Bal, Mieke. "Narrative and Its Discontents," in Louise Bourgeois' Spider. Chicago: U of C Press, 2001
annotation by Maggie Hansen (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

The book as a whole acts as an experiment: a new angle for discussing artwork in text, as a supplement to the art, rather than a substitute for it. Bal hopes to engage the artwork, and provide one, experiential reading of it, consciously neglecting views based in connoisseurship, iconography, and contextualism. Bourgeois’ work offers rich field for analysis in any number of artistic modes, and in chapter three Bal allows the influences of connoisseurship, iconography and contextualism to enter the discussion, as she examines the many levels of narration that enter into the experience of Spider.

Bal begins her discussion of Spider’s narrative modes, with a particular focus on the work’s temporality. She argues that narrative, in artwork is predominantly centered in common sense of an anterior narrative. Bal argues that Spider engages and rejects these systems of analysis. Spider avoids positioning within a specific school of art, or timeline of the progress of art. The installation engages figural forms, individual objects, and an all-encompassing architecture, which respond to and avoid periods of art history. As a result the work avoids a dialogic experience for its viewer, as well as a placement in the dialogic map of art history. Next, the collection of prefabricated elements eludes a purely autobiographical reading. Though there are hints of authorship, and iconography that would suggests elements of Bourgeois’ biography, the visual narrative allows the viewer no ownership of the story. Last, the combinations and placement of objects in relation to each other and to the surrounding and resulting space, complicate the simple dichotomies of mind and body, abstraction and figuration, visuality and tactility, flatness and volume, and time and space. Bal concludes that through the necessity of the viewer’s involvement in, circling of, and containment within the art, the artist has effectively disabled a categorical reading of the work, within the structure of a simple system of anterior narratives and dichotomies.

This chapter engages and discusses the many complications of narrative in visual media, as well as the complications in analyzing a visual narrative in written terms. In Bal’s preface to the book, she criticizes the common practice of reenacting a visual artwork within a discussion of it. Throughout the book she avoids this direct translation, by presenting, in its place, a constant engagement with the work, within terms of analysis, rather than description. This chapter illustrates this attempt particularly well, by rejecting the common analyses of artwork, through an engagement with the work. The impact of Bal’s critique is heightened by its parallel to Spider itself. Just as Bourgeois visually rejects the narrative techniques of traditional artwork, through a direct engagement with them (as Bal points out), Bal rejects the corresponding critiques of such artwork, through a demonstrated critical engagement with them.

Though Bal’s critique and examination of Spider runs in a fascinating, demonstrative parallel to the work itself, it is often unclear how self-conscious this parallel may be. At times, she seems to truly feel that by individual engaging and rejecting each course of traditional analysis of this highly untraditional work, that she has overcome and avoided their associated faults. An engagement and rejection of each erroneous analytical technique, is still a use of that technique. However in this cases the faults of each is precisely the brilliance of the art and of this analysis.