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Neo-narration: stories of art

A new wave of contemporary art is keen to tell stories - and just as interested in new ways of telling them.

By Mike Brennan

Art today increasingly wants to do something it hasn't prioritised for a very long time: tell a story.

Narrative, a fundamental driving force behind centuries of art, is again preoccupying artists, and although the desire to recount and illustrate remains fundamentally the same, what is new is the adoption of an unprecedented range of narrative techniques, especially those gleaned from literature, theatre, film or TV.

Spartacus Chetwynd, new narrative art

copyright © Spartacus Chetwynd

Crucially, too, such appropriation is accompanied or even motivated by specific interest in the process and act of narration itself.

And with emphasis placed on word as opposed to image, logocentricity lies at the heart of this new wave of narrative - an extreme shift in artistic story-telling we'll term neo-narration.

Take, for example, British artist Spartacus Chetwynd's on-foot journey from London to Dover accompanied by a band of costumed 'Victorian urchins'.

An extended performance piece, the work retraces the fictional footsteps of David Copperfield, Charles Dickens' semi-autobiographical hero.

The troupe's filmed, impromptu account of their allusive road trip forms the tale - based on a tale - that becomes the artwork itself.


The video works featured in Amsterdam / London-based artist Nathaniel Mellors' first solo show Black Gold, (2001) parody well-known televisual formats in a series of scathing one-liners or surreal plot devices.

neo-narration: Nathaniel Mellors
Nathaniel Mellors: Black Gold, installation view

Gameshow, for example, concentrates solely on the oddly intimate verbal interaction between host and contestant, their dialogue depicted on a screen and simultaneously iterated by a computer.

Jailbreak, a 'documentary' on UK criminal Charles Bronson, pairs footage of a Bronson look-alike with captions describing characteristics such as his beard, glasses or eyes - the pointlessness of such 'revelations' a spoof on the spurious value of low-budget documentaries.

By contrast, Mellors' take on reality TV, Gacy, is more complex and far darker. Its witless subject explains how he was persuaded by his father to assume the identity of US murderer John Wayne Gacy, simply so that he could be handed to police in exchange for a substantial reward.

Gacy's keynote absurdity is echoed in Mellors' later piece Giantbum, (2008) which features two filmed versions of a play, both relayed on monitors in a winding, felt-lined corridor. First we are shown rehearsals, then a production in costume. The corridor opens into a pristine white room in which three identical animatronic heads quiver and declaim, eyes rolling.

narrative in art: neo-narration, Nathaniel Mellors, Giantbum
Nathaniel Mellors: Giantbum


The drama itself, which pivots around the premise of becoming lost in a giant's bottom, draws inspiration from Rabelais' novel Gargantua & Pantagruel and Pasolini's controversial last film Salò (itself based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade). Absurdity and eccentric word-play are salient features of the script:

Sir Boss: He has been freshly christened. Born twice. So ‘Father’ alone cannot suffice, when he has multiplied thusly, he is so befoulded, and covered in smudge.

Now we have Father and rather-more-than-Father. How to describe this New Father, that walks in and is his own landscape? Father and Loam? The Landlord and the Pub? Father Large Nappy of Chips? Father New and Alarming Gazebo? Father Big Back Porch? Father Compost, Father Cowplop, Father Away from Me would be preferable. No! For simplicity’s sake, arise… Father Shit Mass! From now on we must call him Shitmass.

Narrator 2: Sir Boss raises his glass in the direction of the newly dubbed Father Shitmass.

While the process of interpretation may seem an uncertain endeavour, ambiguities and nuance are clearly more dependent on our response to what we read or hear than what we see.

In this newest twist on contemporary art, artists become authors, and the stories they create essentially constitute artworks in themselves. The notion of composition has as much, if not more, to do with textual structure - formal arrangements of language, incident and time - as spatial or pictorial concerns. All of which amounts to a radical artistic departure into the realms of literature itself.


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