Neo-narration: stories of art

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The drama of narration

Besides fiction or poetry, related innovations in 20th century drama heavily inform many of today's neo-narrational works.

Mai-Thu Perret's film performance An Evening of the Book is based on a 1924 Soviet agit-prop piece with costumes and sets designed by Varvara Stepanova.

Originally performed by students of the Communist Education Academy, props such as a blank, open book or giant speech marks reflect Perret's fascination with text as well as her interest in Constructivism, the aesthetics of which are echoed in many of the artworks 'created' by denizens of Perret's Crystal Frontier.

mai-Thu Peret
Mai-Thu Perret; An Evening of the Book


By far the strongest theatrical influence on today's narrative art, however, is absurdist drama, a movement very different in purpose to the edifying propaganda of Soviet Russia.

Its modern genesis is usually traced to Alfred Jarry's 1896 Ubu Roi, a play that so scandalised Parisian audiences that it was performed only twice before being banned. Its legacy is felt in Tristan Tzara's Dadaist plays in which dialogue and stage convention are reduced to provocative near-nonsense, and was likewise an influence on a later body of Surrealist writing.


Dada and absurdist theatre
Tristan Tzara: Coeur de Gaz

Post-war, these early avant-garde experiments contributed to the dramatic movement eventually known as the Theatre of the Absurd, with leading exponents including Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov and Samuel Beckett.

All manifestations of the theatrical absurd share a relish for the illogical and transgressive, while characterisation, particularly in early works, tends to the bizarre or symbolic.

Nathaniel Mellors: Giantbum
Nathaniel Mellors: Giantbum

Grotesque protagonists and preposterous plot are hallmarks of Dawood's Feature and John Bock's various movies, while references to coprophagia in Mellors' Giantbum not only echo his acknowledged source of Fellini's Salò, but reprise the shit-tasting banquets of Jarry's infamous play.


Perhaps less easy to correlate with neo-narrational concerns, however, are two characteristics of absurdist drama that become especially evident in its post-war phase: a general avoidance of complex plot and an extreme, postmodern mistrust of the capabilities of language.

Samuel Beckett's increasingly minimal output, for instance, resulted in several late plays that studiously avoid speech altogether, turning instead to alternative forms of narration such as the sound of breathing (Breath, 1969), or pacing footsteps (Footfalls, 1975). By contrast, neo-narration generally favours intricate narrative and certainly embraces text in all its forms.

Yet its practitioners do parallel Beckett's later experiments through an exploration of multiple narrational formats - including, of course, the non-textual - as well as frequent investigation of the conventions and content of narration itself. And their allegiance to word is not necessarily unqualified: we need only refer to Martens' subversive quasi-documentaries or Mellors' spoof TV shows to witness a highly cautious, critical stance.


Paul Chan: Waiting For Godot
Paul Chan: Waiting For Godot in New Orleans

Despite ultimate variance in objectives, Beckett, particularly in his mid-career phase, wields major influence on neo-narrational practice. Specific allusions to his techniques are made in Feature, while Mellors' 2007 work The Time Surgeon is partly inspired by Krapp's Last Tape.

In 2007, Paul Chan staged the writer's most famous play, Waiting For Godot, in two New Orleans locations ruined by Hurricane Katrina. While Chan is not a neo-narrationist per se, his project neatly illustrates the growing centrality of literature to art.


(More) about narration: the postmodern position

If, as has been argued, neo-narration draws much of its influence from literary modernism, postmodernism also plays a vital part in much of its practice - although not, perhaps, to the extent that a cursory examination of neo-narrational art might indicate.

While distinctions between literary movements are arguably more fluid than their equivalents in the visual arts, a defining characteristic of postmodernism is generally agreed to be a fundamental denial of the possibility of universal meaning, with Beckett himself often seen as marking this shift.

The apparent paradox into which such a supposition throws the author - as a user of language, however firm the belief in its deficiencies - is remedied in part by devices enabling textual development while simultaneously underscoring and promoting its indeterminacy.

The most important of these again include absurdity, but furthered through radical intervention such as William Burroughs' use of the 'cut up'; extreme textual play; and meta-text, commentary on a fiction's own production ranging from highly aware self-analysis to more oblique reflection on textual artifice.

The work of Jose Luis Borges is particularly associated with such self-reflexive narrative, and although critical opinion is sharply divided as to whether his work can really be considered postmodern, his influence on a number of neo-narrationists is certain.


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