Fillip 3 — Summer 2006

Affirmations and Refusals
Cliff Lauson

The concept of the mid-career retrospective seems somewhat unusual to me. As opposed to the solo exhibition, the retrospective seems to imply a degree of closure. One might think of it as considered rather than urgent, generalizing rather than specific, or appreciative rather than critical. The retrospective is also a concept that seems to hail from an earlier modernist time during which an artist’s work was often thought to evolve or progress in phases or periods.

I think this is a difficult challenge for any artist and is particularly relevant to Jeff Wall, who, through both his artwork and writing over the past thirty years, has been concerned with the way in which art is historicized, balanced against the seemingly contradictory experience of, what one might think of as the immediacy in viewing artwork. The status of (art) photography has changed radically since the 1970s and the consistency and success of Wall’s production has spawned many imitators who attempt to strike a balance between photography and cinema by presenting tableaux on backlit transparencies. So, on the occasion of his largest two “retrospectives” to date, Wall has collaborated with the curators of the Schaulager and Tate Modern to put forward an exacting selection of works from his oeuvre.

The Schaulager exhibition included the enormous collection of just over seventy works. The large-scale and theoretical phenomenological viewing space of Wall’s pictures meant that the exhibition was densely hung. Room after room was packed with works, a minimum of four and sometimes up to six, to the point that the light boxes pushed outside of the formal exhibition space and were installed in the concourse, corridors, and on the outside faces of false walls. It seemed as if museum director Theodora Vischer included as many pictures as possible to illustrate the last twenty-six years of Wall’s career. Yet, as concentrated as the experience was, the Herzog & de Meuron designed Schaulager is perhaps only one of a few spaces appropriate enough to house such an ambitious undertaking and contributes, as a venue, to an ongoing mutual interest between the artist and the architects. In fact, Wall’s conversations in relation to architecture are some of the more insightful recent writings on his work.1

Mirroring the ambition of this exhibition was the publication of a catalogue raisonné, literally a tome of information. It not only contains full-colour plates of all of Wall’s works between 1978 and 2004 and the usual comprehensive technical and historical data, provenance, and bibliographies, but also production shots, sketches, alternate versions, and rare short texts by Wall. Jean-François Chevrier’s introductory essay unites a number of ideas formed over the past seventeen years from writings on and conversations with the artist, previously collected in his anthology, Essais et entretiens, 1984–2001.

At about fifty works, the Tate exhibition was a smaller and more tightly curated show. It focused on coupling the works based on resonances and internal structures, both formal and thematic. In focusing on a less heterogeneous collection of Wall’s work, the Tate show had a better viewing pace. The exhibition’s rhythm was physically mirrored in the space: panels of the building’s windows were left exposed, allowing natural light to punctuate the room and intersperse the fluorescent light emanating from the transparencies. That is, the greyness of the London winter sky mixed with the understated greyness of Vancouver’s light.

The mostly chronological hang did impose a methodical encounter with the work, which actually seemed remarkably consistent for twenty-six years of production. For example, on the issue of scale, the principle of establishing shooting and viewing distance according to the legibility of people’s faces (as literally designed into the layout of Wall’s 1993 Transparencies catalogue) was and continues to be rigorously applied. In terms of composition, Wall maintains a steady, almost sculptural interest in the body in space through physiognomy, gesture, and movement. Yet, despite the marching temporal order, it is quite easy to draw anachronistic comparisons between different works like the non-sequitur urban street scenes of The Agreement (1987), A Hunting Scene (1994), and A man with a rifle (2000). Similarly, one could read the “involuntary expressive body movements” described in “Gestus” (1984) through a number of later works, which reach a sort of frenetic climax in Insomnia (1994).

Of course, Wall himself has overtly returned to rework past subjects, as in the reshooting of The Drain (1989) to produce Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003 (2003). And, perhaps less overtly, he has also digitally reworked two pieces from 1988, Eviction Struggle (now An Eviction) and Trân Dúc Ván, using the original source material. These pictures have been clarified (distilled?) by reducing the amount of peripheral activity, thereby focusing the viewer’s attention on the protagonists or primary event. Though the new images now read differently, I think that these changes are significant only in so much as Wall felt the need to tweak them. The fact that he returns to the original source material means that the picture was there to begin with, but was in need of certain refinement. Perhaps more significantly, the signage element of the diptych, Stereo (1980) has been removed, leaving only the image of the male nude—a renunciation of the last linguistic vestiges of conceptual art. The updated versions of the pictures are all meant to replace the originals and were the versions exhibited.

