Neo-narration: stories of art

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Screen play: narration and film

It's hardly surprising, then, that while film emerges as a highly favoured neo-narrational medium, a major aspect of its appeal lies in the opportunities it affords for time-based storyline and exploration of various forms of narration.

Nathalie Djurberg, narrative in art
copyright © Nathalie Djurberg

With text privileged over visual experience, practitioners are less likely to draw inspiration from artistic precursors than mainstream cinematic and televisual formats, with the interview, the documentary, movie or TV drama seen to provide more effective models of narrative structure.

Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg's stop-motion animations present the viewer with an apparently playful world, a realm of claymation puppetry immediately reminiscent of children's programmes.

Yet her films are far from innocent, emerging as darkly twisted fabula exploring themes of moral and sexual transgression.

Anecdotes that approximate the darkest of fairytales, her stories bring the subliminal violence of this ubiquitous literary genre fully to the fore.

Construed as a 'pilot TV drama', Hermitos Children, a recent offering from Spartacus Chetwynd, follows the attempts of a fictional female detective to solve convoluted tales of sex-crime and murder. Embedded footage of Chetwynd's other performances makes for a riotously piecemeal plot; the story culminates in a Hollywood-style dance routine.


Shezad Dawood's Feature styles itself as a first-ever 'zombie-western', and at just under an hour long does, indeed, approach feature-length duration.

Shezad dawood
Shezad Dawood: Feature (Billy da Krishna)

Combining cinematic cliché from his chosen genres with references to Hinduism (central character Billy da Krishna merges Billy the Kid with Lord Krishna), and even Norse mythology in the shape of an opera singing Valkyrie, the result is a "crazy mix" of narrative conventions turned resolutely on their heads.

While Dawood's kitschly camp screenplay certainly nods towards later Warhol or John Waters - several of the cowboys sport fetish gear, for example - the script is punctuated by a series of unexpected scholarly asides, monologues in which character-cum-lecturer 'Crazy Horse' delivers thoughts on subjects ranging from film noir to panning techniques and cinematic time, Samuel Beckett and language.

This self-reflexive gesture lifts Feature beyond oddball quirkiness and into a far more knowing realm; a meta-text in which its own narrators comment on its own narration.


John Bock: Dandy
John Bock: Dandy, DVD
copyright © John Bock

In recent years Germany's John Bock has also produced several feature-length movies. Often shot on location with professional actors, they combine the artist's idiosyncratic creative vision with the structure and conventions of mainstream moviemaking.

Dandy (2006) is a surreal combination of costume drama, bio-pic and the decadent lyricism of Charles Baudelaire. Filmed in the Château du Bosc, the family estate of Toulouse-Lautrec, the story centres around a fictional nineteenth-century aristocrat, Monsieur Lautréament.

The role, played by Bock and clearly reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec himself, is a comic parody of the aesthete's quest for exquisite refinement.

The hypochondriac Lautréament spends his days undertaking tasks such as achieving the perfect compositional balance between a sculpture and its pedestal, penning elaborate speeches, or (in a notion reminiscent of Patrick Süskind's classic novel Perfume) developing a machine to create the perfect scent.

Lautréament's passionate yet absurd relationship with high culture is offset by a far more prosaic attachment to Louise, his beautiful and seductive servant.


new narrative in contemporary art film
John Bock: Palms, DVD
copyright © John Bock

Palms, a film noir-inspired work filmed entirely on location in Southern California, follows two German contract killers in their hunt for an unknown man. The bizarre characters and incidents encountered en route fulfil the generic conventions of American road movies, while also providing entry into Bock's esoteric personal universe.

In both movies, uncanny costumes, props and assemblages reference and examine a range of social, philosophical and aesthetic interests, a stance that is furthered by the characters' dialogue. The hero of Dandy pushes narration into new realms with the constant invention of neologisms, for example, while in Palms, a bartender tells of her theories regarding different planes of time.


The increasingly acclaimed video work of Keren Cytter is also noteable for its particular emphasis on the narrational act.

While her movies are generally lo-fi, with stuttering camera work and performances of varying quality provided by friends (although, like Bock, she has recently begun to explore far slicker production with professional actors) dialogue, by contrast, is sophisticated and considered.

Peppered with literary references, and often declamatory or poetic in tone, characters converse in pointed, rhythmic cadence or launch into eloquent soliloquy. Literary devices such as repetition are commonplace both in script and visuals.

Indeed, in much of Cytter's work, speech provides a complexity and lyricism that is in marked contrast to the banality of the situations in which her characters often find themselves.

The artist's fascination with linguistics frequently extends to the use of various languages: in the series 2/6/04 (2004) a French-speaking woman and German-speaking man play out a disintegrating relationship in their mother tongues and a third language, English, appears in the form of subtitles. The protagonist of The Milkman (2003) narrates in both Dutch and English.

While it would be wrong to claim that Cytter's interest is principally in word - her movies brim with visual references to film and TV, for example - the layering and movement of both narrative and narration draws heavily on literary technique. This interest is supported not just by her occasional interpretation of short stories, particularly by Argentine author Julio Cortazar, but even more clearly by her own success as a highly-praised novelist.


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