Simulacra: Constructing Narrative in the Studio Tableau

Documentation and commentary on the body of practical work submitted to meet the requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Art, at the University of Cape Town, 2002

Eustacia Riley MFA dissertation

The content and form of the work completed for this degree is intended as a narrative.This narrative is constructed to tell stories of my family, and of myself, in a way that openly stresses the playful, mythical, and fictional nature of such narratives in the family and in history. These narratives are not always easily recognisable, believable, or unified, and are read through an arrangement of details.

Initially, I intended my tableaux to function as ’emblematic’ portraits. In other words, I intended to describe the members of my family by distilling their essential characteristics into a descriptive arrangement of symbolic objects. Although I became aware of the limitations of symbolism, and became more interested in narrative and display, the content of my work has remained personal and descriptive, even though I have emphasised the fictional over the elegiac.

My family is not really one of collectors – my grandmother tore up and burnt many of our family photographs when my grandfather died, before she went into an old-age home. She wanted to ‘travel light’. What we have left are the stories, the anecdotes and the proverbs: an oral history, or a ·postmemory’. These inherited tales are told through the snapshots that did survive, as they are in all families who take pictures. I have retold and reconstructed my own narratives, because this is the nature of the family romance for everyone – it resides in a world of images, incidental details, and surfaces.

The concept of the simulacrum is central to the history of art – particularly art in the European mould, where imitation of the real has occupied an often contentious place in relation to the ‘real’ itself. In the postmodern world, where virtual reality is an accepted concept, it seems that the clearly unreal now occupies a central position in the world of the visual – and beyond. Each of my works is a work of art and artifice, built to exist only on display in the specially formulated world of the art gallery. It is composed of a collage of fabricated, simulated, bought and painted objects, arranged against a descriptive backdrop, lit, photographed and finally digitally printed on canvas as an image: a simulacrum of the ‘real’.

This dissertation is an attempt to locate my practical work within a tradition of artifice, and of the simulacrum in art and display. Apart from making reference to the vocabulary of these languages or models of display by borrowing elements like backdrops and props, my work also depends on a conceptual link with these forms of display. A public display of narrative, no matter how clearly artificial, implies legitimacy and authority. In other words, displays represent ideology and the romances of culture and nature, as well as public and personal history. Thus a narrative display seems a perfect vehicle for constructing, and hence undermining, a similar romantic fiction of the familial.