The Portuguese writer José Saramago claimed that the narrator does not exist, implying that, in every text, we are simply manipulated by an author and several characters. Portuguese curator Ana Teixeira Pinto’s exhibition, ‘The Reluctant Narrator’, subtitled ‘Narrative Practices Across Media’, explores ideas around the unreliability of the narrative voice in visual art. Intrinsically biased, the narrator is a protagonist, a witness or a messenger. If knowledge relies on stories that, in turn, rely on narrators, what separates fact, fiction and interpretation? The work of 18 cross-generational and international artists – born between the 1960s and the ’80s, with the exception of British artists John Smith and Derek Boshier (born in 1952 and 1937 respectively) – provides insight.
The show opens with one of history’s protean narratives: Marxism. Gernot Wieland’s installation, Portrait of Karl Marx as a Young God (2009), includes a video of childlike drawings while a voice with a Germanic accent narrates an unidentified document discussing what can be classified as Marxist: for example, the colour white apparently can’t be, but animals can. Wieland, through his seemingly neutral messenger, hilariously exposes interpretation as a potentially limitless means of reassembling the fragments of a shattered utopia. Intertextuality is also at play in Untitled (Bebo Coca) (2011), Karl Holmqvist’s sabotaging of Beba Coca Cola (1957), the Concretist Brazilian poem by Décio Pignatari, whose title (meaning ‘drink Coca-Cola’ in Portuguese) blends into the word ‘cloaca’, which means ‘filth’ and ‘sewer’. The Swedish artist wrote his version directly onto the gallery wall, replacing some letters with logos and symbols (such as an encircled ‘A’ for anarchy and the Chanel logo). If he pollutes the narrator’s elementary tool – the alphabet – it is only to reassert its critical power as a graphic symbol.
Thus far, the narrator – and his or her material, language – has clearly been steered by the artist. The viewer, however, has some work to do in Boshier’s Change (1973), in which a sequence of postcard-sized images morph into one another by virtue of formal equivalence. A photo of a dog in the street, for example, is followed by a postcard of a Scottish terrier, then an ink drawing of a dog, which, in turn, becomes a map of South Africa, and so on. This kinetic use of image is based on change: the formal concatenation both gains and loses elements to create each new pattern. Sustaining this suggestion of change as a vehicle for narrative is Armando Andrade Tudela’s Placa 1, 2, 3 (2011), three arrangements of the same semi-geometric gesso shapes on the floor that recall fractured walls. The works that do not contain language, and sculpture in particular, seem to transpose narrative methods such as cut-up and collage into sculptural techniques. Whereas Tudela’s work is a demonstration of difference through three equally satisfying configurations of the same fragments, Nina Beier’s sculpture Shelving for Unlocked Matter and Open Problems (2013) – a set of glass shelves held by found sculptures that have been cut to the same height – employs the cut-up with a sense of heightened visual violence.
Beier’s sub-narratives, represented by the different styles of sculpture, are part of an authoritarian, but non-hierarchical, all-encompassing narrative (the whole sculpture) to the point where we wonder who exactly is telling this traumatic story. Nevertheless, some works embody resistance through alternative historical perspectives, such as Aleksandra Domanovic´’s sculptures of futuristic hands holding symbolic objects like a relay baton – Fatima and Relay Runner (Sanija Hyseni 1979) (both 2013). These are inspired by the ‘Belgrade Hand’, the first artificial haptic limb, created in 1963 in former Yugoslavia, and were placed between two rooms. Like the viewer who is held between two spaces, the sculptures are caught between the past and the future. In the catalogue, Domanovic´ offered an elliptical history of technology, whose opening entry is the creation of the first computer program by Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter) in 1843. Elsewhere, Hito Steyerl’s video Lovely Andrea (2007) involves the search for a missing Japanese bondage actress whose identity becomes confused with that of the artist herself. Not only does Steyerl question the narrator’s identity, she also obliquely asks who or where the ‘hero’ is – Spiderman and his web make several appearances.
A timely survey of storytelling in the visual arts, ‘The Reluctant Narrator’ is perhaps too misleading a title for this show. I would have preferred the term ‘unreliable narrator’, which the curator uses in her text, because the narrator, in any of his or her iterations, is both manipulative and manipulated, compromised and multiple. Everyone and everything here creates fiction from fact – and vice-versa.