Catalogue text for Wrapped


Catsou Roberts: Unwrapping

A conversation between Catsou Roberts and the curators


Catsou Roberts: I must say, I'm very partial to the title of your show, with its implication of the possibility of an unwrapping - an unveiling or discovering - notably by the spectator, who takes on an active role as "unwrapper", as it were, in the exhibition.

Thorbjørn Bechmann and Nikolaj Recke: Well, yes, but actually, that was not our primary reason for choosing the title; we were addressing narration as something that enwraps meaning... that folds around a core of the work somehow. Of course narration in its structure is also an unwrapping.

CSR: an unfurling of events in time.

TB/NR: Certainly narration necessarily implies an evolution in time which describe particular arrangements (whether social, political, etc.) that exist in space. But rather than pursue any tight definition of narration, we intended to keep the notion very open throughout the project, so that the term could refer to a range of forms, including story, account or history.

CSR: Indeed, at first glance, the exhibition seems to address narrative in a very broad, generalized way, but then, upon closer examination, it appears that what you are attempting to do is to problematize the idea of narrative, and stake out certain perimeters of narrative practice in contemporary art.

TB/NR: One perimeter would be the autobiographical for instance - the personal narration of the self: narration as a way to re-tell one's surroundings, to re-contextualize one's reality. The work of Annika Ström, for instance, whose videos star herself - her life and times as an artist - as well as the works of Maria Finn, or Nicolaj [Recke]'s own work issue from personal stories.

CSR: Well certainly the aspect of duration and the insistent linearity of video make it an apt medium for work about narrative, and can account, in part, for the predominance of autobiographical work. Yet, even Jakob Kolding's drawings, while they have a social aspect in the exploration of postwar suburbia and the utopian ideology behind the construction of these now-ubiquitous housing projects, is autobiographical.

TB/NR: And his work relates to another tendency in the show - one of revision, or the revisitation of the past. Not unlike the 1970s aesthetic of Althoff, or Thorbjørn [Bechmann]"s installational work for example, or how Lars Bent Petersen addresses the narration of Danish art history.

CSR: There is also the "analytical" perimeter, which is my own particular interest. Artists like Pierre Huyghe, Fiona Banner, Christian Schmidt-Rasmussen, Bureau of Inverse Technology, Adam Chodzko, Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, Erlend Williamson, or Bas Jan Ader either create fictions or explore and manipulate existing conventional narrative structures - ranging from fairy tales to documentaries - often disrupting our expectations of the seduction and pleasure usually derived from narrative.

TB/NR: Many of these artists are addressing narratives which are constructed in a typical Hollywood mode with a predictability that is related to logic, linearity and semantics... working within an Aristotelian formula - the tested formula for arousing narrative pleasure.

CSR: Well certainly Hollywood offers the most prevalent narrative model. Well cinema in general, especially given its recent centennial celebrations, is the most obvious - the easiest, really - model for artistic production using narrative.

TB/NR: Our interest in narrative is also related to the fact that narration can be seen and understood without a specific knowledge of modern art - that is, narration which exists on the surface of works, and that allows for an experience with art without requiring the spectator to delve too deeply into art theory. It seems that there has been an over-intellectualizing of art in the past decade. Certain luminaries such as Lyotard and Baudrillard, Mario Perniola, Michel Serres had a strong presence in the Danish art scene which while intellectually exciting, eventually made for a rather dry atmosphere.

CSR: So the seduction inherent in narrative can be seen as a reaction to the predominance of theory? As a kind of reclaiming of pleasure? Ironically, your own written statements on narrative sound a bit like Husserl as read through Robert Morris (via Merleau-Ponty, of course). And then there is the utterance of "grand narratives" - a kind of Lyotard cliché.

TB/NR: Admittedly, our writing is a bit polluted by theory, but our main aim is to present various aspects of narration.

CSR: You avoided including some of the more obvious choices for a show about narrative which, in the end, I think makes for a more interesting exhibition.

TB/NR: It seemed that in recent years certain artists abroad have received recognition for a kind of narrative practice that many Copenhagen-based artists had been pursuing all along. Originally we had intended to do a show of Nordic artists, but even when we decided to open out the checklist we didn"t necessarily want to round up all the usual suspects who are showing internationally.

