Original Research

Character (and absence) as a narrative key in installation art

Louisemarié Combrink, Nicholas P.L. Allen
Literator | Vol 40, No 1 | a1449 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v40i1.1449 | © 2019 Louisemarié Combrink, Nicholas P.L. Allen | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 18 September 2017 | Published: 30 May 2019

About the author(s)

Louisemarié Combrink, History of Art, School of Communication Studies, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa
Nicholas P.L. Allen, School of Ancient Languages and Text Studies, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


Installation art has been critically interpreted with reference to themes or situations, the transgressive nature of this art form, place and space, material, or immersion and embodied perception. To a lesser degree, installation art’s narrative possibilities have also been explored. However, the centrality of character as a narratological tool for the interpretation of installation art has not yet been comprehensively investigated. As the viewer in installation art is transformed into an active participant by virtue of physically entering and ‘completing’ the work, it is argued that he or she also becomes a character in the storyworld of the artwork. Furthermore, it is posited that this participant-character becomes a focaliser who co-constructs the narrative suggested by the work by engaging with the narrativised elements presented in the work, often together with suggested absences at which the work hints. This article shows that character as a narratological tool creates interpretative possibilities for installation art and adds new dimensions to the narrative potential of this art form. Using character (and absence) in the South African installation artist Jan van der Merwe’s work Biegbak/Confessional (2003) as an example, an expansion of the narratological toolbox of installation art is suggested, that could find broader application in many works in this genre.


Postclassical (visual) narratology; character narration (in installation art); focalisation (in installation art); fabula; intersubjectivity; self and other; Jan van der Merwe; Biegbak/Confessional.


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