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«Ephemeral Art: Telling Stories to the Dead Mary O’Neill Abstract: The endurance of the form of storytelling and the compulsion to tell them ...»

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Ephemeral Art: Telling Stories to the Dead

Mary O’Neill

Abstract: The endurance of the form of storytelling and the compulsion to tell them suggests

that telling stories is not merely an entertainment, an optional extra which we can chose to

engage with or not, but a fundamental aspect of being. We tell stories to construct and

maintain our world. When our sense of reality is damaged through traumatic experiences we

attempt to repair our relationship with the world through the repeated telling of our stories.

These stories are not just a means of telling but also an attempt to understand. Stories are performed and performative; they do not leave us unchanged but can in fact motivate us to act. They are not merely about things that have happened, but are about significant events that change us. Through our stories we demonstrate that we have not only had experiences but that those experiences have become part of one’s knowledge.

In this essay O’ Neill will explore the potential of objects to tell a story, the object that is both the subject of the story and the form of telling. Two ephemeral art works will be considered: Domain of Formlessness (2006) by British artist Alec Shepley and Time and Mrs Tiber (1977) by Canadian artist Liz Magor. Both works embody the process of decay and tell a story of existence overshadowed by the knowledge of certain death and the telling of the story as a means of confronting that knowledge. The ephemeral art object tells a story in circumstances when there are no words, when we have nothing left to say.

Résumé: La persistance de la forme narrative, mais aussi notre compulsion narrative, nous signalent que raconter une histoire n'est pas un simple divertissement, un supplément plus ou moins superflu qu'on pourrait laisser de côté si on le voulait, mais un aspect fondamental de notre vie. Nous racontons des histoires pour construire et sauvegarder notre univers. Lorsque des expériences traumatisantes ont entamé notre sens du réel, nous essayons de rétablir notre contact avec le monde en multipliant les récits. Le but de ces récits n'est pas seulement de raconter, mais aussi de comprendre. Un récit est donc un acte, il nous change et il peut nous pousser à l'action. Un récit ne parle pas uniquement de ce qui s'est passé, il parle des choses importantes qui ont eu lieu et qui nous ont transformés. Par le biais de nos récits, nous montrons que nous avons fait davantage qu'accumuler des expériences et que celles-ci se sont intégrées à ce que nous avons appris et à ce que nous savons.

Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 3 (2011) Le présent article explore le potentiel narratif des objets. L'objet y apparaît à la fois comme ce dont il est question dans le récit et ce qui structure la narration, comme on le voit dans les deux œuvres d'art éphémères qu'analyse l'auteur: Domain of Formlessness (2006) de l'artiste britannique Alec Shepley et Time and Mrs Tiber (1977) de l'artiste canadienne Liz Magor.

Ces deux œuvres mettent en forme un processus de déchéance et racontent l'histoire d'une vie placée sous le signe de la conscience d'une mort certaine, mais aussi de la narration comme une manière de faire face à cette conscience. L'objet d'art éphémère raconte une historie dans des circonstances privées de mots, où nous n'avons plus rien à dire.

Key words: ephemeral art, (Liz) Magor, (Alex) Shapley, storytelling, trauma

[The story]... achieves an amplitude that information lacks. (Benjamin 89) In this essay I explore the stories told by two ephemeral art works, Time and Mrs Tiber (1977) by Canadian artist Liz Magor, and Domain of Formlessness (2006) by British artist Alec Shepley. These works tell a story of existence overshadowed by the knowledge of certain death. Through their emphemerality they embody both the process of decay and disappearance; the telling of the story is used as a means of confronting this knowledge. The ephemeral art object can tell a story in circumstances where the traditional myth of art, as something that endures into an indefinite future and opens a doorway to immortality, will no longer serve. Western art has traditionally been concerned with power and authority, of the church, state or wealth. It has been conceived of as permanent and monumental, concerned with what is to come, a form of propaganda that will survive us and represents us to future generations, and ensure our immortality through the survival of our reputations and the great achievements of our culture (O'Neill 89). The works of Magor and Shepley are ephemeral in the sense that they are not only transient, but contain within them the seeds of their own demise. They have broken with tradition and are concerned with the past and how that past is experienced in the present, at the moment of looking. They are flawed works that allude to mourning and offer the possibility of an alternative to the Freudian triumvirate of remembering, repeating and working-through (Freud 147-156). In these works, remembering and repeating is evident – the original loss is repeated, which on the face of it could suggest that they are trapped in the repeating stage. However, rather than the closure that workingImage & Narrative, Vol 12, No 3 (2011) through promises, these works suggest an alternative – they form an accommodation with their trauma, and offer a new aesthetic, a new story, in which the fleeting, the discarded and the transitory acquires a significance which Western traditions of art denies.

Some of our stories, those that deal with traumatic experience, are an attempt to communicate, but they may also be an attempt to understand. Experiences that are difficult to comprehend need to be remembered and the means of this remembering may be the story of what happened, which we tell again and again in slightly different versions. The association between storytelling and the management of traumatic experience is well known and is indeed the basis of forms of therapy. For example, psychoanalysis involves freeing ourselves from the unconscious stories which we are compelled to relive by telling them over and over again to an attentive listener who reflects back what we are really saying. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) facilitates the altering of our stories that have become unhelpful or debilitating by working directly with the conscious voices in our heads to change their story.

The definition of trauma has taken on a political and legal dimension in recent years particularly in relation to the recognition of, and status given to, sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst military veterans. PTSD was first officially recognised in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSMIII) of the American Psychiatric Association in 1987, where it is defined as the result of an event “outside the normal range of human experience” (236). PTSD often leads, in the words of Cathy Caruth a leading scholar of trauma, to a reaction that involves “the unwitting re-enactment of an event that one cannot simply leave behind.” (Caruth 2).