Common to both exhibitions, as is evident from the title, is the selection of transparencies and large-scale black-and-white photographs. Hung in their own rooms, the photographs are a nod to Wall’s documenta X installation in 1997, where they were first exhibited as a group. Immediately apparent are the relative intensities of each medium, to which one’s eyes have become accustomed. Embodying what Wall terms a “renunciation of colour,” these photographs use a much deeper and graduated palette, drawing attention to the fact that pitch black is indeed impossible to achieve in a transparency. This return to the “unilluminated” photograph thus opens up a dialogue with the transparencies, readdressing the “closedness” of the photographic medium that Wall felt was problematic in the late 1970s.

The selection of only photographic pictures meant that any preparatory studies, sketches, contact sheets—essentially, all process-oriented material—were not included in either exhibition. Wall’s one-off forays into film, performance, monumental sculpture, montage, and architecture have been consigned to the catalogue for explanation. This, combined with the 1978 Destroyed Room start date (absenting any “pre-London” photo-conceptual work), placed the emphasis firmly on Wall’s highly finished signature compositions. Thus, despite the chronological hang of the exhibitions, there was a somewhat strange evenness to quality of the work on display. This uniformity, I think, nudged the show more in the direction of a solo exhibition than a retrospective.

The resulting exhibitions presented works as singular and enigmatic, existing in the condition Wall now describes as “prose-poems” (after Charles Baudelaire) to denote the hybrid state effected by “suspending the factual claim” of their ontological status as photographs. The general problem of trying to categorize Wall’s work into genres or typologies, an earlier critical strategy, has now been replaced with describing each work as either documentary or cinematographic (each picture is labelled in the catalogue). It is interesting to note that despite being better known for the cinematographic pictures, almost half of Wall’s recent production of the past decade has been produced in the “documentary mode.”

Specific to Wall’s overall work is the consistent engagement with the conditions of art history; the works hold tight to the self-criticality of the medium. They are as much a statement on the history of photography as they are about whatever subject matter is composed. Perhaps both internally generated and arising out of mutual critical influence,2 this overarching modernist principle sees the movement of Wall’s recent work away from what Michael Fried termed the theatrical and towards the absorptive. Through the exclusion of pictures that seem to blur this distinction, like Outburst (1989) and The Stumbling Block (1991), most of the works in the exhibitions saw their protagonists unaware of the camera’s gaze and engaged in the activities of the everyday.

This interest is not to overwhelm the work with a modernist formalism. The sociopolitical has not, as some critics have claimed, disappeared from Wall’s work—take, for example, Fieldwork or Boys cutting through a hedge (both 2003). Rather, the sites of disenfranchisement have become subtler and the politics of the everyday are studied as latent ideologies—in performing labour, negotiating the city, etc. Ultimately, the function a Friedian reading performs is to reify a connection to a historical modernism that is entirely independent from the over-burdened interpretations of Wall’s work as one-to-one photographic restagings of “old masters” paintings. Time will tell whether this tact proves to generate a body of criticism that repositions the work according to this reading.

Wall has said that it would be better if lots of people used the medium of the backlit transparency: “Then it would be seen as a medium; not just as my thing. Van Eyck was the originator of oil painting but lots of people have used that medium. I didn’t invent the medium.”3 Despite the now widespread uptake of the light box, Wall is recognized as its pioneer if only because he has consistently worked with the format for almost thirty years, continuing to unpack its specificity. Wall has the interest and influence to redefine and reposition the medium’s role both in relation to historical modernisms and even within his own oeuvre, however retrospectively.

  1. Wall’s Dominus Estate Vineyard, Yountville, California, Winery by Herzog & de Meuron (1999) includes the architects’ basalt gabion walled building in the distance. See “Genres Are Established by the Distance between the Camera and the Subject. An Interview with Jeff Wall by Philip Ursprung,” Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2002) and Pictures of Architecture/Architecture of Pictures: A Conversation between Jacques Herzog and Jeff Wall moderated by Philip Ursprung (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2004).
  2. Wall refers to Michael Fried’s “absorptive mode” to describe Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (1992) in Jeff Wall Restoration (Luzern: Kustmuseum, 1994), 23. Wall’s work is to play a “considerable role” in Fried’s forthcoming book, Ontological Pictures: The Argument of Recent Photography (working title). Most of Wall’s cinematographic pictures, including the recent works, A view from an apartment (2004–05) and After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000–05), have been described by Fried as constructed in the “absorptive mode.”
  3. Wall in interview with Judith Mastai in Jeff Wall 1990 (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1990), n.p.

Image: Jeff Wall.

About the Author

Cliff Lauson is a PhD candidate at University College London and is
writing on Vancouver art and artists. He is also working on specific exhibition projects as Curatorial Assistant at Tate Modern, London, and has recently published in Art Monthly and contributed to Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing.

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