This is the last weekend to see one of the best exhibitions in New York this month, Gerard Byrne's video installation, Why it's Time for Imperial, Again. The show opened just before the election and though the work was made more than a decade earlier, it offered a most topical commentary about the auto industry, swing states and the state of the US economy.
Basically, Byrne was inspired by an advertisement for the Chrysler Imperial, which appeared in National Geographic in 1980. An early example of an infomercial, the copy was a fictional dialogue between two chairmen, Frank Sinatra and Chrysler head Lee Iacocca in which Iacocca goes on and on about the wonders of this new automobile, perfect for a member of the Rat Pack and for your average consumer. Byrne photographed the ad for posterity—it's hanging on the gallery wall—but he also reconstructed the dialogue as a script for his deadpan (and very funny) video. Set in the bleak streets of Long Island City, ca.1998, the video follows these two guys as they pal around, reviewing the technical advances of this new sedan where all the luxuries—except a sunroof—come standard.
What makes this fairly straightforward word play so wicked is the gap between our knowledge of these two American icons from the 1980s and the way they are portrayed as clumsy, slightly overweight and over the hill, business types in the video. Just as it would be entirely unlikely that the rich and famous would ever wind up in a wood-paneled diner in Queens, it is just as unlikely these days to find such a unbridled anthem to the US auto industry as the words spoken on screen. The dialogue is repeated several times, each with mistakes and missteps intentionally retained to underscore that this, as was the original text, is a fictional conceit. But, that doesn't mean that it doesn't get to the truth of the matter—that automakers are no longer revered and American luxury cars no longer considered the epitome of design.
It is fitting that this work is installed not in a sleek Chelsea gallery, but in an empty storefront in Chinatown, bringing in a touch of the global economy into this discussion of the quintessential American product. Obama may have bailed out the auto industry, but Byrne reminds us that it may never recover its once unsullied reputation.
Gerard Byrne, Why it's Time for Imperial, Again is at Itinerant Protocinema (31 Ludlow St, New York) through November 25, Thursday through Sunday, 12 to 6pm