Domain of Formlessness The bleak existentialism of Ernest Becker, as outlined in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, identifies the making and collecting of art as one of the means through which we create illusions of immortality as a defence against the knowledge of death that would annihilate us (171 - 174). In his discussion of the challenge facing the artist Becker states “there is something in his life experience that makes him take on the world as a problem: as a result he has to make personal sense out of it.” (171) The production of an artwork is described by Becker as “the artist’s attempt to justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation” (172). However the ephemeral work of art rejects both the possibility of the heroic artist and the “concrete creation” (172). It affords an encounter with the demise of the myth of the consolation of art, as well as the vicarious immortality it offers, and suggests a possibility beyond the psychic devastation described by Becker. Here a new narrative, a new form of meaning, whereby the ephemeral is seen as valuable and more precious precisely Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 3 (2011) because it is fleeting, replaces the narrative of immortality.

Domain of Formlessness is a series of short films, each a single scene no more than 2 minutes long that play in a loop. The scenes take place in what looks like a cardboard box turned on its side (fig. 1). It begins with a single object, carefully placed in the box, followed by various other objects that are added at an increasing speed and with an increased suggestion of carelessness until the curtain falls, or in some cases fails to fall and has to be nudged closed with a stick (fig. 5).

The objects refer to art history and other works by Shepley – bits of drawings, maquettes for sculptures, a traditional artist’s palette complete with blobs of paint, the odds and ends that one would find around an artist’s studio. There are also more domestic objects, a small doll’s house, a bird box, a model boat and a shoe. The differing scales of the objects means that they bear little relation to each other – a frigate leans against a table on which a house has been pushed aside to accommodate a bird box, the entrance of which is piled high with armchairs.

In the box Shepley creates a miniature world, a theatre/doll’s house in which order is created and destroyed in endless succession. It is the world of dreams and stories in which scale is a matter of experience and importance rather than a physical characteristic. The films are manipulated by the addition of scratches and dust and have the amateurish quality of home Fig. 1: still from Domain of Formlessness (2006), Alec Shepley Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 3 (2011) Fig. 2: still from Domain of Formlessness (2006), Alec Shepley movies before the advent of digital technology. The pathos is accentuated by the sound track, a piece by jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, which reinforces the connection with a more innocent viewing experience of the past.

In my interview with Shepley he described the work as an acceptance of the ultimate failure of an artwork and, to an extent, a celebration of life’s minor triumphs because these "are all there is". The demise of the work becomes the goal and, in letting go of the ego and notions of success, the damaged goods and the discarded become valuable. Shepley uses the word “avalanche” to describe what takes place within each vignette. The characteristics of avalanches are that they are sudden and overwhelming but not unexpected. These metaphorical avalanches happen again and again, but despite this the artist continues to construct scenes with the potential to escape the fate of the previous episodes. He describes how the film will play and play until the CD or the computer gives up and then it is over, not finished, just over. In the cinematic story form that this work utilises, as in other forms of storytelling, there is a physical rhythm. The listener settles into the story, can be lulled by the rhythm of telling, a heartbeat can quicken at a climactic moment and relax with the relief of the resolution, the 'happy ever after' followed by the closing of the book, or 'The End' screen Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 3 (2011) of a film. The looping of Shepley’s film suggests a lack of resolution in the telling of the story and we are deprived of the sense of completeness that the traditional form of story offers.

Domain of Formlessness has qualities of a pastiche, a folly echoing the style of remembered Saturday afternoon films where fallible characters such as Abbott and Costello, Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati amused us by exaggerating our incompetence, our failures. The scenes provide a contained miniature world where an initial short-lived sense of order quickly descends into chaos and each scenario ends not because something has been achieved but because the curtain closes and it is over. But rather than being a folly which attempts to create a fake work it is a ruin in which we see the vestige of what once was, or, more importantly, Fig. 3: still from Domain of Formlessness (2006), Alec Shepley Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 3 (2011) Fig. 4: still from Domain of Formlessness (2006), Alec Shepley might have been but was not good enough.

Like these short films by Shepley the phrase ‘telling stories’ is deceptively simple; it conjures up thoughts of childhood tales of fabulous beasts, magical lands and dream-like existences. It is associated with ‘in the beginning’ and ‘happily ever after’. We are familiar with the structure, the beginning, middle and end, in which we experience a temporal unfolding. While this unfolding happens in one direction in time for the listener it happens backwards in time for the teller (Ricoeur 42-43). Stories are inextricably linked to memory, not only the privileged view of the teller who knows the outcome, but also the listener's experience of previous stories. The listener’s trust in the telling of a story is that there will be a dénouement, where motivations will be made clear and secrets revealed. However the great power of stories, the endurance of the form and the compulsion to tell them suggests that telling stories is not merely an entertainment, an optional extra which we can choose to Image & Narrative, Vol 12, No 3 (2011) Fig. 5: still from Domain of Formlessness (2006), Alec Shepley engage with or not, but a fundamental aspect of being. We tell stories to construct, maintain and repair our reality. When we were conceived, when the sperm met the egg, we were not there, but there is a second self-conception, which is our own. We conceive ourselves in our minds and then, through the speech act of our stories, we are born. The telling of stories is more than an individual process; through our stories we form relationships, our family stories bind us to those with whom we have shared experiences and our collective stories become our tribal, regional or national identity. These stories are performed and performative; they do not leave us unchanged but can in fact motivate us to act, to fight and be willing to die for an ideal or a belief.

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