CAN Research 2.1 Postmodern approaches to narrative


Examples of relay in contemporary photographic practice include Sophie Calle ‘Take care of yourself’ and Sophy Ricketts ‘Objects in the Field’ where clashes of understanding or interpretation work together to create a perhaps incomplete but nonetheless enriching dialogue between artist and viewer.

Look at these pieces online. Investigate the rationale behind the pieces and see if you can find any critical responses to them. Right down your own responses in your learning log.

How do these two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative?

What is postmodernism?

In an initial attempt to understand the term Postmodernism I watched a lecture by Dr Stephen Hicks ‘Explaining Postmodernism’ (Hicks, 2018), two talks by Tom Nicholas; ‘An introduction to Modernism in art and literature’ (Nicholas, 2018) and ‘An introduction to Postmodernist theory’ (Nicholas, 2018) and read the Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ contained within ‘Image Music Text’ (Barthes and Heath, 1977).

Hicks’ lecture begins by explaining and contrasting Premoderism, Modernism and Postmodernism.

He describes Premodernism as the Age of Faith. Lasting until the mid-1600s, the source of truth was predominantly the church and its scriptures. According to Nicholas, art produced during this period was done so in the service of God (Nicholas, 2018).

The Age of Enlightenment (otherwise known as the Age of Reason) is considered to have started in the early 1600s. In simple terms, it can be characterised by a fundamental belief that man can reason.

This reasoning and objectivity flow into Modernist art during the first half of the 20th century. Artists become more interested in accurately capturing ideas rather than producing art for the benefit of a higher authority. Modernists consider themselves able to objectively improve the way art represented reality (Nicholas, 2018).

In his 1979 book ‘The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’ Jean-François Lyotard writes:

I define Postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) describes Postmodernism as ‘as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilise other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.’ (Aylesworth, 2015)

Given the dogmatism evident in the two predominant events of the first half of the 20th century; namely two disastrous world wars, it is understandable that society would become more likely to challenge authority.

An initial understanding of Postmodernism is, therefore that it represents the rejection of authoritative certainty in favour of representation and individual interpretation.

Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself

Sophie Calle’s partner kindly finished their relationship by sending her an email the final words of which said ‘Take care of yourself’. The relay is as follows:

I received an email telling me it was over.
I didn’t know how to respond.
It was almost as if it hadn’t been meant for me.
It ended with the words, “Take care of yourself.”
And so I did.
I asked 107 women (including two made from wood and one with feathers),
chosen for their profession or skills, to interpret this letter.
To analyse it, comment on it, dance it, sing it.
Dissect it. Exhaust it. Understand it for me.
Answer for me.
It was a way of taking the time to break up.
A way of taking care of myself.

The project started when Calle asked for her friend’s advice on how she should respond to the email. That question morphed into a project asking 107 women to interpret the rejection. Only women were asked because Calle felt the letter could only come from a man! The project proved cathartic in the sense that she became embroiled in the project.

The message was analysed by amongst others a philosopher, a psychiatrist, an accountant and a judge. The responses included being shot, eaten by a parrot, linguistically analysed and made into a crossword.

Sophy Ricketts: Objects in the Field

In conjunction with Dr Roderick Willstrop, Ricketts produced the project during an artistic fellowship at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge. Ricketts regarded the collaboration as partly unsatisfactory as Willstrop saw the images from a scientific viewpoint whereas Ricketts viewed them artistically.

The relay draws from Ricketts’ experiences outside the project. She includes the story of a boy waving on a railway station. She sees that as a metaphor for the incompleteness of her interpretation and the partiality of her account.

How do these two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative?

Visually these two pieces of work reflect Postmodern approaches to narrative in the sense that they, to some extent or another, are non-linear narratives, they are fragmented and collaborative. They have no predetermined outcomes and allow differing interpretations.

From a linguistic narrative stance, these reflect Postmodernism and Poststructuralism in that the relay messages pose questions rather than answers. As discussed by Roland Bathes’ in his essay ‘The Death of the Author’:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.

(Barthes and Heath, 1977)


Aylesworth, Gary, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977). Image, music, text. London: Fontana, pp.148.

Hicks, S. (2018). Explaining Postmodernism. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].

Nicholas, T. (2018). An introduction to Modernism in art and literature. Available at: [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].

Nicholas, T. (2018). An introduction to Postmodernist theory. Available at: [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].

Get In Touch

Send me an email and I'll get back to you asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search