New York

“Narrative Urge”

Lombard-Fried Projects

Though curator Catsou Roberts’ stated aim in “Narrative Urge” was to present work that compelled the viewer to “assembl[e] the narrative fragments and assign meaning within the structure of the work,” this goal immediately ran into problems with the genealogical anchor for the show, Victor Burgin’s Love Stories #2, 1996. Here, three video monitors on elegant plinths presented what read as surveillance footage of quotidian activities. Each loop eventually faded out to a screen of saturated color, at which point a fragment of audio material from different Hollywood films—a female protagonist’s voice addressing a male character—would play. The incoherence of the juxtaposition was only heightened by a fragment of text stretching across the gallery wall behind the monitors: “Driving Fast on Empty Freeways.” Despite Burgin’s use of narrative cinematic fragments, there was little if any love story to be constructed here, aside from the easy assimilation of the vapid emptiness of the media cliche to the increasing totality of the panoptic gaze—the latter’s vision substituted allegorically for the absent presence of the cinematic image. The signs simply canceled each other out in the redundant excess of what Henri Lefebvre might have called a perfect pleonasm.

In fact, the pieces in the show were structurally united not only by the ways in which they frustrated easy narrative resolution, but also by the manner in which they refused unitary readings and pluralized the viewer’s subjective interaction with the work. Perhaps this was the motivation behind Roberts’ choice of the word “urge” in her title—one might feel a compulsion to assign meaning to each piece when faced with such narrative fragments. But the representational prohibitions enacted by each work were interesting enough on their own terms to offset such a simplistic interpretation. One of the most interesting of these was the visual image itself—three of the five works were aggressively antivisual in their cancellation of the image in favor of the realm of discursive and auditory means. British artist Stephanie Smith’s Untitled (Rebecca), 1993–94, appropriated only the sound track to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca, montaging every nonverbal utterance—the breathy “oohs” and “ahhs,” the moans, sighs, and laughs—enunciated by the film’s protagonists into a three-minute fragment that built to an audible climax and denouement. Played through headsets arranged for two intimately positioned listeners, these preverbal, bodily sounds created an unavoidable erotic tension. Ann Burke Daly’s Stereoscopic Vision, 1996, reversed this situation: she too presented an audio piece, but one set up for a single listener positioned to face outlines of absent photographs traced against the wall. Two different descriptions of the lost visual information played through the headphones. Though the voice on the tape was Daly’s, any easy accessibility to her own narratives concerning the missing images was denied by the fact that the sound loops were of differing durations, creating endless and contradictory permutations of potential descriptions. The listener was thrown back into the privatized space of his or her own memories, constantly unfixed, however, by Daly’s perpetually shifting cues.

Aggressivity toward the image was most forcefully registered in perhaps the strongest work in the show, Liisa Roberts’ film projection, 3 Minutes of Desire, 1993. During the three minutes of its projection, the viewer was presented with a series of dates spanning a period of six months and city names stretching from Europe to Latin America. Inscribed in a delicate, outmoded typeface, white on black, the titles remained on the screen for varying durations, separated by black or white light projection that gave a pulsatile rhythm to the film and enforced the bodily subtext of the title. Here too, in the end, the desire was all the viewer’s, and was the product of the film’s utter negativity and evident deprivations. As such, the work was reminiscent of a concise version of Guy Debord’s Hurlements en faveur de Sade without even the latter’s audio component. These deprivations were also what allowed for differentiations to be made between work in the show, especially and curiously along the lines of gender: here, the work of the male artists remained more wedded to visual images than did that of the female artists. This tendency is most pronounced in Joachim Koester’s installation Set-up, 1991, which consisted of two series of projected slides of found photographs collected as they were abandoned by customers in Copenhagen photoshops, a video loop of people cooling and going from a phone booth, ambient music, and a wall text that read, “the day was spent in ways we can only imagine.” While the work’s level of structural difficulty was as complex as that of any other in the show, Set-up’s unquestioned voyeurism, even its seeming celebration of surveillance, set it apart. With the utter occupation of narrative forms by the culture industry, this otherwise fine show would have been improved by more attention to the differentiation between critique and cynicism, between those works that take as a given the voyeurism characteristic of mass media and the spectacle (Koester), those that inhabit this system critically from within (Burgin), and those that frustrate the given terms of this problematic for entirely new relations to the aesthetic and to the liberating forms narrative can take (Roberts, Dale, Smith).

George Baker