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Narratives

This paper is a reflection on the importance, and the specific sense of narrative in my own visual and sound artwork.

As an artist my creative work has always dealt with narrative, through images, installations and sound. I am particularly interested in the ways static images can employ narrative structures, and how sound/music, text and cinema can inform, and themselves become, through memory, single images.

My early academic studies were during the period when the ‘School of London’ was at its height. My obsession then was to make a figurative image usually based on a single figure, but for me, the figure became impossible to capture solely in terms of a physical body, so I developed strategies to deal with an extended notion of the body in time and place. This focus eventually led my work into digital print and sound.

The images I make combine textual, filmic, aural and painterly narrative forms. They are diagrams or plans of three-dimensional lived moments, often structured around an ‘expanded’ kind of portraiture.

My images (and to some extent my sound works) are built of layers and folds, moments of duration, repetitions and colour-rhythms – taking the shape of dualities of movement and stillness. These are figurative narratives exploring the personal, memories, connections, and links across time and space. Text/image as well as image/sound relations are the bases of the main formal language that I use.

Paul Cobley in his book, simply called Narrative (2001), states that “…narrative is the human relation to time.”[1] And it is a sense of time I want to start with.

The title of my talk is Unfolding Moments: Figures of Movement and Stillness. What I mean is that ‘unfolding moments’ can be seen as both our everyday perception of time passing, as a witnessing of time – things that happen to us, as well as an action, literally an unpacking of time.

And that is what I believe visual art (static visual art) is about, the unpacking or unfolding of time. The contemplative stillness of an image requires this unpacking action by the viewer. Whereas cinema reflects the way we perceive the world in continual movement, the still image requires an active, enquiring participation and perception.

Ils Huygens writes about Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts about film. She says: ‘Cinema makes it impossible to think, because before we can interpret one image it is already replaced by another. Before we can grasp an image it is already passed, the process of association is constantly interrupted, deconstructed, dislocated.’[2]

This presentation title also refers to Figures. I mean figures in the literal sense of the human figure (which, I believe, is more than the body), and I also mean the figure as an example – or a diagram.

When I say that the figure is more than the body, I don’t mean a vague notion of spirituality, I mean that the body extends into space through various means – these can be sound (eg voice), movement, or colour (which are my primary interests), and even heat and smell. And I’m sure there are other ways that we fill space that haven’t yet been identified. This extension can be called presence.

My own interest in creating an image, or portrait, of the figure started, conventionally, with the body, but I soon found that this was inadequate to reflect the complete sense I had of this figural presence. This emerging sense I can now understand as similar to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of de- and re-territorialisation. That is, figures take up a space which is constantly fluctuating, held and negotiated, argued and relinquished. And it is this that I have come to understand as my area of narrative.

The first connection, then, with narrative is the de- and re-territorialising structure that comes about by our intellectual, emotional and physical movement and negotiation with space and with others. This is not simply about moving through various spaces, but about a notion of repetition and formation. What Deleuze and Guattari call the refrain is used as a standard motif.

Ronald Bogue, in his book Deleuze on Music, Painting and the Arts (2003) says ‘Deleuze and Guattari extend the notion of the refrain to refer to any kind of rhythmic pattern that stakes out a territory.’[3]

Difference, in this case, is understood in relation to a repeated unit, an understandable measure.

Cobley, again in his Narratives book, writes: “Enshrined… in narrative, from its formulaic oral origins, is a repeatable pattern manifest in either simple phrases … or in more complicated configurations of rhythm at the level of sentences, paragraphs or entire episodes. … It is as if the message is in the rhythm itself…”[4]

Rhythm is perhaps the one thing that connects all the art forms.

At this point I should go back a bit.

