‘Narrative Show’

Eastside Projects, Birmingham, 15 July to 10 September 2011

Narrative is a tough beast to kill. Even the most staunchly non-narrative artist has to bend to the exigencies of a career, working in series or within a chronology and biography. Narrative is even implied in the audience’s encounter with a work – the journey into a gallery, their trail around the room and out the door again – which becomes an experienced story with a start and an end. A look around the contemporary art world would reveal no shortage of consciously constructed narratives. In addition to the traditional narrative forms of performance and sequential image (moving or not), there has been a glut of scripts, short stories and correspondence presented as artworks, many of which use a bland, listless terminology that suggest that today’s storyteller’s persona is that of the cultural theorist.

Eastside Projects’ ‘Narrative Show’ steps straight into the middle of the issue and unravels, spinning wildly outwards from there. Presented as a play in five acts occurring over five months with over 14 artists, curators and writers involved, the exhibition undertakes countless transformations, punctuations and interjections. Three of the acts are one-off live performance events: an opening enunciation, a climax and a closing denouement, while the acts in between seem to be when the show is just on. Though that ‘just’ is partially revealed through ‘Fixed Positions’, 2011, a series of photos Stuart Whipps has taken from set points in the gallery throughout the duration: walls have been moved, rooms have been taken down, posters flyposted on top of each other, monitors put up in different places, and an elevated platform covered with dirt erected. A sibling to Eastside’s overflowing ‘Abstract Cabinet Show’ from 2009, this would seem a continuation or culmination of the curators’ self-conscious deconstruction of what an exhibition programme can be. Even the walls have history: much of the original layout of the show was what remained from the Carey Young exhibition which ended in January, while several panels, at some points leaning idly against another wall, were from a mobile wall system designed in 1986 by Austrian architect Adolf Krischanitz for the Vienna Secession.

The two days I visited offered very different experiences, though on each occasion things immediately shouted and jostled for attention. The sounds of Jemima Stehli’s videos of the post-punk band If Lucy Fell drone, buzz and steamroll around the space, punctuated on the second visit by the occasional chirps of Mighty Titan, a fidgety mocking bird apparently being trained to repeat the words: ‘Du vergisst dinge. Du musst.’ (‘You forget things. You have to.’), though he seemed a bit performance shy while I was there. The work of Glasgow’s Poster Club was originally a separate project for the second gallery space, but was absorbed over the months into the voracious, expanding maw of the ‘Narrative Show’. These projects work more like narratological white noise, providing crisscrossing textures and an atmosphere of joyful anarchy, but within this there are actually several texts quietly trying to tell a story. A screen gives up a selection of chapters from Sally O’Reilly’s novel in progress, with the working titles of Crude or Oil!, 2011, a Ballardian pulp thriller in which a disillusioned art critic attempts to instigate an anti-art movement by entering the oil industry. So far, there are already some brilliant satirical art world moments: a panel discussion with thousands of teeming fans, or the underground meeting of the Land Art cult of ‘Terra-ists.’ On the denser side of fun are the scripts of Nathanial Mellor’s continuing Ourhouse Episode Three: The Cure of Folly, 2011, the script of which was pasted across two walls, eventually to be partially obscured by a giant ‘Whistleblowing’ poster by the Freee group.

A workshop around current possibilities for whistleblowing with Freee was the only event of the show I caught, and that was more in preparation for their exhibition in the space later in the year. The dirt platform dominating the space on my return visit provides a great, unsettling view of the room, but is the set for the video William Pope L is producing for his subsequent solo show. The structure of Helen Brown’s sound piece Novelette, 2011, spells it out: a series of interviews with over a dozen audience members –with an emblematic cross-section of backgrounds from a cleaner, and a careworker to a philosophy student – give their impressions of the gallery, which are then edited down and re-recorded by one voice. Their layered insights (‘It’s like the science museum, it’s got this atmosphere like you don’t know where you’re going.’) are a red herring: they know that no matter how mixed up their narratives, they will still become absorbed into the overarching story of the gallery. The questions posed by ‘Narrative Show’ are not about narration itself but Eastside Projects’ own processes of exhibition-making and consumption. This is a gallery narrating its own narrative, the narration of which is the promulgation of narratives: ‘We put on exhibitions.’

The exhibition is an experiential manifesto of an exhibition space attempting to continue pushing at its own boundaries. With different works being set off at various points and the inclusion of many works that exist only in performance, any view – or review – is necessarily fractured and incomplete. So like any manifesto, it might exist more in its self-proclamation than anything else. But the curators seem well aware that they have set themselves the impossible task of attempting to articulate processes, not products; the narration of the unfinished, the never finishing. Within the narrative of an artist-run institution, this is no doubt an interesting and entertaining exercise for the curators themselves. But this same plot, seen from the point of view of the person coming into the space, treads a fine line between bewildering indifference and challenging engagement, falling dizzily just on the side of the latter.

First published in Art Monthly, issue 349 September 2011

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