point, you might say, in the way of people’s expectations of photographs, people’s beliefs in photography as such,â€ he says. â€œDo you know what I mean?â€
Byrne has a knack of firing this short question back throughout the interview, usually after making one of his more abstract points. It is a worry because he asks it like he expects an answer.
â€œNow, I’m not a puritan or a fetishist or anything like that but I’m interested in the idea of photographs as a type of material as well, as a type of material that’s generated through certain processes – both optical and chemical – and so it sort of matters that they’re analogue prints [in the show] and it sort of matters that they’ve been generated through this, you know, physical temporal commitment to that site, if you know what I mean.â€
By way of comment on the many famous pictures which claim to show what may or may not be in the local waters, Byrne has spent 10 years making a collection of his own photos of Loch Ness.
â€œThere are people who’ve actually lived in caravans up there and camped out. I haven’t done that. But I’ve made a lot of visits at least – I’d say at least a dozen visits, each for, like, a few days at a time, so I’ve put in some time up there,â€ he says.
And as you might expect from a visual artist, Byrne sets the scene very well. â€œFirstly the loch is very, very big,â€ he says. â€œIt’s much bigger than you might imagine. It’s quite epic in scale and it’s actually not the most beautiful part of the Highlands, the most, you know, windswept or romantic.â€
To the ears of an ignorant southerner this is almost disappointing, until he adds: â€œIt is a little bit dark you might say. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it is a little bit dour and dark in comparison with the surrounding landscapeâ€¦it’s sort of sombre, you might say.â€
â€œThere’s a type of topography at work in the photographs,â€ he says. “But in the end what they really chronicle is, I think, an idea of forms which could be mistaken for other forms.â€
In other words thereâ€™s a now-you-see-it-now-you-donâ€™t quality to the work on display, monsters at which you have to look twice.
â€œThat’s one of the ideas that’s very visible when you see the show – you know, this idea of the gestalt form, this idea of something that’s almost in the mind’s eye,â€ he adds.
It is, after all, such gestalt forms which give rise to lake-dwelling monsters. â€œThatâ€™s a kind of archeptypal myth that’s found all around the world, and what distinguishes Loch Ness from the rest is precisely its mediation in the newspaper,â€ says Byrne.
He goes on to explain that interest in Loch Ness peaked in the early 1930s, at a time when the mass media was becoming all pervasive and more people were becoming aware of a sense of modernity.
â€œIt’s interesting that there’s so much attraction to a myth that’s primarily about the primeval, that’s about the idea of something from prehistory, that could continue to live in the 20th century or the 21st century,â€ he says. â€œSo there’s a strange fantasy built into that that’s about time or about escaping time or something that defies time.â€
In which case new town Milton Keynes is the last place youâ€™d expect to find a mythical dinosaur. But now that is where you will find it, as large as life – an indisputable phenomena if nothing else.