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by Lockwood Smith


Promising Fiction?


So I decided that my contribution to the next zingmagazine, had to be my thoughts about these two unconnected, almost unheard of, bright, young Europeans. Then it occurred to me that this might easily be construed as a “Tip for the Top” exercise, as we finally start to settle seriously into the century.


However, that wasn’t the idea in choosing exhibitions as far from zing’s home as Stockholm, London, and Marseille, by two artists in that crucial career time-zone still close to art school, but making serious steps towards a practice both challenging and mature. In fact, what was particularly of interest to me was that both of these very different artists have been using the mechanisms of narrative as a significant tool, an efficient artistic means to an end.


Indeed, in experiencing the work of Virginie Barré and Jonas Dahlberg, both born in 1970, I had the clearest impression yet that Contemporary Art itself might finally be heading for maturity in its own relationship with the notion of narration. Apart from a few flings (most blatantly, of course, the exaggerated liaison between the two that occurred in ‘80s painting), the poo-pooing of narrative has more often than not been seen as a necessary and even admirable reflex in much of Contemporary Art. There has, of course, been ongoing evidence (Fischl, Sherman, Barney . . . ) that the goose never died, but I’ve never before had such a feeling that narrative is once again poised to take its place in the House. Full membership for the first time since the nineteenth century, as an unavoidable and desirable regulator, rather than just a tolerated and occasional guest. The reasons for this are multiple, of course, but there can be little doubt that featuring highly among them is the advent of virtual and cyber realities, making us all feel more comfortable with an upgraded version of the kind of storytelling that our nineteenth century counterparts took for granted, as a valid job that art could usefully do.


In her exhibition in the generous architecture of the Friche Belle de Mai gallery in Marseille, France, Virginie Barré presented interrelated fragments of what seemed to be both the same and different narratives. A variety of references and a diverse cast of characters reappear in different works. A series of meticulously rendered drawings of suspicious incidents in an urban setting (which turns out to be Hamburg!), a video projection of a pool of obviously fake blood slowly spreading around an obviously fake victim, wall drawings of two falling figures, two more clearly fake mannequins, one representing a prostrate murder victim, modeled on a sequence from a Godard film, the other apparently a child, dressed as a Star Wars Yoda, and all of this cemented together spatially, both by careful lighting and by a veritable flock of bizarre body bag-like cocoons, suspended from the ceiling. The artist seeks to create “numerous possible bridges” between these diverse elements: characters (modeled on her friends), suggested or reconstructed incidents, scenarios, settings, images and atmospheres. The spectator links things together, spontaneously making choices as if involuntarily playing an oddball, homemade version of Dungeons and Dragons, set simultaneously in the contrasting worlds of Contemporary street culture, Hitchcock movies, bad ‘70s TV serials, and Star Wars science fiction.


Barré’s world somehow feels surprisingly sparse and logical, considering the diversity of its ingredients. This feeling comes from the fact that the viewer’s impression is of being his/her own tour guide, and this aspect is significant in the unfinished narrative form employed by both Barré and Dahlberg. The latter, by comparison with Barré’s peopled universe, uses the suspense of empty architectural spaces as the context for his viewers’ involvement.


Jonas Dahlberg first studied architecture before transferring to the Malmö Art Academy in search of wider debate. The two DVD projections which make up the work he showed in London earlier this year were filmed inside a complex, multi-level, panoptic structure in the form of a foam-core architectural model. The model was realized during a residency at IASPIS (International Artist Program Sweden) in Stockholm. In Dahlberg’s piece, Untitled (Vertical Sliding/Horizontal Sliding), one film is taken by a camera travelling vertically through the model, while in the other, the camera travels horizontally. The spectator experiences unfolding series of spaces, meticulously reproduced to resemble hotel-like rooms and corridors, complete with cornices, moldings, wallpaper, and ingeniously realistic light sources filtering in through communicating openings and shafts.


While Dahlberg makes no effort to hide the process behind his piece, it remains convincing as a real film of an existing full-scale environment. However, the fact that it isn’t endows it with a strangeness that helps its narrative proposition with a fictional vocation. At the same time, it is of course, also a real film of a real object. As the artist puts it: “[Models] are unique, yet represent something else at the same time. They exist in the no man’s land between space, object, and image.” This “no man’s land” is also the territory where fictional narrative happens, and the common ground between narrative filmmakers, writers, and an artist like Dahlberg, recording what can be seen through holes in architectural models.


