Even in this age of digital revolution most people will accept that a painting or a sculpture demands to be seen at first hand. Photographs, however, are a different matter. Not only are the works of every great photographer viewable on-line, they often look better in a large-format book than on the gallery wall. Not so with the photographs of Canadian artist, Jeff Wall (b.1946), currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art. More than any other contemporary photographer, Wall’s work has to be seen in a gallery to be appreciated.
This is partly due to the scale of Wall’s pictures, which can be as large as museum-scale paintings. Another factor is the level of detail, which is easily overlooked in reproduction. It is also a function of the extreme clarity of images that are usually mounted on light boxes.
When we look at a painting we are always conscious of the time involved in its creation, with many canvases bearing witness to numerous false starts, mistakes and corrections. Even beneath the surface there may be multiple layers of paint that are sensed rather than viewed. With a photograph we tend to believe, almost instinctively, that it is the work of a second, a mere twitch of the artist’s finger. This feeling remains intact even if we are informed that the photographer waited around for days to take the picture, or spent a week manipulating the image afterwards.
Wall has set himself in opposition to this familiar response pattern, asking us to devote the same kind of attention to a photograph that we habitually lavish on a painting. While scale, detail and clarity are crucial, Wall’s most significant strategy is to rework well-known images from the history of art, giving his pictures a lingering sense of déjà vu. Over the past three decades he has borrowed compositions from artists such as Manet, Goya, Poussin, Velasquez, Cézanne and Caravaggio, restaging the image in a contemporary setting with figures dressed in today’s fashions.
If The Destroyed Room (1978) seems vaguely familiar, try looking at it alongside Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), the painting of a king who has his possessions destroyed and his wives put to death to keep them out of the hands of an invader. In Wall’s image there is no murder and mayhem, simply the aftermath of destruction. All the evidence – the clothes, the shoes and jewelry – suggests it is a woman’s room, but we don’t know whether the damage was caused by some external force or by the occupant.’
The most striking work in the MCA exhibition is probably A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993), an illuminated transparency measuring 229 X 337 cms. The image is taken from the woodblock print, A Gust of Wind in Eijiri in the province of Suruga, from Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (c. 1831-33), the same series that includes that iconic image of the Great Wave.
Wall’s photo echoes Hokusai’s print in many ways. There are the same two spindly trees; there are four figures, including a woman who has had a shawl wrapped around her face by the wind, while a portfolio of papers is sent flying. There is also a man who watches his hat disappear into the heavens. The major absence is Mount Fuji, which looms picturesquely in the background of Hokusai’s composition. In Wall’s version, the background is a blank wasteland of flat earth and hazy, polluted sky, broken only by a few telephone poles and the distant outlines of factories.
While Hokusai’s figures are on a journey, it’s hard to know why the people in Wall’s image would be wandering around in this nondescript location. The minimal nature of the scenery suggests Wall is making a point about differing attitudes towards the environment, between past and present, east and west. It implies we have no patience with the taste for the picturesque today, preferring a utilitarian approach to nature as a force to be tamed and harnessed.
This is just one way of interpreting an image that has no fixed meaning. One of the chief disjunctions is that Wall’s photo is of monumental proportions whereas Hokusai’s print is tiny. It is almost as if we are meant to recognise the degree to which contemporary ugliness overshadows the ideas of nature and beauty that inspired the Ukiyo-e artists.
In passing it’s also worth pointing out a few other features of this image, notably its resemblance to a film still – a frozen moment plucked from a larger narrative. Much has been written about the cinematic aspects of Wall’s work, and about the way his pictures might be read as “prose poems” or “short stories”.
Beyond the initial reference to Hokusai, there is an affinity with the New Topographics school of American photography, which specialised in bland, featureless views of the suburban landscape. There is also a play on Cartier-Bresson’s famous idea of “the decisive moment” in photography, a concept Wall explores in many different guises. The photo gives us the impression he has taken the shot at the exact instant when trees, figures, papers and hat were in these positions. Yet this is a fiction because the image was created from several different photo shoots and stitched together in the studio.
As is so often the case with Wall’s work, we are given an impersonation of a decisive moment. The actual process of creation is painstaking and laborious.
Wall’s intellectual interests go deeper than most artists. He studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London, where he made the acquaintance of paintings such as Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), which he would later adapt to his own purposes.
It’s possible to see Wall’s work as a philosophical investigation into concepts such as representation and depiction that we tend to take for granted. But like other artists of a scholarly persuasion, such as William Kentridge, he tries to maintain an open-ended approach. Wall doesn’t want to close down possible interpretations or plan an image so thoroughly that nothing is left to chance or intuition.
It is startling to learn that in order to take the photo, A view from an apartment (2004-05), he rented an apartment that looks out onto the Vancouver docks and paid for a young woman to live there for a few months until the place had the slightly messy, domestic atmosphere he was seeking. This is perfectionism in conflict with the desire to allow for some small element of chance.
In two photos based on literary sources, After ‘The Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2000) and After ‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000-05), Wall has allowed himself the freedom of creating a scene based on his own visualisation of a text. By clearly identifying the part of the novel to which he refers, Wall is inviting us to compare his version with the written word, as if he were the director of a film. It may be significant that the figures in both pictures face away from us, shifting the emphasis from the character to the setting.
Wall has a marked preference for treating viewer as an unseen, detached observer. In one picture we watch an artist drawing an anatomical specimen with the same quality of rapt attention that Chardin’s little boy brings to his game with a top. In others we see a group of women sharing a joke while they dress poultry, or a man absorbed in the task of untangling a gigantic knotted rope. These people are completely immersed in their own worlds. Although the photos are presented as large-scale museum pieces they depict private moments, or as the artist puts it: “moments or events from obscure, unswept corners of everyday life.”
It is only in Wall’s Double Self-Portrait of 1979, that a figure seems to acknowledge the presence of the photographer, and implicitly, the viewer. Yet this is a palpable lie because the subject of the picture is the photographer himself, who could not have been both behind the camera and in front of it. Neither could he appear twice within the same room.
In this early image Wall strives to undermine the conventional assumption that a photograph is simply a window on to the world. It would be more accurate to say that any photograph, with or without digital manipulation, is a way of constructing and ordering a world. Wall brings this constructive aspect to the forefront, presenting us with images that seem to be simultaneously casual and monumental, public and private. They are of the moment, but loaded with historical references. If these pictures ultimately feel a little cold and calculated, it’s still a rare pleasure to see a body of work animated by such luminous intelligence.
Jeff Wall: Photographs, Museum of Contemporary Art, May 1 – July 28
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 11, 2013