Neo-narration: stories of art

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A reading of neo-narration

For many neo-narrationists, analysis of their own narration is clearly a major concern. At its simplest level, the re-purposing of narrative vehicles necessitates at least some critical comparison with the original's intended function, whether undertaken explicitly by the artist or those engaging in the work itself.

We cannot, for example, view Martens' quasi-documentaries without noting and evaluating disparities with authentic examples of the genre. This juxtaposition, of course, is exactly Martens' intention: his subtle subversion of standard narrational tropes is specifically intended to expose the mechanics of documentary-making itself.


Renzo Martens: neo-narration, narrative in art
Renzo Martens: Episode I, DVD
copyright © Renzo Martens


Self-interrogation is also fundamental to Mike Nelson's translation of literary scene-setting into installation, a practice that both emulates and investigates the power of text to assert while still remaining ambiguous. Replicating a reader's involvement in written narrative, Nelson's immersive environments oscillate between statement and nuance, fixity and multiple meaning.

Kaari Upson, narrative techniques in art
Kaari Upson, 'Kiss'
copyright © Kaari Upson

The act of narration in Kaari Upson's Larry - as well as exactly what is being narrated - exists on two distinct, though wholly inseparable levels.

Ostensibly the evolving biography of a partially known subject, the story is simultaneously Upson's own, arguably revealing more about the artist herself than the man she strives to (re)create.

With each strand of biography dependent on the other, Upton's focus on Larry's identity is equally an investigation of self, an autobiography that becomes increasingly complex the more she discovers about her stated subject's life. This, indeed, is meta-narration in particularly subtle form.


Nevertheless, while explicit self-reference is generally seen as a distinctly postmodern literary trait, definitive categorisation should be approached with caution. The age-old device of parody, for example, is in many ways a quintessential meta-fiction, a highly conscious reworking of form or style that provides inherent critique of itself and its model. And as already mentioned, Borges' devotion to meta-textual trickery is regarded by many as a last great flowering of modernist, rather than postmodern, form.

Similarly, assumptions regarding the apparent genesis of other neo-narrational influences and allegiances require care.

John Bock's neologisms and twisted syntax seem, on the face of it, paradigmatic of playfully inscrutable postmodern narration. Yet textual anarchy is likewise a hallmark of Dada; textual mischief-making fundamental to Gertrude Stein's modernist oeuvre; dazzling word play a key feature of Joycean texts, with Finnegan's Wake, in particular, probably the most densely ludic work ever written.


James Joyce - narrative in art
James Joyce: extract from Finnegan's Wake


Equally, while the act of appropriation so intrinsic to neo-narration is often cited as a specific postmodern tendency, modernism displays a similar fondness for quoting, recycling and recontextualising.

Contemporaneous materials such as newspaper reports, songs and advertisements provide the early 20th Century equivalent of today's TV soaps, reality shows and documentaries; valued literary precedents are likewise utilised to provide comment and form.

Hence, Joyce's Ulysses reprises the epic structure of Homer's Illiad, or the sterility of Eliot's modern wasteland is emphasised by reference to the glories of Dante or Elizabethan drama.

Spartacus Chetwynd is particularly interested in such forms of comparitive allusion. Besides her performance based on a passage from David Copperfield, her 2006 work The Fall of Man fuses John Milton's Paradise Lost with The German Ideology by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to create a eulogy to 'untainted existence'. She is not alone in this preoccupation. As we have seen, quotations from text, drama, TV, cinema and, far less often, art itself, pepper neo-narrational output.


Last words

Since stylistic features of literary modernism and postmodernism overlap so substantially, it's perhaps tempting to wonder if ultimate influences on neo-narrational practice really do matter. But a major division between the literary movements that inform it does exist, revealing, in its turn, distinctive positions in neo-narrationists' ultimate view of language and its role in art.

At the heart of literary modernism lies a fundamental belief in the power of the word, a certainty in its ability to interpret a chaotic world and our roles within it.

For the true postmodernist, however, life is entirely inchoate, and language therefore required to reflect an absolute lack of universal meaning. (This schism, essentially a question of faith in the redemptive powers of text, is one reason why Borges' apparently postmodern yet literature-loving work is considered difficult to categorise).

It would be tempting to argue that, collectively, neo-narration's prioritisation of text over image reveals an underlying belief in its interpretative capabilities, tempered, nonetheless, with a high degree of caution. The supposition is made all the more enticing since, in a perfectly cyclical movement, neo-narration begins to make its true impact felt exactly a century after key tenets of literary modernism were first iterated.

In the end, however, it is clearly the stories neo-narrationists choose to author - and crucially, the forms their narration takes - that most fully reflect their individual relationship to language and correlating world views.

A further, final issue arises in this discussion of text as art. If the past - and in this case, a specifically western literary past - provides the model for a new narrative thrust, does neo-narration contradict the steady creolisation of artistic form identified, for example, by Bourriaud in his theory of the Altermodern?

The answer, it seems, is currently yes.

Visual language - including the graphic, televisual and cinematic - may have become globally homogenous, but literary cultures have not entirely succumbed to the same standardisation. A textually-driven practice developed, for example, in China or the Islamic Middle East could not resemble neo-narration if it remained faithful to indigenous literary models. Indeed, for both of these cultures, a specifically logocentric artistic discipline already exists in the form of calligraphy.

Of course, notions of adherence to patrimonial artistic expression have eroded in the 21st Century, and literature is included in this global melding of forms. But its transnationalisation remains less pervasive than visual art, which can be disseminated with far greater ease, especially online where image can be assimilated at the click of a button.

This is obviously not to claim that elaborate exploration of narrative is in any way absent from global art production, but a practice that so clearly prioritises word through the specific tropes of particular textual traditions appears to be, for the moment at least, a largely western concern. Its closest parallel may, in fact, only be found in contemporary Islamic calligraphy, although differences between the two disciplines far outweigh their unifying preoccupation with text.

And perhaps this partly explains the appeal of word for a growing number of artists, in particular a rising generation for whom traditional visual language no longer represents real possibility or challenge.

Wresting parallel forms of story-telling into the currency of fine art establishes, for the moment at least, a territory that is underpopulated, a place of fresh potential.

Neo-narration marks a new phase of artistic exploration, one in which cultural history is hardly a terra incognita, but a rich source of reference. The truly startling aspect of its foray into the realms of story-telling is what serves as a stimulus - and it's very rarely art.

original text © modernedition 2009 / mike brennan


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