Constructing this narrative no-man’s land forms a major part of the foundations of both Jonas Dahlberg’s and Virginie Barré’s respective artistic practices. Furthermore, and perhaps as a natural progression from this preoccupation, both artists are clearly attracted by the effectiveness of Hitchcockian suspense, danger, and sensation, perhaps the most obvious choice of weaponry when seeking effective results in a career of narrative fiction.


Here the relationship between artist/narrator and spectator/audience is a subtle and interactive one which relies on the acceptance by all parties of a tug-of-war between complicity, trust and trickery, illusion, fiction, and bluff. As the Slovenian novelist, Brina Svit, has put it, “The reader must rapidly recognize that the narrator doesn’t always tell the truth. The reader must be vigilant and not trust the narrator.”  

Full mastery of the rules operating in the interstice between fiction, reality, and reconstruction is clearly a requisite. One of Virginie Barré’s earliest works, shown in the storefront space of the art school gallery in Nantes, where the artist completed her studies, backfired in spectacular fashion. The view from the street was of a reconstruction of a murder scene, in a ‘70s office decor, albeit with some rather unlikely mannequin victims and plastic pools of blood. As the post-reception revelers headed homewards, returning towards the “scene of the crime” from the restaurant where the after-party had taken place, they found that the whole area had been cordoned off by the police. The Fire Department were in the process of smashing through the gallery window to remove the dead and wounded!


For Virginie Barré, this piece was clearly a failure, since she had been incapable of letting the spectator “recognize that the narrator doesn’t always tell the truth,” to repeat Svit’s words. In Barré’s exhibition in Marseille, on the other hand, suggestions of real life narrative are tempered by elements of fantasy. The possibility that these could be real life fantasies absorbs them into the narrator’s art and prevents alienation of the spectator.


Jonas Dahlberg sees architectural models as a means to the same end. “Models allow you to realize fantasies and allow access to otherwise difficult environments.” At the same time, like Virginie Barré, he sees this as an opportunity to evoke suspense and sensation in the overlapping territory between reality and fiction. The narrative no man’s land once again: “You are able to exercise control over situations as well as narratives. Models open a secret entrance to environments with a limited access, or vice versa. For example, in a hostage drama at an airport in 1976, a full-scale replica of an Air France plane was made in order to allow the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, to experience and train in this environment before storming the aircraft.” As a student, Dahlberg found himself living opposite a collector of “hunting bows and arrows, crossbows and guns. I photographed his apartment from my window, mostly to provide some kind of evidence, if in the future, I was found shot dead in my apartment . . . Using the photos, I started to reconstruct my neighbor’s apartment.” 

Jonas Dahlberg, Film still from Untitled (Vertical sldiing/Horizontal Slding)

In this early work, entitled Safe Zones, the narrative depended very much on the viewer, as nothing ever actually happened. The same is true in Untitled (Vertical Sliding/Horizontal Sliding), the double video projection shown at Milch, where the work maintains a continual feeling of suspense as we explore yet another empty space, almost as if we know that someone is in this endless building somewhere, so we have to keep looking and checking every room and corridor. In such cases, the “narrator’s” strength lies in his/her ability to keep spectators on their toes. In both Barré’s and Dahlberg’s work, a very powerful impression exists that something has happened and/or is about to happen. The suggestion is more graphic in Barré’s case and more subtle in Dahlberg’s, but the effect of the resulting suspense is clearly the same.


Perhaps my thoughts have been too simply engaged in recognizing the use of similar tricks of the trade in the work of two narrative practitioners as different as say, Buzati and Zola, however inept that comparison may be. Nevertheless, that this is the case in the work of two ostensibly very different young artists of the same generation, for me provides further confirmation of an evolution towards a different perception of reality in Contemporary Art. Once again there is what Virginie Barré refers to, in the same breath, as a “desire for timelessness” while “speaking about your own time because you participate in it.”  It would be another case of crass naïve optimism to suggest that this may indicate a new shift towards integrity in place of strategy—things are never as clear-cut as that, but let’s just imagine for a change . . .



Lockwood Smith

London, England



Organized by Triangle France, international artists’ residency and exhibition program.


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