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photographic uncertainties

darren jorgensen: jeff wall photographs


Jeff Wall, A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai) 1993, Tate, London, purchased with the assistance from the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation and from the National Art Collections Fund 1995, Jeff Wall, A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai) 1993, Tate, London, purchased with the assistance from the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation and from the National Art Collections Fund 1995,
© the artist
A GIANT LIGHT BOX TRANSPARENCY, THE SPECTACULAR A SUDDEN GUST OF WIND (AFTER HOKUSAI) (1993) GREETS US AS WE WALK INTO JEFF WALL’S RETROSPECTIVE AT THE ART GALLERY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA. IT SHOWS A GROUP OF MEN COWERING FROM THE WIND THAT’S BLOWING SHEETS OF PAPER OVER A DESOLATE LANDSCAPE. THEY LOOK LIKE THEY ARE THERE FOR A MEETING, AS SOME WEAR SUITS AND OTHERS LOOK LIKE FARMERS, AMID A COLD RURAL SCENE.

The image captures some of Wall’s endearing concerns. He has carefully staged a chance moment, which constructs a scene that he has already imagined in his mind’s eye. While it is at first glance a naturalistic scene, a second glance tells us that it has been heavily constructed, and yet this artificial sensibility carries with it a trace of something natural, some pivotal and beautiful quality of the world that Wall has managed to distil.

The body of criticism around the work of Jeff Wall emphasises the staged performativity of the encounters he sets into large photographs and light boxes. There is a captivating uncertainty in a piece like Knife Throw (2008), whose performers act out what they might ordinarily do in their own lives, by throwing knives at a wall. Yet their performance is far from natural, and carries with it a self-consciousness or even boredom that lies ambivalently in the posture and face of one of the men.

Such strained poses bring to Wall’s work the uncertainties that confuse performance and actuality. Wall will sometimes keep people trapped in a room for weeks at a time to achieve such ambiguity, keeping his camera trained on a cleaner cleaning, or an illustrator illustrating. The effect is positively Brechtian, as performers make us aware that they are not entirely performing these roles.

In some ways Wall’s work resembles that of his equally successful contemporaries in New York, photographers like Sherri Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, who also work with reconstructing that which is already there. However, unlike the so-called Pictures Generation, Wall does not turn to the iconography of American visual culture. Instead he turns to ordinary people as his subjects. So that these magnificent pictures are also images of Canada, of people and their lives treated with all of the intimate detail of a staged performance.

This is the reason that Wall’s work has been compared with 19th century realist painting, but the artist also claims he is carrying on the practices of early documentary photography. The image of a group of women plucking, gutting and cleaning chickens, Dressing Poultry (2007), is replete with ugly detail and yet is strikingly beautiful. The eye is unable to tear itself away from the sight of real life rendered so colourfully, so brightly, as Wall turns the little slaughterhouse into a photographic studio.

Not all of Wall’s works are so successful. Smaller light boxes framing such innocuous objects as dirty rags, drains, paint tins and tree stumps appear in a series, more like context for the bigger pictures than works of art in their own right. They hold the politics of the major works without having the punch of a human performer to convey the complexity of the politics. For all of the discourse around Wall’s emulation of the European masters, it should not be forgotten that he is also a photographer of the ordinary, documenting in his own way the passage of lived experience among the people of his country.

This show captures cleaners, homeless people, office workers and farmers in the process of going about their jobs, in a way that pauses their bodies amidst the motions of labour as they huddle against the cold or till a field. Yet these are also problematic images, for what farmer tills his field today? What cleaner stands motionless, gazing to the floor? These are the details that have made Wall one of the most respected living artists, as he brings a kind of truth to the artifice of photography.

This truth lies in even the most constructed of his images. A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) is not just a beautiful image of paper blowing in the wind, it is also a parable of country and city; of workers of different kinds meeting in the world. Replete with details, the image conveys the complexities of a lived situation that is also constructed, turning the naturalism of photography into the realism of documentary while somehow preserving the beauty of the natural within this transformation.


Jeff Wall: Photographs, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, to Sept 10; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Nov 30, 2012-March 2013; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, April 24-July 28, 2013

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 55

© Darren Jorgensen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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