Pictures have always told stories of one kind or another, or at least have referred to known stories by the viewer. But it was my reading of Philip Rawson’s book on drawing[5], when I was a student, which clarified for me the idea of narrative as a sense of movement through an image. Rawson understands drawing in terms of time, for example the way a drawing is built up in layers from the starting marks through to the finished final ‘thought’. And in certain periods of art images were also constructed with enclosures or units which were repeated throughout the picture. A good example is the use of the ovoid shape in Renaissance images – where the shape runs through the figure as a motif of movement and structure, and often across the whole image, especially through groups of figures. This can be seen in Western imagery from Leonardo through to Cezanne, where it suddenly changes into a planar faceting taken up by the Cubists. These container forms are often aided by what Rawson calls ‘vector’ lines, which are lines of direction, or force.

So, for me, the sense of narrative is not story based. My notion of narrative is more in keeping with our current understanding of time and our places in the world, that narrative is not something that necessarily has a beginning, middle and end. That is a story line. Our experience is partial, multifaceted, interconnected at points, but mostly in transit, and contingent. How is this translatable into a still image? I have attempted some possible examples – which are still quite rudimentary.

Red Earth (for Primo Levi)

Red Earth (for Primo Levi), above, is one of the most straightforward and ‘direct’ narrative images I have created. It takes the textual form of boustrophedon (the ox-plough shape of some early writings, where the text read from left to right as in our standard method of writing today but on the following line the text ran from right to left, and so on). In my image this form is imposed onto a single picture of a desert (actually a photograph of Mars). This shape therefore speaks of a line of text as well as an image of cultivation, of possible fertility, of organisation and civilisation.

Overlaid onto that shape and image are words from a paragraph about distillation taken from the Periodic Table by Primo Levi. And in some ways this idea of distillation is what narrative in image making is about. In still images the slow accumulated creation is to a greater or lesser extent ‘played’ out by the repeated interrogation of the viewer; both these acts are a form of distilling.

The full paragraph from which these words were taken explains the idea of the process. Levi writes: “Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, … Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence,… the spirit…”[6]

Red Earth (for Primo Levi) was not the first image I made that tried to create a portrait without the body, although it was the first in a short series of images called Red Earth, which aimed to focus on some central concerns or issues of those ‘portrayed’.

Prior to the piece about Levi I had worked on several images that were based on texts. These texts gave an overall narrative form which was developed into a vertical triptych format that could be read in a linear left to right (and sometimes right to left) method as well as a top down structure.

For example, the images explored an art theory text about photography by Andrea Fisher and two translations of a Russian poem (The Slate Pencil Ode) by Osip Mandelstam. These works were concerned with relations between text and image, and multiple definitions.

for Andrea

In for Andrea, above, the text and photograph are cut up and reassembled in various forms so that the text can be seen to be read vertically and horizontally – but also so that each panel of the triptych format were separate images dealing with the photograph/print as object, the idea of reverie, and the car as object, respectively. The image is about an active looking, a narrative of vision.

In Translation

In Translation, above, the work based on two English translations of The Slate Pencil Ode, dealt with the negotiations with the original text and its meanings, and the similarities and differences between the translations – edges of meaning that were found and lost – the boundaries of identities of individual words, translations, and translators.

These works also built on the methods of layering in my images which had been developed through printmaking and drawing over many years prior to these pieces, but working with digital imagery allows a greater freedom and variety of possibilities with layering techniques.

These pieces also developed methods for disrupting a single reading of time in the works, with both vertical and horizontal event/time lines and forms.

After the short series of images using the boustrophedon figure which we saw in the Primo Levi print that developed out of the textual formats of the early triptychs, came another set of triptychs that played with breaking up the linear structure further.

Red Earth (for Akira Kurosawa)

These began with Red Earth (for Akira Kurosawa), above, which was an attempt to reconstruct the effect of his film Rashomon. This image, and the next in the series, And/Or, aim at being portraits of the film and the film maker respectively. They take narratives and apply several conflicting forms of reading.

Rashomon was a film about narrative. It took the same story, or at least a single situation, and told it from various points of view, none of which agreed. The recurring story becomes a refrain that is transformed through each retelling. I was intrigued by the static nature of the film and tried to define an image of it that reflected its circular though dislocated narrative while also developing its accumulation of inflection through weighted (or accented) images.

