Wall or nothing
Jeff Wall's quasidoc photos toy with reality.
Jeff Wall’s 1993 photograph A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) depicts the effects of an unexpected squall that has sent a sheaf of papers swirling through the air, stolen a man’s hat and bent two spindly trees to the breaking point. Psych.
This image, inspired by an 1830s woodblock print from Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, is a montage of more than 100 photos taken over the course of a year. The distressed passersby are nonprofessional actors whom Wall brought to a cranberry farm in Canada. The trees, which had already been chopped down, are pulled on ropes. The hat is tied to a stick. A wind machine generated the “sudden gust.”
Wall’s intention is not to trick viewers, but to shatter our preconceptions about photography—particularly its ability to record “reality”—while situating it in the history of art. The Vancouver-based artist’s giant transparencies mounted on light boxes evoke 19th-century history paintings, 20th-century documentary photography and contemporary film, sometimes in the same image.
According to James Rondeau, curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago, the historical quotations embodied in Wall’s work make a retrospective on the artist ideally suited to the museum. Comprising 41 photographs from almost 30 years of the artist’s career, the show opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and will close at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This makes the Art Institute the only stop on its tour with an “encyclopedic” collection, Rondeau explains. After examining Wall’s The Destroyed Room, a 1978 take on Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, or his 1979 Picture for Women, a remake of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, visitors need not walk far to see masterpieces of Romantic or early modern art like the ones that inspired him.
In the 1980s, Wall began creating what he calls “near-documentary” photographs, which reconstructed events he had observed on the streets of Vancouver. In Trân Dúc Ván (1988/2003), a blond woman walks past a derelict Vietnamese man leaning against a tree, oblivious to his distress. This seemingly spontaneous event was doubly staged: After producing a version that showed two young people ignoring the man, Wall digitally altered the photograph to replace them with the lone woman, who was yet another performer.
The unprecedented level of control over his work that computers have given Wall is evident in The Flooded Grave (1998–2000), a digital montage that yields a convincing glimpse of a cemetery’s portal to the ocean floor. (This is the only Wall in the Art Institute’s collection.) Graphics software also shaped Dead Troops Talk (1992), melding hundreds of transparencies into the exhibit’s most cinematic piece. Wall used costumes, makeup and special effects to transform his actors into a zombified Red Army patrol killed in Afghanistan during its war with the Soviet Union.
Despite the months he spends managing every detail of his photographs, Wall insists he wants his work to remain open to interpretation. Dead Troops Talk has no clear message about heroism or war: Some of the undead soldiers look upset and bewildered, but others clown around. It is up to the viewer to determine the meaning of the disturbing, humorous yet grandiose image: an unholy cross between Jacques-Louis David and Shaun of the Dead that—like Wall’s oeuvre—is a simulacrum perfect for our postmodern age.
Jeff Wall will give a talk in Fullerton Hall Thursday 28 from 6 to 7pm. (Members receive priority seating; call 312-499-4111.) The exhibition is up through September 23.