Gerard Byrne, State of Neutral Pleasure, Whitechapel Gallery, London

  • @ZoePilger

A country road. A tree. Evening. Irish artist Gerard Byrne has borrowed these stage directions from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot to title a series of photographs. They show just that – trees on roads in the evening.

But while the branches are barren and the roads are empty in these images, the twilight sky is an intense blue. The scenes are spot-lit by brilliant, artificial colour. Dazzling canary yellow competes with neon pink. Far from Beckett’s famed bleakness, these landscapes appear psychedelically optimistic.

According to the theatre scholar Ruby Cohn, Beckett was himself inspired by Man and Woman Observing The Moon (1824), a painting by German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich, to create the setting for the play. It is art therefore that becomes the starting-point for literature, which in turn becomes the starting-point for art… Byrne is making a point about influence.

Byrne, 43, represented Ireland at the 2007 Venice Biennale. His video and photographic installations are often based on obscure moments in the history of ideas. This exhibition is a survey of his career so far.

The downstairs gallery is dominated by large, white, leaning screens. Films are fragmented; scenes appear and disappear around the room so that the viewer is forced to move about in order to see what’s happening. Still, the action remains oblique.

A man and a woman make love (2012) is a new film that transforms a conversation between 1920s surrealists into a hackneyed TV drama. Actors playing Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy make pronouncements on what percentage of lovers can achieve simultaneous orgasm.

The conversation really took place, but the period dress and African masks hanging on the wall of the set – a nod to the surrealists’ preoccupation with so-called ‘primitivism’ – are painfully contrived. The film is funny.

Byrne is seeking a Brechtian alienation effect. This is most successful in New sexual lifestyles (2003), a re-enactment of a 1973 conversation that took place between prominent figures of the sexual revolution for Playboy magazine. The sexism of Al Goldstein, editor of Screw, is eye-watering.

Other films include 1984 and beyond (2005-7), a conversation between Cold War era sci-fi writers on the future of the human race. They predict that freezing a person in liquid helium for eternity will only cost about $8500 by 1984.

Byrne shares Beckett’s sense of the absurd, but his humour is gentler. These films deserve to be watched in their entirety.