The sense of the main characters of the story is that they are four separate worlds brought together in a fatal moment, an overlap in their singular spaces. This is a moment of de- and re-territorialisation – a moment when the edges of the figural sense of space is in extreme fluctuation, when disaster is possible.

And/Or

And/Or, above, is a portrait of Kurosawa himself. It takes further the structures I had previously developed. This image explores a skeletal structure, a diagram that defines a temporal figural reference, and around and behind it a broad sense of environment (a body/ground relationship).

It also employs multiple layering of images, continuous reading across the panels, rhythmic blocks that create a steady but changing beat through the interactive colour bars, and vertical connecting bars that cut through a linear horizontal reading of time in the picture.

At the same time as these prints were being made a set of sound works and image/sound installations were being produced. The installations explored how sound and still image could work together or placed sound as an image or sound object.

Field Study no 2

Field Study no 2, above, is an example of these installations, though others were more spatially immersive. This ‘field’ was an interface not only between image and sound, but sonically between two human voices, which sang the same words from a line of text each pitched by ear without an external reference – so that the pitching was slightly different. The resulting microtonal differences and the varying breath lengths of each sung word focused the interface between the overlapping territorial (and stereo) fields.

Shadow Rounds

More recently Shadow Rounds, (window and sound layout diagram, above), a sound installation for Spitalfields charnel house expanded the multiple voice narrative of the earlier sound/image installations. Stories, descriptions and textual fragments were collected and recorded as the ‘group’ voice of this particular area of London.

Shadow Rounds used the window of the visitor’s area as a sounding wall, transforming the glass into a resonating field of voices and sounds using the ‘smart’ material, Terfenol-D, which is capable of expanding and contracting in a highly controlled and reliable manner when stimulated by a magnetic field.

The glass wall has a political reference. Local residents have long feared the City moving across what they called the ‘glass wall’ divide between the wealthy City and this impoverished area outside Bishopsgate which has, for centuries, been known as a ‘Liberty’. The 19 texts I used explored a diverse history of ideas and events from Spitalfields. The texts were played separately over the day and then in mixes at nightfall, overlapping them in time but separating them across the glass spatially.

Voice

So light, and sound, as emanations, became part of the body extensions that described the ambiguous edge of the figure/territory that I was trying to define as a narrative interface. This was repeated on a smaller scale with works like Voice, above, for lightbox and headphones. And this ephemeral light and sound is developing further in some new works still in design. The first of these is Desert / Music, below.

Desert / Music

This piece is designed to be two metres high and three metres wide and to be attached by a metal framework to the wall but at some distance away from it so the whole construction is visible. The image panels are encapsulated duratrans prints which are, in effect, sliding open lightboxes. Behind the panels as a separate layer between them and the wall will be a set of powerful lights punching the imagery and colour out into the viewing space.

Desert / Music

In the second reproduction of the piece, above, you can see how the panels move in relationship to the overall sets of images. Moving the panels redefines each section of the image while destroying others. This shifting set of figure/landscapes is about an unfixed image – one that can never be complete.

The next step, I have in mind, is to create a fully animated piece of multiple narratives similar to And/Or, where each separate narrative fragment will continuously cycle as its own refrain within an overall moving space. That is, multiple moments of time going through their own routines at their own speeds.

And finally, a last thought about my engagement with narrative (and probably any artist’s sense of narrative) is that narrative is not only in my work, in each piece, but is also in the wandering from medium to medium of my work. The trajectory that my work is taking over time is another layer of narrative.

References

  1. Paul Cobley, Narrative, Routledge, London and NY, 2001, p17 <–
  2. Ils Huygens, Deleuze and Cinema: Moving Images and Movements of Thought, from Thinking Pictures, Issue 18, September 2007, Image and Narrative, Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative <–
  3. Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on Music, Painting, and the Arts, Routledge, New York and London, 2003, p17 <–
  4. Paul Cobley, Narrative, Routledge, London and NY, 2001, p186 <–
  5. Philip Rawson, Drawing, The Appreciation of the Arts, OUP, Oxford, 1969 <–
  6. Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, Penguin Books, London, 2000, p48 <–