Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Art of Storytelling: Fiction as Fiction

There is every reason not to watch Yto Barrada’s filmic work Hand-me-Downs. It’s on a small screen, you have to put on headphones and it is exhibited in the same room as two of the most powerful works on show at Fiction as Fiction (or, A Ninth Johannesburg Biennale), an intriguing installation by Ângela Ferreira that brings Jimmy Hendrix and one of the infamous Cullinans of the mining dynasty together and a ginormous black rubber sculpture by Nicholas Hlobo.

Film artworks are hard to consume in galleries. There are too many distractions – and they demand your time, attention and commitment in ways that other art doesn’t. Yet once I start watching Barrada’s film, I can’t pull myself away. It’s the cyclical narrative structure that has made a prisoner of me.

The work consists of a number of short stories, if you will, that mostly conclude with a nasty twist, sometimes a violent action that  deflates the droll domestic tale. Because the stories are narrated by the same monotonous female voice, we assume they detail the events of one individual’s life, though they shift between times, places and perhaps even subjects.

Barrada won’t allow you to join the dots and build a linear narrative. These stories are loose fragments, and like a damaged or incomplete memorial sculpture that only offers a very partial view of history, what remains has been subject to embellishment – it makes sense to build on what’s left instead of trying to retrieve what has been lost. These fragments are thus built into anecdotes, and are the “hand-me-downs” in question.
They are presented as, may even be, real-life experiences that have been fictionalised through the act of narration via a number of narrators over time. This is not all these fragments have in common; they express a bleak existence where a kind of unnatural reversal has occurred.