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Narratives of abstraction: storytelling in digital art

STIR examines the shaping of narratives through the ages, as digital art takes on the mantle of abstract thought in visual art.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Sep 11, 2021

Narrative (noun and adjective): A spoken or written account of connected events in order of happening. The practice or art of narration. Adj. in the form of, or concerned with narration (narrative verse).

Historically, from the moment the cave man created his cave paintings and wall markings, to the tomb inscriptions of Egypt, their scrolls, ancient illuminated manuscripts, mud sculptures of early civilisations, pictorial pasture etchings and more; man has tried to create meaning from images and art. The force of visual storytelling has an immersive and powerful impact that oftentimes cannot be achieved by that of words, oral tales, music, movement or any other medium of creative communication. Through the ages mankind has sought to use tales and legends as a way of distilling life experience into something understandable, acceptable and relatable, even when done through a medium of fiction and fantasy.

Museum in a Box, Nude Descending a Staircase, Marcel Duchamp | STIRworld
Museum in a Box, Nude Descending a Staircase, Marcel Duchamp Image: Courtesy of Cleveland Museum and Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Artists today have adapted visual storytelling techniques to the new mediums of the contemporary times, making the most of an ever-evolving field of technology, commenting on social changes, imbibing abstract thought to do what we have always done – tell stories. To tell a story within the bounds of a single work of art is what we understand through visual narratology, an area that has become increasingly fascinating in the age of digital art.

When we first began thinking about visual narratology in the late 19th century, precipitated in some ways by the revolutionary medium of the time which was the camera, it was considered to have a significant impact on the style and component of a ‘work of art’ itself. Over time visual narratives in themselves became important knowledge systems providing a framework to the component, styles and the broader context of the age, artistic vein and social occurrences that fed into the creative process. Visual narratives moved from the sequential to the scenario to the perception-based, which we will understand in this article. Beginning with the example of the Roman fresco by Francesco Salviati, that depicts the story of Queen Bathsheba’s visit and her seduction by King David beside the work Nude Descending the Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (Horváth, 2010). A part of Salviati’s fresco shows Bathsheba ascending the stairs to his private quarters where the seduction takes place. This work bears a visual similarity to Duchamp’s cubist work, Nude Descending the Staircase, in that the visual narratives are sequentially parallel to one another. Both build a narrative around the woman – her sexualisation, the communication of her desire and how she is perceived by the viewer’s eye as either ascending or descending the stairs. Despite these being two vastly different mediums, the visual narratology of the work gives a concurrent shape to the story.

Bathsheba Goes to King David | STIRworld
Bathsheba goes to King David Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1950s, when the computer started to come into its popularity, with it came a new creative language, one that was far more experimental, design focused and narratively diverse. It gave us the earliest examples of what we now know as digital art impacting the way in which visual narratives were to build moving forward and the ways our stories were shared. Computer technology became the new brush tool and the evolution of programming and graphics finding its way into the realm of art, led to a unique visual language of communication. In digital art the concept of ‘visual language’ comes with symbolism, inter-materiality, techniques and abstraction. Building narratives now isn’t necessarily sequential or even linearly coherent, but rather more perceptively intuitive. Both artistic and viewer perception are active participants in the formation of this narrative.

Harshit Agrawal The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Algorithm (detail) | Nature Morte, New Delhi | STIRworld
Harshit Agrawal, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Algorithm (detail) Image: Courtesy of Nature Morte, New Delhi

For instance, if we now look at the 2018 work by Harshit Agrawal, called the Anatomy Lessons of Dr Algorithm, next to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp. The visual narrative in Agrawal’s artificial intelligence (AI) generated work bears coherent meaning through the context and perception we give to it. It explores the distrust of machine-made artistic prowess paralleling the distrust of technological development of the Rembrandt era. However, in fostering meaning to the narrative structure of the work, it requires a certain amount of prior knowledge, symbolism, and abstract thought. In Rembrandt’s work the focus is equal parts on the cadaver as it is on the spectators and Dr Tulp, the intimately drawn expressions on the faces of the attendees depict their psychological state, a feature completely absent in Agrawal’s work, which is acutely focused on the insides of the cadaver. The distance in the visual narrative is created by depersonalising the work which is occupied with blood, muscle and sinew, dependent more on abstractly communicating this distrust of technology and the loss of agency rather than through a sequential or even scenario-based expression.

The lure of the abstract thought lies in that it conveys an idea, a thought, an emotion that often deceives logic. Boundless and free the visuals are tied to philosophical concepts which find a playpen in the forms and formats of digital art such as computer-generated codes, sound installation, graphic design and illustration. The variety that the virtual environment can provide in terms of tools of expression and narratology has perhaps added to the popularity of the medium in the past decade or more. It is this variety that is also perhaps imbuing a more diverse narrative framework in the tales we are learning to tell through our art.

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