Neo-narration: stories of art

previous >

Elaborate fictions, alternative worlds

As we have seen, neo-narration emphasises and enables the construction of story via a multitude of mediums - dramatic script, documentary, lecture and even musical lyrics. Yet several of its artists also engage in a detailed revision of one of the most ambitious of all narrative genres: the fictional novel itself.

With characterisation, setting and incident all controlled by the artist/author, the result is a work which so thoroughly blurs boundaries between literature and visual art that it could, in fact, be considered both.

Mai-Thu Perret, art and narrative
Mai-Thu Perret, installation view

Swiss artist Mai-Thu Perret's Crystal Frontier provides an evolving account of a commune founded by five women close to the Mexico-US border.

Various texts - diary entries, song lyrics, letters and schedules of daily tasks - describe life in the utopia they have initiated, as well as providing detailed insight into the lives and personalities of the women themselves.

Selling crafts to make a living, the objects purportedly created by Perret's fictional heroines provide tangible artifacts that neatly support and enhance narrative. As Perret has said "... the story was imagined, at the beginning, as a kind of machine that makes the art."


Mai-Thu Peret, new narrative art: neo-narration
Mai-Thu Perret, installation view


Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick are collaborators in a series of richly detailed art 'novellas', the first of which, The Flight Series (1996) tells the story of The Royal Excavation Corps, a fictional British military unit whose exploits in the late 1930s are recounted through photography, text and installation.

Members of the REC flew, according to various narrators, using fragile gliders, aided in their missions by natural hallucinogens to help them ignore the perils of the flimsy flying machines:

"(Peter Hesselbach, REC coordinator) ... began to warm to the task of making the gliders flyable. Abandoning the stiff, heavy oak frames for lighter, more flexible ash, he reconfigured the design into a more aerodynamic shape, over which he stretched and restretched the rawhide over a period of days, trimming it each time until it was gossamer-light. By late June he was able to report a flight "of well over three quarters of an hour, at a maximum altitude of almost 75 feet" with the redesigned ornothopter. During this time, Peter was well aware that most of the expedition members were involved in taking tinctures and decoctions made from hallucinogenic herbs and spices, undergoing deep hypnosis, using ritual objects to go into trance states. The Expedition was ultimately undone by these practices when Brockman and MacRupert found a large cache of hallucinogenic honey near the Taw delta."

Photographic panoramas in period style depict the REC at work; corroborating the 'evidence' of these images, display cases hold letters, objects and written accounts of their exploits.


Nicholas Kahn, Richard Selesnick
copyright © Kahn and Selesnick (detail)


A more recent project by the duo, The Apollo Prophecies, recounts a hitherto unknown Edwardian voyage to the moon. Resulting in the founding of a short-lived colony, vestiges of the expedition were uncovered and documented during NASA's maiden lunar landing, though news of the startling discovery was kept a closely guarded secret.

A fifty-foot photographic panorama details this eccentric pseudo-historicity.

A long term project by New York artist Ernesto Caivano is again based on a fiction of his own devising, a complex tale that evokes the chivalric themes of Mediaeval romance. Since the story is depicted largely through image alone - intricate, symbol-laden drawings - it lies on the fringe of art defined here as neo-narrational, in which text of some type is at least a constituent.

Nevertheless, Caivano's magical world depends on a narrative which, according to the artist himself, is constantly evolving. (further 'fringe' artists that could be added to this group include Trent? and Paul Noble, the although

Scottish artist Charles Avery's fantastical project The Islanders is multi-disciplinary, evoked through text, sculpture, maps and meticulous sketches purportedly produced by an unnamed explorer who takes on the task of documenting the island and its society:

" The Island stands at the centre of a spiralling archipelago of infinite other islands, the arms of which curl out over the great oceans and conjoin at the pole. It is a medium-sized island in the middle of the world and that is all that need be said of its magnitude, for its relations are completely internal, its inhabitants content with their lives."


