New York

“The Storyteller”

Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery

In 1936, Walter Benjamin famously worried that the art of storytelling had been superseded by journalism and mass media. Working under the sign of Benjamin, “Storyteller” curators Claire Gilman and Margaret
Sundell grouped together fourteen artists who employ the story form as a documentary mode, setting aside Benjamin’s distinction between the subjectivity of oral communication and the assumed veracity of mechanical broadcast in order to investigate the use of narrative across a swath of contemporary art. The show (which opens this month at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto) includes photography, drawing, and installation. But video predominates, perhaps as a result of the medium’s durational format, which lends itself to conveying information sequentially. Emblematic of such work are Lamia Joreige’s Objects of War No. 3 and No. 4, both 2006, in which interviewees discuss the Lebanese Civil War using personal objects chosen for their lingering significance—a radio, say, or a child’s drawings of an airplane aloft in a fiery dreamscape. In all cases, however, the works evidence an emphasis on plot; contemporary political events are given form through the subjective exigencies of description, as exemplified in Hito Steyerl’s Journal No. 1—An Artist’s Impression, 2007, which centers on the first Bosnian newsreel (shot in 1947 and destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian War) and, most important, three individuals’ conflicting recollections of it.

Thus, rather than stage an argument about storytelling per se, the show in fact highlights various account-driven strategies that pressure the terms of experience, recollection, and conveyance within contemporary art’s documentary turn. Reenactments figure prominently: Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis’s Battle of Orgreave, 2002, for instance, documents a restaging of clashes between police and striking miners in England in 1984, while for Missing Books’ video In the Last 20 Minutes, 2005, the Amsterdam-based collaborative reconstructed the last twenty minutes of Argentinean writer and guerrilla Roberto Walsh’s life before his 1977 assassination by government agents. The more explicitly imperfect object of recovery returns in Joachim Koester’s The Kant Walks, 2003, a photo-essay evidencing the artist’s retracing of Kant’s walks through his native Königsberg, a city since leveled by Allied bombs and later occupied—and rendered further unrecognizable—by the Soviet Union.

Other works self-consciously reflect on the crossing points of history and fiction, especially Omer Fast’s Spielberg’s List, 2005, a video exploring the experience of Polish extras in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. Adrian Paci’s Albanian Stories, 1997, meanwhile, consists of a short loop of the artist’s three-year-old daughter recounting fairy tales—replete with folkloric tropes of the cow and the cock—that take as their subject matter the family’s move to Italy following the Albanian economic crisis. In exploring notions of invention and fabulation, Paci provides a fable of identification where chaos is managed by virtue of the traditional template. This experientialist tendency also marks Steve Mumford’s Iraq, 2003–2005, a suite of surprisingly lyric watercolor-and-ink sketches showing an occupied Baghdad wholly distinct from that presented in mainstream media coverage, with each drawing foregrounding its fragmentary and improvisational character. Like most of the works in the show, Mumford’s sketches pointedly reflect on situations in medias res—the unfinished nature of the events they figure as well as the inevitably incomplete registrations of them.

Taken as a whole, then, “The Storyteller” offers a model of history cleaved from its institutionalization, one in which partiality forms the basis of—and necessity for—participating in a story yet to fully unfold. Of course, that it does so is in part the inevitable by-product of taking the recent past as subject matter, as Mounir Fatmi’s Save Manhattan 02, 2009, a site-specific, reconfigured collection of videotapes and books stacked to conjure the pre-9/11, twin towers–crowned skyline, and Michael Rakowitz’s Return, 2006–, an installation commemorating the artist’s revival of his Iraqi Jewish grandfather’s import-export business in a beleaguered attempt to bring Iraqi dates into the United States for the first time in a generation, attest. Yet partiality is also structural to the storytelling method. Eschewing didacticism in order to privilege memory above—or even as—history, these artworks intentionally forgo universality without relinquishing their claim to participate in collective politics, however specific the occasions of their utterance.

Suzanne Hudson