Neo-narration: stories of art

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A new chapter in art?

So where, exactly, does neo-narration fit into contemporary output?

While narrative has always been intrinsic to art, its centrality diminished during the course of the 20th Century, increasingly replaced by abstraction and emphasis on the processes and concepts involved in the making or perception of art.

Neo-narration not only marks an emphatic return to highly intentional, highly-controlled narrative, it particularly prioritises narration itself - the manifold ways in which stories can be told.

With word, rather than image, lying at its heart, even the artifacts or environments that commonly support neo-narrational practice are specific to an overall narrative thrust; serving, essentially, as illustrations to a story.

Critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, whose notion of relational aesthetics is at least partially reflected in the complexities of participation typical of new narrative art, has recently posited another thesis.

Postmodernism, he suggests, is at an end, to be replaced by a still-evolving successor, the Altermodern.

Defining "today's art (as one that) explores the bonds that text and image, time and space, weave between themselves", a further characteristic of his "new type of form" is a globally cultural viewpoint that previous, western-centric art movements lacked.

History, he also declares, is the favoured altermodern territory, a selective and subjective terra incognita in which time is explored "as if it was a jungle or a desert".

Bourriaud set out to illustrate his concept in Tate Britain's 2009 Triennial, a show which included works by several of the artists featured here.

While criticism of both the exhibition and its underlying ideology was, predictably, polarised, its attempt to ratify increasing awareness of a significant sea-change in art was backed by many.

Nevertheless, while Bourriaud's inclusion of works defined here as neo-narrational underlines our own contention that, collectively, they represent a noteable and new late 20th / early 21st Century tendency, they also contradict Bourriaud's outline of an entirely new modernity in at least one absolutely vital respect.

Because in their quest to develop logocentric artistic narrative, neo-narrationists refer heavily to relevant disciplines, particularly, of course, literature. And the models they most frequently emulate are those provided by 20th century textual innovation: modernism and, to a lesser degree, postmodernism itself.

Imagine, for example, works in which time becomes fragmentary and non-linear, the past, present or future compounded into a complex narrative strand.

Narrational formats gleaned from various areas of cultural production support fictional thrust: songs; newspaper reports; advertising slogans; quotations and onomatopoeiac 'sound effects' are all used to illustrate, expand and sustain storyline.

Art and literature: T.S.Elliot, The Wasteland
T.S. Eliot: draft of the The Wasteland

Various voices contribute distinctive viewpoints, their identities ranging from the credible to the bizarre, ambiguous or even entirely untrustworthy.

Finally, the act of narration itself is highly self-conscious, constantly seeking ways to redefine what, exactly, it might actually consist of.

While an apt description of the strategies consistently employed by neo-narrative art, such concerns are equally intrinsic to seminal works of literary modernism: T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland; Alfred Döblin's Berlin AlexanderPlatz; Gertrude Stein's Three Lives; John Dos Passos' USA; James Joyce's Ulysses and extraordinary Finnegan's Wake, to name just some of the best known.

Such texts were fundamental to a revolution in narrative technique that would permeate later postmodernist form - if not its ethos - to a greater degree than is often thought.

The legacy of these authors is clearly felt in Lindsay Seers' uncertain personae, Marten's protean TV presenter, Luke Fowler's multi-layered, stream of consciousness-style documentaries.

Indeed, emerging artist Karl Holmqvist, whose works consist of quotation-based writings performed live or published as texts, has specifically acknowledged his debt to The Wasteland as a principal source of inspiration for his work.

The past is systematically plundered in the neo-narrational quest for newer forms of narrative; not as 'unknown territory', but as a repository of highly specific precedent. It's just that, in this case, inspiration is rarely found in visual art itself.


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