Looking at Storytelling

Scroll down for photo gallery

Althea Thauberger, La mort e la miseria (2008), high‑definition video, 6:20 minutes, and digital print mural, installation dimensions variable. NGC

Everyone loves a good yarn. Folktales, fables and legends often help explain natural phenomena, while contemporary literature, theatre and film satisfy our constant hunger for new narratives. Stories entertain, educate, revive (think morning newspaper) and even put to sleep (consider bedtime reading).

Storytelling is the subject of a new installation of contemporary video-based works at the National Gallery. Four Canadian artists—Althea Thauberger, Zin Taylor, Isabelle Pauwels and Corin Sworn—explore literature, folktales, legends and family stories, reshaping them to present new versions. In the process, they take us to a number of faraway places: the Fassa Valley in Northern Italy; the Scottish Highlands; the Belgian-occupied Congo; and London, England.

Each video is presented alongside constructed artifacts and production stills that suggest alternative ways of seeing or interpreting. As curatorial assistant Rhiannon Vogl says, “The artists are re-interpreting and re-presenting the stories, not exactly re-telling them.”

Althea Thauberger has a history of working with communities in far-flung locations—including Berlin, San Diego, and Vancouver, where she lives—to create site-oriented, conceptual works that blend performance with photography, film and video. For La Mort e la Miseria, she  travelled to the Fassa Valley, in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, where the locals speak the ancient Ladin language. The villagers worked with Thauberger to create and perform a theatrical version of a traditional folktale about how Poverty tricked Death into making her immortal (hence, poverty’s tenacious grip on the world).

Thauberger’s filmed performance includes mistakes made by the amateur actors, and anachronistic details such as modern footwear, which reinforce the notion of an ephemeral event with universal significance. The mural-sized enlargement of a film still, shown alongside the video, was inspired by the whimsical murals Thauberger saw in the Fassa Valley.

A two-part installation consisting of a video and sculpture, Zin Taylor’s The Flute of Sub tells the story of a mysterious system of tunnels in the Scottish Highlands. The video begins like a nature documentary, showing images of the forest and underbrush, before zooming in on one of the peculiar souterrain circles that dot the Highlands. The narrator describes the manmade tunnels, built between two and three thousand years ago (purpose unknown), which are now inhabited by a community of hares. As the video progresses, the colours on the screen shift slightly to the sounds of a dreamlike flute melody, reminiscent of the psychedelic folk music popular in Scotland in the 1960s.

The accompanying sculpture in a glass case is the plastic flute that Taylor constructed and played for the soundtrack. Its form is based on the tunnel system, with holes that correspond to the hares’ burrows. Taylor’s video and sculpture address the way legends and folktales can explain the organic and sometimes mysterious creation of forms, both living and manmade.

In W.E.S.T.E.R.N., Isabelle Pauwels questions her colonial past and how it influences her today. In the centre of the exhibition space is a thatched hut covered with woven grass. Peer through the window, and you will see a video playing on the far side of the hut. In the film, contemporary scenes of Pauwels’ mother in her suburban home in Richmond, B.C., alternate with excerpts from home movies shot in the late 1950s, when her grandparents were living on a coffee plantation in the Belgian Congo.

In one segment, her mother talks about a petrified coffee root that she has kept from those days on the plantation. Next, we see Congolese workers labouring on the land. In another scene, her mother describes the family’s collection of copper weigh scales, then cuts away sharply to workers in the marketplace, having their harvested crops weighed. The juxtaposition of scenes is telling. Power relations and hierarchies are in the spotlight, as is the contrast between work and leisure, and between Africa and the West. Pauwels has written in an artist statement, “To me, that’s the thing that is ultimately ‘Western’ about the whole thing. Labour and leisure get teamed up with racial discrimination.” 

With an interest in both psychology and anthropology, Glasgow-based Corin Sworn looks at how personal experiences are translated and transformed through writing, speech and images. The Lens Prism (Working Model for a Viewing Subject) is a multi-part installation featuring a filmed monologue, written by Sworn and performed by British actor David Allister, as well as a drawing titled The Lookers. In the video, shot onstage at Glasgow’s Tramway theatre, Allister’s character recounts various storiesfrom his past, from poetry and film, perhaps from his imagination—in a vague, fragmented and tangential manner. In one segment, he describes the overwhelming, “fractured” effect of walking through the 1851 World’s Fair at London’s aptly-named Crystal Palace.

The Lookers shows three repeated images of a man in a trenchcoat and bowler hat, walking with a cane towards a woman. The drawing is illuminated by three spotlightsred, green and blue—which combine on the surface as pure white, and are reflected back onto the floor. Together they reference the prism-like nature of storytelling, which refracts and reinterprets historical events and individual experiences.

Sometimes fragmented and often culturally loaded, stories, as seen through the eyes of these four Canadian artists, are organic entities, shifting and evolving with time and with memory.

Storytelling is on view at the NGC in galleries B102–B104 until March 2014.

Share this article: 

About the Author