The Storyteller

Photo courtesy Conway Liao

New York
The Storyteller
Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, Parsons The New School for Design
January 29–April 9, 2010

Curated by Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell, ‘The Storyteller’ drew its title and inspiration from a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin. In that essay, Benjamin identified the expansion of journalism and mass media in the late nineteenth century as precipitating the decline of storytelling as both art form and communal ritual. Access to an excess of information, Benjamin posited, threatened to supplant the meandering rhythms and pleasures of the story. Still, a survey of contemporary art might suggest that storytelling is alive and well. ‘The Storyteller’ gathered recent work that used various forms of storytelling to subvert the evidentiary claims of documentary practice — especially, in this case, when addressing war and conflict.

Testimony — an act that lies precisely at the intersection of storytelling and the evidentiary — was a repeated trope in Gilman and Sundell’s chosen constellation of works. Omer Fast’s two-channel video Spielberg’s List (2003) — which, along with other, longer pieces by Liisa Roberts and the team of Jeremy Deller and Mike Figgis, was screened separately during the exhibition’s run — wove interviews with Polish extras for Schindler’s List (1993) together with footage of locations in Krakow where the film was shot. Uncannily, the extras’ recollections often sounded like the accounts of actual Holocaust victims, collapsing representation into history and simultaneously unsettling and bolstering the power of testimony to reveal traumatic experiences.

Similarly, Deller and Figgis’ The Battle of Orgreave (2001) documented a reenactment of a violent showdown between striking British coal miners and police on June 18, 1984. Some of the actual miners and police participated in the reenactment; their testimonies and reflections on the time leading up to the event filled in gaps and revealed inconsistencies in the historical record. In a Baudrillardian moment, the better documented reenactment came to stand in for history itself, suggesting that lived experience becomes historical through narration, and that that narrative is always subjective, partial, and inconclusive.

Attentive to such multiplicity, Lamia Joreige’s Objects of War (2006) collected numerous individual accounts of the Lebanese civil war, as the artist asked people to reflect on a possession they associate with their experience of the conflict. The objects were able catalysts, tapping reservoirs of experience and memory and often providing a sort of consolation in times of despair. And Joreige’s project wasn’t limited to those who experienced the war directly. Omar, who was growing up in Paris during the period, talked about a cherished watch featuring Michel Aoun, extending the effects of conflict beyond its immediate geographic site and reflecting on shifting allegiances, as a heroic militia leader morphed into a despised politician.

Emanuel Licha’s War Tourist in the Suburbs of Paris (2004–8) followed a Parisian on a tour through the Paris suburb at the center of the 2005 riots that engulfed France. Throughout, our guide repeatedly promised that witnessing the sites where key events of the conflagration unfolded would reveal a historical truth. But the images themselves were banal, insufficient, or somehow belated, merely marking the absence of visual access to past experiences that his narrative described.

Such absence more explicitly guided Missing Books’ In the Last 20 Minutes (2005), a real-time point-of-view video, retracing the last steps of assassinated Argentine writer and leftist Rodolfo Walsh, that both did and did not manage to put us in his shoes. Hito Steyerl’s Journal No. 1 — An Artist’s Impression (2007) struggled to relocate the first Bosnian newsreel — made in 1947 and believed to have been destroyed in 1993 during the civil war there — both as a material object and through artist’s renderings of its opening sequence based on various recollections of it.

While video, a medium that lends itself well to the unfolding of narratives, dominated the lineup, other media were also included. Ryan Gander’s playful installation As Time Elapsed (2005) included a stack of The Boy Who Always Looked Up (2003) — his illustrated children’s book that tells of a little boy living in the shadow of Ernö Goldfinger’s infamous Trellick Tower, a failed mass housing project — floating on a shelf above. With mostly black covers, the stack evoked the building’s modernist architecture through an economy of means, while its placement forced one to recreate the wonder-filled upward gaze of the protagonist.

For Return (2006), Michael Rakowitz resurrected his Iraqi-Jewish grandfather’s import-export business in an empty Brooklyn storefront in fall 2006, hoping to import Iraqi dates into the US for the first time in decades. As people eagerly awaited the arrival of the dates, they became repeat visitors, and the store became a vibrant site of interaction and exchange and a refuge for Iraqi expatriates who would reminisce about their childhoods and homeland. Rakowitz blogged about his experiences at the store throughout its renewal. Documentation of the project’s evolution, including e-mails from the supplier describing difficulties faced, became part of the store’s display; the store itself became a story and a space for storytelling. While the exhibition represented elements of the store — a box of dates; various products made from Iraqi dates; specially designed packaging for the shipment; and an impressive timeline of the history of dates in Iraq — alongside a slideshow brilliantly narrated by Rakowitz, the piece seemed to miss the store’s productive uncertainties, pointing to the exhibition’s limits.

And on the subject of limits: ‘The Storyteller’ was strangely quiet, for a show about storytelling. On my first visit I’d half-expected to be greeted by a cacophony of voices. The strong curatorial focus on the many nuanced ways in which contemporary artists trouble documentary practice through recourse to narrative play seemed to have resulted in an over-reliance on the image, on its inability to capture and convey historical truth or experience. But the exhibition’s major misstep was the absence of storytelling as a live, not recorded, act. Admittedly, the show was organized and packaged for touring abroad, and the coordination of live events at each venue on a tour is logistically daunting. Still, given the growing use of lectures as a medium through which to tell stories and subvert histories — by artists like Gander, but also Rabih Mroué, Walid Raad, Alexandre Singh, and Tris Vonna-Michell, to name just a few — such work ought to have been included, vital in both senses of that word. By using body and voice to engage a live audience, those artists reinvest storytelling with the full potential of what Benjamin called “living speech.”