With the exception of a few descriptive sentences, Donald Barthelme’s post-modernist short story ‘Concerning the Bodyguard’ is composed entirely from questions directed at the reader. The American author’s persistent inquiries about a nameless ‘bodyguard’ place the reader in an unusual power dynamic. Barthelme relentlessly harangues the reader, even though he appears to know the answers to the questions he poses about the character’s professional and personal life. This unusual dichotomy, where the reader is disallowed any solid narrative, yet is constantly the target of unanswerable questions about the story itself, creates a duel narrative of dislocation: of a bodyguard dislocated from the society in which he works, and of the reader dislocated from the character being described.
Curated by Laura Morrison, ‘Concerning the Bodyguard’ uses Barthelme’s story as a point of departure. The works on show simultaneously blur the boundaries between what is represented, who is representing and what controls the viewing process. By prioritising the vulnerability of the subject and the dynamics of identity fragmentation, the exhibition transposes the story’s detached narrative into an exhibition that raises important questions about the instability of narrative construction in society, and how this is reflected in contemporary art.
Among the eighteen works on display there are several which synchronously attach and remove narratives to and from physical bodies. Daniel Lichtman’s video installation ‘We Have a Dome’ (2014), exposes the fragility of visual and aural interpretation. The artist overlays images of himself in a swimming pool with an audio track he found on Youtube. The softly spoken, anonymous voice folds a narrative of religious experience into one of swimming, dislocating the body that is seen from that which speaks. The dosing, bare-chested man in Evariste Maïga’s digital print ‘Man Tanning’ (2009-2014) gives the visitor a voyeuristic free pass to devise narrative from a few details: his lazy smile, his cowboy hat, his Levi jeans.
Jessica Tsang’s video interview with the unisex visual and performance artist XXXora ‘Yes, No, Maybe (just because it is rare, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be known about)’ (2014) assumes a more active role in the production of narrative. The work is projected onto a circular, bathroom-like mirror, and captures XXXora in a domestic setting musing on perversity, morality, masturbation and the freedom of self-expression. Tsang has the camera strapped to various parts of her body and asks few questions, letting XXXora construct an overarching continuity to a visually disjointed and unstable narrative.
Methods of approaching narration are remodelled in works such as Sidsel Christensen’s ‘Study for Composition XI (A Conversation at the Edge of the Object)’ (2014) and Warren McLachlan’s ‘Future Primitive Vol 1, 2, 3’ (2014). The former is composed of a video projection on a floating frame, where textural imagery of nature and Christensen’s discussion of invisible objects with an art collector dissipate and reform in an undulating, dream-like narrative. McLachlan’s work is also concerned with narrating the physical object. The video of marbling rainwater and scientific concoctions of colour is interspersed with abstract noise; dictating the viewing experience through aural interruption. Nina Wakeford’s ‘484 4th Street’ (2014) concerns the physical object, yet allows it a much more central role in the production of narrative. Her video of the Lesbian Herstory Archive in Brooklyn, New York recalls an encounter with archive photographs, which she used to recall and sing songs they reminded her of. The work is both cringe-worthy and amusing. Listening to Wakeford struggle to remember a song that accompanies a certain photograph transforms the photographic object into an aggressor. They simultaneously direct the narrative and torment the artist, who is bound by their images. The photographs render the artist vulnerable, at the mercy of an anterior, historical narrative.
Narrative, vulnerability and subject/object relations are broad fields of interpretation, yet it is reassuring to encounter such a large group show that doesn’t also shy from an ambitious topic. The exhibition chronicles the confinement and emancipation of narrative/subject in contemporary art over various genres, themes and styles, yet the discourse is coherent throughout. It is certain that ‘Concerning the Bodyguard’ raises more questions than it answers, but after all, when Barthelme asks the reader whether the bodyguard has noted ‘the difference in quality between his suit and that of his principal’, was he really looking for an answer?
 Barthelme, D. “Concerning the Bodyguard” in Donald Barthelme: Forty Stories (2005): 37.