CSR: I am also surprised by the way the show isn"t rigorously confined to your own generation, nor does it pretend to offer an historical component. Rather, there is a fluidity between recent production and older works.

TB/NR: Well, Lars Mikkelsen and Lars Bent Petersens contribution are critical for the way they address institutional structures - Mikkelsen, with his animal and nature dioramas, examines the museum and museological practice, while Petersen examines the financial and power structures around Denmark's art market. In terms of historical work, we have included Albert Mertz and Jørgen Roos's 1942 film "The Flight". Considered as Denmark"s first experimental film, it is an early example of a non-story film. As Dorthe Abildgaard has pointed out, the film dissolves narrative as linear time and space. The film tries to make a psychological description and places the spectator at the center of the work to identify with the character.

CSR: So, there is the use of a narrative structure - beginning, middle, end - or an elliptical structure with flashbacks, associative images, etc. without the conventions of fictional illusion and diegesis? The formal, structuralist aspect of the work reminds me of the way Michael Snow, in "Wavelength", includes four punctual episodes of human activity that are utterly undramatic.

TB/NR: Mertz has recently been acknowledge as a mentor for young artists. He is being recognized more and more as a key figure for artists interested in narration for the way he forges a mimetic relationship between the character and the spectator.

CSR: The film seeks to implicate the spectator, rather than present itself shattering the work's autonomy. Your overall inclusion of film is, well... rather curious. Along with this early experimental film - an historical work, really - you have a "feature" film and a documentary-style film.

TB/NR: The so-called "feature" film is by Bruce LaBruce, a Canadian film maker and writer whose work is frequently discussed in an artworld context. This represents yet another perimeter of narrative for the show - his films, as well as his novels address the fictionalization of one"s own identity - not unlike the artist Tom of Finland. Meanwhile we are including "Suicide Box" by the Bureau of Inverse Technology. The work is structured as a documentary about the Golden Gate bridge as a site of frequent suicides. It "demonstrates" objects thrown from the bridge. But it leaves the traditional structure of documentary, slipping into a kind of an absurd, endless onslaught of facts many of which are drawn from the media - not unlike Grimonprez's piece about terrorism. The rapidity with which these facts are presented makes it impossible to absorb any information.

CSR: The piling up of facts, which parodies documentary, reminds me of that passage in Godard"s film "Vivre sa vie" when he launches into a long recitation of the facts surrounding the history of prostitution in France.

TB/NR: There is also the political aspect to "Suicide Box" - the way that information is transformed through the media - moving from reality (from an actual event) to the public. Lars Bent Petersen is also working in this way; while not dealing specifically with the media, it is a quite political work.

CSR: You mean the way in which that art history is presented... or narrated, to get back to the central theme of your show?

TB/NR: Yes, but narration can also be understood as a common human condition: it is essential to our relationship to the world - re-telling enables the individual to locate a "place" in the reality. The structure of narration is, finally, a "common vocabulary" that transgresses various conditions of living. That is, narration is a human core, rather then a cultural one. If you don't narrate you just consume.

CSR: We'd better get narrating then! And, having tried to "unwrap" some of the ideas around your exhibition project, maybe we should consider wrapping up our conversation.

TB/NR: Ok then, "it's a wrap" as they say on the set.


Catsou Roberts is a free-lance critic and curator currently based in New York and London.

Her recent curatorial projects include "Narrative Urge", an exhibition of time-based work which draws on the spectator's desire (urge) to construct narratives with Victor Burgin, Ann Burke Daly, Pierre Huyghe, Joachim Koester, Sarah Morris, Rainer Oldendorf, Liisa Roberts, Stephanie Smith,

Derange, an exhibition of French artists who work exclusively around a single premise, and a video exhibition entitled Fiction + Interference: Assorted Confabulations which opened at Consonni in Bilbao, Spain.

In 1994 she curated Perfect Speed, an exhibition with Fiona Banner, Jackie Donachie, Douglas Gordon, Graham Gussin, Stephanie Smith and Sam Taylor-Wood who manipulate the temporal element of existing narrative forms in order to implicate the viewer in the work.