David Byrne’s installation at MASS MoCA took place in raw, unfinished mill space in the 13-acre complex. The exhibition included two series of large-scale photographic transparencies, illuminated from behind using commercial fluorescent sign boxes most often associated with advertisements at urban bus stops. The first series of images, called Better Living Through Chemistry, overlays stock photographs of inspirational landscapes with motivational phrases taken from corporate handbooks. Against this glossy backdrop, Byrne superimposed exacting photographic images of drug paraphernalia. The second group, called Stairway to Heaven, includes images of street weapons combined in whimsical ways with colorful paper monies from around the world. The final visual element of the installation was a laser disc slide show fed to large video monitors stacked side by side. In one series of double-wide images, called Biorhythms, Byrne’s text — which defines and describes music — was graphically arrayed against designer Tony Arefin’s close-ups of mundane objects. In another series, well-known catchphrases from corporate advertising campaigns were ever so slightly altered to leverage new meanings.
A final element of the exhibition was an audio presentation of spoken word, sampled sounds, and music from unexpected sources delivered via walkmans. The sounds dissolved into one another, fading back later as if happening in simultaneity. “Use of individual headphones assures intimacy and intensity,” says Byrne, “and also assures that everybody in the gallery is not in audio-synch, but rather on their own private audio time. The audio is a supplement to the visual, doubling meaning rather than providing a single source narrative, pre-determined exhibitory pathway, or critical commentary. . . an audio equivalent of the photo pieces in some ways.”
Desire, an installation of images and sound featuring the work of David Byrne, was on view at MASS MoCA in North Adams from July 27 through October 20, 1996. The exhibition was David Byrne’s first solo museum show in the United States.
David Byrne, Stairway to Heaven: Democracy, 1996