While there is little question that photography is the central medium in Jeff Wall’s arresting works, one would hardly consider him a photographer. For one thing, he makes use of certain strategies that derive from cinema, so that he describes his typical works explicitly as cinematographic, rather than documentary, photographs. For another, though the characters, as we may call the men and women he photographs, clearly belong to the same world his viewers do, their formal relationships to one another seem based on conventions of painting, especially nineteenth-century French painting. It is as if twenty-first-century men and women, wearing jeans and T-shirts and living in twenty-first-century rooms, are enacting, in tableaux vivants, scenes as they might have been composed by Degas or Manet. Wall, whose traveling retrospective was recently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is an art historian as well as an artist, who has been a painter, a photographer and a filmmaker. He is also steeped in contemporary theory, though it is not necessary either to know his history or to interpret his works in light of the theories that underpin them. Still, one cannot penetrate very deeply into an exhibition of his work without realizing that some more complex aesthetics are involved than apply to the separate media he brings together in constructing his images. In this respect, his art is very much of the present moment, not only in subject but in mode of representation.
Let’s consider the first work in the show (which reopens at the Art Institute of Chicago at the end of June), The Destroyed Room, roughly the size of a small billboard, and done in 1978. As a cinematographic photograph, it is intended to imply an interpretive narrative, by contrast with a “documentary photograph,” which records an independent reality. The room itself is entirely banal, in décor as well as cheap furniture–a chest of drawers, a bed and a bamboo table or chair. There is no ornamentation–no moldings, for example–and the walls are painted in the kind of color a paint manufacturer might call “fiesta red.” But the door is off its hinges, the curtain rods hang diagonally across the single square window. The floor is strewn with costume jewelry as well as shoes and garments that are clearly feminine. There are no “personal touches” like pictures or posters on the wall, apart from the figurine of a female dancer on the bureau, left undisturbed. The person symbolically expressed by the room is feminine, and the destruction is definitely the symbolic expression of a very different self, who has committed an act of aggression against the room’s tenant. It is not the outcome of a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a hurricane. The drawers have been pulled out, the mattress has been slashed, the garments have been flung, the bamboo chair or table has been smashed. The room has either been searched by spies or police who wanted the returning tenant to know that they had been there–or destroyed in an act of rage or frustration by an angry lover.
All these conjectures have to be put in parentheses when we realize that the photograph does not document an actual episode. It is a theater or, more likely, a movie set, fabricated to represent a scene of violent disarray. It is filled with signs of deliberate artificiality; indeed, artificiality is part of the work’s content. The Destroyed Room may look like a forensic shot, but in fact it merely mimics one. One quickly realizes that the artist has brought together various articles from daily life and composed them deliberately to look like the result of willed mayhem. It is a “destroyed room” only insofar as it makes us believe it is one. It tells the kind of story that a movie would tell. It mocks the somewhat discredited genre of “staged photography.”
Staged photography grew out of the polemical dialogue between photography and painting that continued well into our time. In 1839 the painter Paul Delaroche, learning that Louis Daguerre had invented a way of preserving photographic images on metal plates, declared that painting was dead. What was the point of learning manually to copy reality through drawing or painting when a perfect reproduction could now be achieved by mechanical means that anyone could master? Defending their suddenly embattled medium, painters replied that photographs could only reproduce the world passively, whereas paintings are uniquely able to show invented scenes and sights, through acts of creative imagination. Before long, however, photographers proved that they too could show imaginary events. The Victorian photographer Henry Peach Robinson used human models to enact sentimental scenes that he then photographed to create salon-type images in such cloying works as Fading Away, in which a young girl is shown dying in the presence of grieving family members. Robinson ought, Wall argues, to have used the best paintings of his day–by Degas, for example–instead of the “salon trash” he actually travestied. Film showed a way in which staged photography could be revived that would enable the photographer to create his or her own “perfect moment” instead of stalking the world in the hope that such a moment would materialize. Wall describes the quest that led to The Destroyed Room in an interview with James Rondeau included in the exhibition catalogue:
I had the feeling that it was possible to bring much of what I’d liked in the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s together with what I’d always liked about painting in a form of photography that, whatever faults it might have, would not start out accepting the existing canon. That was an intuition born out of seven or eight years of struggle, intellectual, emotional, artistic struggle, when I couldn’t find my own way and went through periods of real desperation.
I’d like to stress how decisively against the grain of Clement Greenberg’s characterization of the Modernist agenda this is. Greenberg contended that each of the arts should protect the boundaries of its medium, and exclude anything that belonged by rights to a different medium. Wall violated the boundaries of several different media (painting, photography and cinema) and even went back into the early Modernist painting of the nineteenth century–in order to find what he needed to address the subjects that concerned him. It is this, in my view, that makes him, along with William Kentridge, one of the paradigmatic artists of our age.
There is one further component in Wall’s fusion of heterogeneous media. It consists in a borrowing from commercial display art the kind of photograph we know from the glass-enclosed posters mounted on the sides of bus shelters. This recommended itself to him for two reasons–size and luminosity. The medium that enabled him to realize the large photographic works that define his vision is the color transparency, illuminated from behind by fluorescent bulbs. The translucency inherent in the nature of slide film enabled Wall to achieve a luminosity the old masters could only dream of.
