Neo-narration: stories of art

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True-life tales

Luke Fowler: neo-narration, new narrative forms in contemporary art
Pilgrimage from Scattered Points 2006 (detail), DVD
Courtesy of The Modern Institute, Glasgow
© 2009 Luke Fowler

Biographical documentary - though of an ostensibly more certain nature than that provided by Lindsay Seers - is likewise a concern for Glasgow-based artist and musician Luke Fowler.

Delving into the lives of radical thinkers, many connected with music, his films employ familiar contextual materials such as archival footage, text, photographs and interviews.

Yet his approach to presenting information differs subtantially from standard documentary. Narrators and interviewees may be left unidentified, for instance, or incorporated film and sound deliberately rendered indistinct.

Similarly, apparently random images are woven incongruously into narrative, or presented in rapid, flickering sequences.

Fowler's evocation of fact leaves space for enigma and nuance, a neglected area of his adopted genre in which definitive statement is the norm.


Matt Stokes, Gainsbourough Packet, narrative and film in contemporary art
Gainsborough Packet, DVD still
copyright © Matt Stokes

British artist Matt Stokes' Gainsborough Packet merges biography with period drama in his focus on the life of John Burdikin, an ordinary man resident in England's Newcastle upon-Tyne in the early 19th Century.

In 1828, Burdikin wrote a long letter to a friend in which he described his life in extraordinary detail. Stokes, having discovered the manuscript in archives, decided to use it as the basis of a nine-minute film featuring episodes from Burdikin's colourful history re-enacted by costumed performers.

The result is not just an impressively detailed mini-drama, however, it's a musical besides, with lyrics and score commissioned from leading figures in the English folk music scene.

The use of song as a form of narration is, as we shall see, a relatively common neo-narrational ploy, although Stokes' application has a very particular relevance.

Resurrecting a previously unknown historical figure, his slick, pop video-style production simultaneously breathes life into a dying musical tradition. Fusing heritage with MTV, Gainsborough Packet is a time-warping synthesis of musical and social cultures.


Kaari Upson, Larry - new forms of storytelling in narrative art
Kaari Upson: Larry
copyright © Kaari Upson

Both biography and autobiography become inseparable in LA artist Kaari Upson's Larry, a project which, while showing some similarities with the work of French artist Sophie Calle, takes on its own highly distinctive narrative form.

Having come across several boxes of abandoned personal papers in a burnt-out house, Upson embarked on a quest to discover as much as possible about their former owner. Tantalising information was already present: his name - Larry - date of birth, snapshots and a couple of journals.

Upson began her research online before turning to less conventional investigative methods. She had her subject's handwriting analysed, and even commissioned his-and-her astrological charts.

As details mounted, so did Upson's emotional involvement. Facts she was unable to supply were invented, evoked through film, text and drawing. The story of Larry's life stealthily became one in which Upson's own role as narrator merged into interdependence with her subject:

"The objective reality of the man I construct collapses into the subjective fiction I create until they merge and I am more him than he is."

The many documents generated by Upson's research form the core of the project, supported by works in various media. A video piece depicts the artist removing a male mannequin's head, 'skinning' it, then placing the features, mask-like, over her own. Larry and Upson are equally conjoined in Kiss, painted portraits of the 'couple' pressed together when still wet.

A compendium of narrational acts, Larry seamlessly merges genres ranging from biography to unlikely romance within an artwork that itself approximates an unfinished detective novel. Upson as narrator is equally as protean as her story: sleuth; lover; artist; psychologist; historian; as well as, at times, the voice of Larry himself.

Chantal Akerman: narrative and film
To Walk Next To One's Shoelaces In An Empty Fridge
DVD still
copyright © Chantal Akerman

Chantal Akerman's 2004 film To Walk Next to One's Shoelaces In An Empty Fridge is also inspired by a chance discovery, a diary kept by Akerman's maternal grandmother when a young woman. The film ostensibly operates on a very different level to those already discussed, apparently eschewing intricate narrative devices to simply record an informal conversation between the artist and her mother as they flick through its pages.

The result, however, is a hugely intimate tale that is movingly narrated by not two, but three women: Akerman, her mother, and her absent grandmother, whose presence and voice is supplied through her own writings and daughter's verbal recollections. The memoir becomes particularly poignant as we learn that the diarist, a Polish Jew, was later to perish at Auschwitz.

Nevertheless, the narrative with which we are presented is ultimately one of hope, love and resilience; while celebrating the moving image, Akerman equally underlines the power of word, both spoken and written, to move and inspire.


Narrational platforms

Akerman's work treads a fine line between art and so-called creative non-fiction; yet neo-narration's emphasis on word readily extends to the interview, anecdote or speech.

Turner Prize-winner Mark Leckey's Cinema in the Round consists of a video compilation of his academic lectures on the relationship between object and image in film and television. Since Leckey chooses to present these as part of his practice, the investigation could equally be said to extend to relationships between the spoken word and art.

The lecture is likewise central to Mike Nelson's The Projection Room (Triple Bluff Canyon), in this case footage of a slide presentation delivered by conspiracy theorist Jordan Maxwell.

As Maxwell proffers sinister analyses of iconography such as the pyramid symbol on the US dollar bill, the shadowy conspiracies he claims to reveal echo the construction of particularly elaborate fictions, both, in their own way, a form of 'plot'.

Mike Nelson, art and narration
Mike Nelson: installation view

The on-screen narration is paralleled by a story of Nelson's own, a meticulous recreation of the artist's former studio in which a jumble of objects, books and furniture function as an elaborate auto-biography.

While these personal belongings apparently provide a profile of the artist himself, Maxwell's lecture strikes an unexpected note of caution. Interpretation can never attain the certainty of truth, and even the most commonplace signifiers are open to multiple readings.

Forms of narrative are always central to Nelson's practice, and like many other neo-narrationists he cites less of an interest in other artists than writers, with authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft, and Joseph Conrad a particular source of inspiration.

He frequently emulates their stylistic use of dramatically charged, ambiguous environments through the construction of themed, interconnecting rooms; an elaborate mise-en-scene to be 'read' by participants.

Time-based evolution of narrative is supplied by the labyrinthine unfolding of one scene into another. With storyline reduced to atmospheric components, narrators very specifically include audiences themselves.


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