Thursday, November 18, 2010

David Byrne: Strange Ritual

Strange Ritual by David Byrne
Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1995. N.p. pp., numerous color illustrations, 7¾x10¼"

Big suits go by, take me to the river, and flippy-floppy. Time isn't holding us, it's only David Byrne taking us on a printed journey through his mind. While in 1995 I was only a formative fan of the music of Talking Heads, I did see the book Strange Ritual and it struck my eye. Its austere cover, with leather-like black texture and inset-gold titling, were striking in simplicity. While not knowing it at the time, Byrne was mimicking the production values of various religious tomes, whose own proclivity towards stark design was a reference to the serious portent of what was within. While Byrne's Strange Ritual may appear severe on the outside, on the inside it is anything but. While the Jehovah's Witnesses or various other obscure religions would have you take their book as proselytizing, Byrne's message is one of joining him on an absurd safari through the beliefs of men.

The full-bleed, gutterless photographs are a collection of pictures taken by Byrne of the world-at-large, and for Byrne our world is his playground. Japan to New York to India, Byrne takes all of these places in, assimilating what he sees as iterations of themes or religion, consumerism, accidents, and dreams. Shops around the world sell religious icons, here it is kitsch, there it is holy relic on colored velvet. It makes no different to Byrne both in spiritual value of thing as the value is in its perception not in its particular context. For Byrne it's all the same. In these pictures it is the usage of a thing that define what its value may be, especially for the person who utilizes and defines that object.

Byrne sees what a thing could be as well as how it could be a new idea when shifted slightly. A chair is shown in typology on a clean, green rug. It dances with the viewer over four shots, shown in all positions but the frontal one in which we may actually be able to sit in it: sideways, upside down, tilted back. A chair could be a lot of things for not sitting, mostly a possible sculpture, or even an anthropomorphized object with personality that we don't typically perceive. Chairs have feelings, too, much as so many of these objects/paintings/flyers have feelings of the people who made them. Why do we make the things we make? How do we come to understand God in the everyday? Vertical faces take the form of advertisements, idols, scribbles, and paintings. All different but all the same.

There is much God here for Byrne to explicate. While we can't see normally see God, maybe it's in many of these things that we can touch a dream of something bigger than ourselves. Our human-ness may seem silly as in the bright, shiny objects of consumer desire (shopping malls, aluminum foil) but maybe it's also in a Polaroid typology of hands in various shapes. As much as we will likely never touch God or something close to the spirit, we shall still create rituals that bring us closer to whatever else may be out there. A bottle of placenta spot-lit against a purple velvet background in a gilt gold frame.

Byrne brought his eye to bear on these worshiped objects and assembled a cogent journey through the weirdness of human culture, whether in a 99 cent store, religious relics, or a ceramic Dalmatian. That is one of the pleasures here, the notion of turning the pages to be surprised at what may be next, something that is sorely missing in the infinite vertical scroll that we consider the internet. Perhaps that is something that relates to the joy of printed matter; it's fixed nature. When something exists on paper it indicates choices that were made with a sense of permanence. Now it seems like everything is available all the time, simultaneously lessening the value of that same everything. Strange Ritual is Byrne's own visual journey of taking all of his seeming mindless snapshots and experiments into a new form, one that makes them cogent.

In an oddly simple, yet gratifying series, Byrne double-exposes images of what look like Southern California bungalows. The gables interweave with palm trees, bushes, and driveways as well as the ghostly projection of other homes atop of them. Funny, it shouldn't even work but it does, coming across as a dream-land of domesticity, somewhere near but completely accessible. The book also features several short essays/travelogues/fictions by Byrne featuring his trademark sardonic wit. There are awesome re-photographs of car crashes, too overlaid with a running, central tickertape about death and disaster. It's sensational like everything else here, feeling but without feeling too much, less things just get out of control.

I'm not sure where I originally picked this up, but it's unlikely I paid full price as it seemed like I saw it on remainder tables everywhere for years following. Really, it's kind of a shame that Chronicle Books saw the value of Strange Ritual, while no one else seemingly did as you can still find it new for less than a dollar. Maybe it's easier to take Byrne's mash-up approach for granted what with the hotels, religious objects, deadpan observations, and other kitsch that make up the subject of most of the images. Urban Outfittes has made all this stuff too ubiquitous in addition to numerous blogs made up of web-links and you might see something similar, if not as good. Byrne has had a long, rich career in music and the arts that most would envy. His interest in human ingenuity, especially manifested in the consumption/creation of meaning-through-objects continues well into his fourth decade on the scene and shows no signs of stopping. Strange Ritual was just a first book-stop as the music of Talking Heads became the art of David Byrne.

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