A blog dedicated to exploring every corner of the art world via reviews and interviews with art world insiders. Written by four QCA students for other students and anyone curious about the inner workings of the art world.
Reviewed by Michelle Gunther
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, SYDNEY
1 May – 28 July 2013
Curated by Gary Dufour, Art Gallery of Western Australia, this touring exhibition showcases 27 works from the innovative contemporary art practice of Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. The majority of the photographs on exhibition are technically complex constructed images of modern everyday life. His method of display – large-scale life-sized transparencies exhibited in light boxes – makes the connection also to conventions of the cinema and advertising. The works are luminous and glowing which makes them appear more vivid and more alive than your typical printed photograph. Wall constructs his own realities based on the everyday but so dripping with cinematic codes, that his work slips readily into the realm of the hyper-real.
Wall, born in Vancouver in 1964, studied Fine Art at the University of Vancouver from 1964 to 1970. Further studies in London and travels in Europe in the 1970s exposed him to the paintings of Goya, Velázquez, Manet, and others. Many of his photographs are strongly connected to works from the European art historical canon as well as those from Asia.
A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai) (1993) is one of Wall’s best-known works, and certainty one of the most visually engaging on display. On first glance the work appears to capture an extraordinary fleeting moment where nature intervenes to make a businessman’s day hell. Who can speculate as to the importance of the papers wildly flung in the air at the wind’s mercy. The action draws us in but then the viewer starts to think deeper on the image as its contemplated longer. Was the photographer that lucky to be in the right place at the right time to capture this “natural”moment? Is the composition natural or posed? Are we beginning to question the truth of what we are seeing? The title certainly lets us know that there is more to this image than meets the eye.
The photograph is actually an appropriation based on Hokusai’s 1830-1833 Ejiri in Suruga Province (a sudden gust of wind). Wall’s work combines over 100 individual shots, showcasing his mastery of photomontage techniques, and highlighting the nature of his photographic practise as cinematic not reportage. He describes this work as ‘a cinematographic photograph’. Wall has re-contextualised Hokusai’s colour woodblock print into a contemporary setting and into the medium of photography. The artist is also deliberately making comparisons to the 18th and 19th century painting – a connection Wall has made in his work since the late 1970s.
My favourite photograph in the show was the first of Wall’s work successfully made in this way. The Destroyed Room (1978) is a bold, bright vision of absolute domestic destruction. My first impressions swim around issues of domestic violence, poverty, robbery, violation of private space. Maybe this is the artist’s room. Did he destroy this room rock star style in a fit of artistic rage? Is it real? Is it staged? Again, Wall’s work challenges us to question our natural inclination to believe what we see in the photographic medium. Look again and the timbers propping up the walls are visible in doorway on the left of the image. This is a stage. This is not real. I am left thinking about my attachment to the objects I own and to the sanctity of the personal spaces I inhabit.
In this work Wall is referencing Eugène Delacroix’s 1827 painting, Death of Sardanapalus, which in turn had been influenced by Lord Byron’s play. Delacroix’s work is a brutal spectacle depicting the death an Assyrian king who destroyed his palace, and killed his servants and himself after hearing of the defeat of his armies in battle. Wall has meticulously staged his own spectacle of destruction within his studio space.
The photo is shot with the clarity and colour we would expect from a commercial image but its content is the destruction of objects, not their usual adulation. It is displayed like a brilliantly lit advertising billboard but with no text we are left to question what is the message and/or the product. The image complies with some of the conventions of the advertising genre but yet subverts others. In The Destroyed Room Wall says he is critiquing the systems of meaning that control how we understand commercial and artistic images. I believed he is very successful in this aim.
The artist’s eye for detail and instinct for composition has combined to create works in this show with a very cinematic poignancy despite what at times may be an otherwise banal subject matter or setting. The display of the works on enormous illuminated lightboxes further enhances the cinematic vision of Wall. What may appear initially as a snapshot of contemporary everyday life, is never simple in its layers of meaning, art historical references and impressive technical construction.
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