This technique enabled him, in fact, to make works reminiscent of projected images familiar to us from art history lectures. Wall cannot but be aware, as an art historian, of the discrepancy between the magic lantern effect of slides shown in darkened rooms and the relatively drab surfaces of pigmented cloth, however highly varnished, on museum walls. Since Wall worked closely with MoMA curator of photography Peter Galassi to select the show, The Destroyed Room, as the earliest of his works to have been included, must have been the first or among the first works he regarded as successful in incorporating his demanding aesthetic. It was originally shown in the display window of an art gallery, transformed into a kind of light box, in Wall’s native city, Vancouver, where he still lives. There, passersby, completely ignorant of the theories that went into the work, would be able to give themselves over to interpreting the image seen through window glass. My sense–I can only speculate–is that they saw it, as I do, in terms of violence and transgressed privacy. The weight of abstract theory falls away, leaving a set of entirely human meanings, accessible to ordinary men and women witnessing, in a shop window, the cluttered spectacle of personal space invaded. The frilled intimate garments spilled out of rifled bureau drawers convey, immediately, the feeling of personal vulnerability. I would hate to think that the immediate response was that what the photograph showed was merely staged.
Later, Wall would use portable metal light boxes that, thanks to their scale and the intensity of their illumination, create an effect not unlike dioramas in the Museum of Natural History–only the re-enacted scenes are of human life. Interestingly, especially in the earlier pieces, the fraught concept of home and shelter plays a central role. An Eviction (1988/2004) shows just that: a man forcibly hustled out of his house by sheriffs, as a woman runs out of the house, her arms extended toward the struggling trio. The drama is seen from a distance, perhaps through a window on the second floor of a house down the block on the other side of the street in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, around noon on a sunny day in midsummer, with cars parked here and there and the neighbors going about their business. The tiny figures have the seeming defenselessness of snails removed from their shells. In Milk (1984), a homeless man, bearded and sockless, sits on the sidewalk, his back (literally) to a brick-faced wall, his jaw clenched, holding a container of milk in a paper sack with such tension that the milk is squeezed up and out in an angry, ejaculatory spurt.
There is not a lot to say about these simulated events. They speak for themselves. The couple under eviction is about to lose a home, the frustrated derelict has already lost his. Their worlds are empty and pitiless. In Doorpusher (1984) a man, shown from above, is pushing lethargically against a door. The window is boarded up, or perhaps covered in cardboard. He is, one supposes, looking for shelter, without much hope or conviction. In Trân Dúc Ván, a Vietnamese man leans against a tree, looking upward, next to a faceless wall, while a middle-aged woman walks past him, paying no heed. His homelessness is more diffuse, and more hopeless. In another work, The Storyteller (1986), a foreign-looking man sits alone on some rocks on an embankment in the shadow of an overpass, while at a distance a couple relaxes at the edge of the woods and a man sits on the ground, talking to two young people by a flickering bonfire. It is no Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The isolated seated figure is excluded from the spell of the story.
Wittgenstein imagined a book called The World as I Found It and wondered, philosophically, how it would describe the presence of the self in that world. The World as I Found It would be a good title for Wall’s work, since he is really present everywhere in it. For all his immersion in structuralist and poststructuralist theory, one feels–at least I do–that what he was searching for was a way of showing the world as he found it. No single existing medium would have done the trick. But he did not document the world, though some of his work, his so-called documentary photographs, certainly does that. For the cinematographic photographs, he created models of aspects of the world he found, and then photographed those. He was producer, director, writer, best boy and cameraman, who also handled the lighting and cast the actors and found the props and did the editing. He was in this respect like Cindy Sherman, though he rarely photographed himself. He didn’t need to. The world he shows is his vision objectified, even if he is literally outside it, as in a scene with well-behaved boys and girls at a birthday party, A ventriloquist at a birthday party in October 1947, done in 1990 of something that would have taken place when he was barely a year old. The title is like one by Diane Arbus. Or the astonishing Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), done in 1992–a cinematographic photograph if ever there was one, in which, expert viewers will note, he takes advantage of digital montage.
The immense liberation granted by cinematographic photography is that it opens room for showing the imaginary as if it were real, which is what staged photography promised at its inception. One does not even require the artifice so palpable in The Destroyed Room, or the staginess of An Eviction or Doorpusher. One gives oneself license to create sets for photographs, the titles of which refer to scenes from famous novels, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow. These are often referred to as “illustrations” in the critical literature on Wall, but they are really stills from unmade movies, or movies one would have made only for the sake of the stills.
Somehow, my favorite work in the show is Restoration (1993). It is situated inside a panoramic diorama, in Lucerne. The panorama depicts French soldiers who have taken refuge in Switzerland at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. Wall’s extremely elongated image shows some restorers on a scaffolding. One of them is pasting scraps of paper on the surface of the curved painting, between, as it were, the world of the restorers in 1993 and the world of the exhausted troops in 1871. A pensive woman, standing on the scaffold, holding a pencil, daydreams in front of the soldiers filing through the snow, just where, in the photograph, it becomes impossible to distinguish what is indoors and outdoors, past and present, living and dead, art and life. She could stand for the artist himself, with the diorama representing the world as he found it. For what it is worth, Daguerre helped invent the diorama more than a decade before he invented photography.