Murmuration was on exhibition at Orange Regional Gallery until August 14, 2016.

Brochure available here.

Murmuration was developed following the thesis that I produced for my Master of Philosophy in 2015, ‘Swinging the Lantern: Spatial Narrative in Visual Art’, which explored the narrative potential of the art-object.

Narrative in visual art, or more specifically, pictorial narrative, has often been taken for granted. Before even looking at a painting from, for example, the Renaissance, there is often an assumption that it must be narrative, simply because it is a scene from a larger story.

The most commonly used definition of “narrative” was coined by Gerard Prince, which he states is “the representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other” (2003). The lack of passing time in painting has caused a school of academics, literary narratologists, to question whether still pictures can tell a story or not, with the conclusions varying between a flat denial of narrative being present at all; to the conclusion that some images contain more narrative than others. Intuitively, most audiences would disagree with the proposition that still images cannot tell a story, and my thesis set out to explore not only the presence of narrative in painting, but narrative across a whole span of visual arts including film, sculpture and installation.

What I discovered in my research was that not only is narrative present in all forms of visual art, but that narrative is not to be only found within the art object, but in the relationship that the viewer has with it. This concept was initially described in Michael Fried’s (in)famous essay ‘Art and Objecthood’(1998), in which he discusses the lack of “absorption” present in minimalist art. Absorption refers to the level to which a figure in a painting is absorbed in their activity – that is, they are distracted and unselfconscious in their activity, for example, reading or weeping, without any awareness that beyond the painting, they may have an audience, someone peeking into their world. The phenomenon of a figure being absorbed in their activity by extension affects the viewer, in the sense that the viewer does not experience the sensation that the figure is performing for their benefit. The viewer is then allowed to experience the work privately and without any awareness of themselves as the spectator, and they too become absorbed. Fried indicates that as soon as one becomes aware of their physicality and gaze in relation to the art object, absorption is lost and what he terms “theatricality” begins.

This is the major point where Fried takes umbrage with minimalism – how can one become absorbed in something that is so shallow? By dropping the illusion that a painting was simply an extension of the space, such as we can witness in perspectival works from the Renaissance, the audience becomes confronted with pigment and canvas; or its stretcher. By making the art-object apparent by discarding layers of intrinsic story-telling, the artist discards any risk of absorption in the subject matter by making the viewer aware of themselves through the lack of intricacy or separate parts; the flat, monochrome surfaces; and a complete awareness of the unyielding surfaces that constitute some of the sculptural forms which shifts into the viewer.

It is in this theatricality – the relationship between the art object and the viewer – that I based my conclusion that narrative must be present in all forms of artwork. There are many ways that the relationship between the art object and the viewer can produce a narrative, and they mostly involve a subjective response to the art object. This narrative experience might include an awareness of ones physicality to the work; the passing of time; past experiences and histories; the art object’s relationship to popular or contemporary culture and so on. This kind of interaction with the artwork privileges the communication between the art object and the viewer over exterior narratives, such as those provided by critics, art historians and even a viewer’s knowledge of the artist and their biography (Bal, 2001).

Murmuration reflects my research by providing a seemingly random selection of images such as one might find in a curio shop, or an old text book. The assortment of images, without explanation in their titles, provide a starting point for a subjective response from the audience and enable the beginning of a narrative experience. The arrangement of the works within the space allows a more physical relationship with the works than if they were hung directly on a wall, by encouraging the viewer to move around and view them in juxtaposition to each other. As the backs of the paintings are exposed, we are also reminded that they are artworks, though an extension of the space may be seen through the transparent organza supports. These factors contribute to an immersive narrative experience as controlled by the viewer.

Bal, M 2001, Louise Bourgeois’ Spider: The Architecture of Art-Writing. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Cuthbert, J 2015 ‘Swinging the Lantern: Spatial Narrative in Visual Art” <>

Fried, M 1998, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Prince, G 2003, A Dictionary of Narratology, Rev. ed. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

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