Ephemeral Art: Telling Stories to the Dead




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Open Humanities Press



Peer reviewed



The endurance of the form of storytelling and the compulsion to tell them suggests that telling stories is not merely an entertainment, an optional extra which we can chose to engage with or not, but a fundamental aspect of being. We tell stories to construct and maintain our world. When our sense of reality is damaged through traumatic experiences we attempt to repair our relationship with the world through the repeated telling of our stories. These stories are not just a means of telling but also an attempt to understand. Stories are performed and performative; they do not leave us unchanged but can in fact motivate us to act. They are not merely about things that have happened, but are about significant events that change us. Through our stories we demonstrate that we have not only had experiences but that those experiences have become part of one’s knowledge.

In this essay O’ Neill will explore the potential of objects to tell a story, the object that is both the subject of the story and the form of telling. Two ephemeral art works will be considered: Domain of Formlessness (2006) by British artist Alec Shepley and Time and Mrs Tiber (1977) by Canadian artist Liz Magor. Both works embody the process of decay and tell a story of existence overshadowed by the knowledge of certain death and the telling of the story as a means of confronting that knowledge. The ephemeral art object tells a story in circumstances when there are no words, when we have nothing left to say.


open access journal


ephemeral art, art and mourning, Liz Magor, Time and Mrs Tiber (1977), narrative, storytelling


O'Neill, M. (2011) 'Ephemeral Art: Telling Stories to the Dead'. The Story of Things: reading narrative in the visual. 12 (3), pp 51 -61.


Research Institute

Institute of Art and Design