Charles Avery
Charles Avery: installation view, Tate Britain, 2008

Avery's imaginary world possesses indigenous flora and fauna, often bizarre hybrids of our own plants and beasts. Similarly, everyday life for the island's human inhabitants melds recognisable routine with a specific history and culture, itself an amalgam of whimsy and profundity. The local delicacy of pickled eggs, for example, is so "ruinously addictive", that it is sometimes used as an underworld currency. A system of ancient belief and myth, often centred around the island's fabulous beasts, proves equally potent; somewhat perversely, the profession of hunter is the most revered by the Island's people.

Charles Avery, The Islanders
copyright © Charles Avery

While Avery's work appears to reflect the type of literary fantasy exemplified by writers such as J. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or Mervyn Peake, the artist himself rejects such allusions, preferring comparisons with the likes of Blake, Jonathan Swift and Borges. While the many strands of his narrative are imbued with innate comment and reflection on our own world, Avery's declared intention is not to satirise, but simply create and investigate:

"People have perceived some kind of satirical content to this, and there really isn't. I think maybe people have mistaken my ultra-earnestness for cynicism. I don't see it that way.... The Island is not a parallel world, it's part of this world, therefore it is a fiction. I use the word 'fiction' very broadly. History is a fiction, art history is fiction. Maybe reality is the biggest fiction of all."

While all these incursions into the very fundaments of creative writing - plot, characterisation, incident - are also supported by ancillary art objects, other notable projects depend on text alone.

'Reena Spaulings', the novel created by the New York collective Bernadette Corporation, evolved from a collaboration with 150 writers.

Over a three year period, each author added their own contribution to an account story of the eponymous central character, a young woman resident in New York whose story becomes as complex as the multiple input would suggest.

Well-known artists Liam Gillick and Mark Leckey have produced their own works of fiction in the form of short stories and (in Gillick's case) plays. <

p>Operating on one level as independent works, they also, of course, contextually support each artist's practice and, indeed, have usually been written to support specific projects.


The word as sculpture

But today's emphasis on the textual can go further still, perceiving language as a bridge between a work's initial conception and its final realisation, a semi-abstract phase of development that operates almost like a sketch. (To make this concept more straightforward, we could simply say that the discussion involved in proposing an artwork can be treated as an abstracted artwork in its own right).

This, at least, is a position two newly emerging artists appear to embrace.

Dutch artist Falke Pisano's Turning a Sculpture into a Conversation (2006), in which the act of making an object gradually transforms into a spoken-word piece, is fairly typical of her body of texts, recorded readings and live performance lectures which meditate on the possibility of creating proposed objects through analysis of existing entities.

If, once again, this sounds slightly baffling, Pisano herself draws parallels with the alchemists, who believed that base materials could be transmuted into gold through a rearrangement of their essential properties.

Pisano divides her practice into three areas of production: 'concrete objects', by which she means existing objects; 'abstract concrete objects', referring to the analysis of these concrete objects in order to formulate the blueprint for a posited object (the 'conceptual sketch' stage that corresponds to much of her actual output); and 'abstract sculpture', the resultant concept, which exists purely as a logical entity.

Pisano's concerns are echoed in the work of young French artist Benoit Maire - so much so, in fact, that he and Pisano have collaborated on several projects.

Maire's 2006 video spider web records his conversation with the art historian Arthur C. Danto regarding a sculpture that is never seen by the viewer. Other works similarly deal with "... the performative construction of objects tied to readings of history, fiction and theory of perception."

neo-narration: next >
Bookmark and Share


further articles

limited edition prints and multiples

back to top

top picks...

Further articles...

click to scroll left
Modernist tendencies in German art
The German modernist revival
Idenity in transformation: Italian contemporary art
Identity and Italian art
New sculpture: Alice Channer, Sara Barker, Leonor Antunes and Tove Storch
New sculpture: Alice Channer, Sara Barker, Leonor Antunes and Tove Storch
word, text and literature in art
Neo-narration - how word became art
Death, disaster and apocalypse in contemporary art practice
Apocalyptic visions
sex and sexuality in contemporary art
X-pression: sex in art
artists we love...
Spotlight: international artists
How Romanian contemporary artists are wowing the art world
The rise and rise of Romanian art
emerging artists on the up...
On the up - artists to watch
click to scroll right
1 2 3