Scaling the Wall

Reality requires a second look in Jeff Wall’s photography exhibition ‘Visibility.'

‘The Thinker,’ 1986 Transparency in lightbox, 216x229 (photo credit: Jeff Wall)
‘The Thinker,’ 1986 Transparency in lightbox, 216x229
(photo credit: Jeff Wall)
There are some who say that Jeff Wall revolutionized the entire photographic discipline. Judging by his “Visibility” exhibition that opened at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last ‘week and will run until January 25, there is plenty of collateral for the claim.
In terms of scale alone, Wall’s works make for highly impressive viewing. The show occupies five rooms in the Lilly and Yoel Moshe Elstein Multi-Purpose Gallery of the museum’s Herta and Paul Amir Building wing. Almost all the prints/transparencies are of the dimensions of outsized oil paintings, and the cross-discipline analogy is a case in point.
Since he began producing art in the 1970s, the 66-year-old Vancouver-born Wall has referenced artists from across a wide swath of chronological and creative evolution and geographical hinterlands.
His compositions often allude to works by 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, late 18th- early 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, and early to mid-19th century French Realist- Impressionist Édouard Manet. There are literary sources of inspiration, too, such as works by Franz Kafka, 20th-century Japanese author Yukio Mishima and contemporary African American novelist Ralph Ellison.
The latter’s 1952 book Invisible Man generated a striking item in the Wall show titled After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue which, like many of Wall’s creations, immediately catches the eye and then draws the observer in ever deeper as more and more details begin to make their mark. The expansive work, which measures 1.74 m. x 2.50 m., depicts a socioeconomically disadvantaged African American man leaning forward on a chair in what appears to be a basement room. It is, indeed, a basement dwelling, but with one remarkable feature. In the absence of natural light, the inhabitant lights up his humble windowless abode with an extravagant abundance of light bulbs, 1,369 of them to be precise.
“We couldn’t possibly work with all the bulbs turned on,” says Wall. “It was incredibly hot.”
Like the majority of Wall’s work, After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue is the recreation of a scene, imagined or real. Wall spent about six months piecing together the physical milieu, based on Ellison’s description.
Wall is a strong believer in allowing things to evolve at as natural a tempo as possible.
“Look at the pieces of cloth hanging there,” he says of the work. “It is like in your own home. My bedroom looks the way it does because I, or someone else, has put different things in different places, as one does when one lives in a place. I wanted to arrive at the same sense with this photography.”
He has, indeed, achieved that impression.
In fact, Wall is a strong supporter of the “old school” approach. All his works are produced based on photographs shot with analogue cameras, which makes for a far slower process than following the digital, instant replay route. That does not mean to say that technology does not play a central role in Wall’s professional life. One of the Canadian’s most inventive initial avenues was to produce superenlarged transparencies and mount them on light boxes so that they are illuminated from behind. This imbued the pictures with a degree of vibrancy that is hard to otherwise achieve in photography.
The earliest work in the exhibition is titled The Destroyed Room, and Wall considers it one of his first successful attempts at challenging photographic tradition. According to the Tate Modern gallery in London, this success allows Wall to reference “both popular culture (the illuminated signs of cinema and advertising hoardings) and the sense of scale he admires in classical painting. As threedimensional objects, the light boxes take on a sculptural presence, impacting on the viewer’s physical sense of orientation in relationship to the work.”
“This picture has become identified with what I do, which is working with photography not to present the real but to make visible something that would otherwise not be visible,” says Wall, adding that his fresh approach to photography brought the discipline into line with other areas of creative endeavor.
“That impulse to create something that would not otherwise exist wasn’t really the dominant idea of photography in the 1970s. But it has been the dominant me. It is not the idea of showing you, again, what the world looks like but to invent something that tells you something what things look like but changes your relationship with what seeing outside of art is about,” he says.
The confluence between actual objective reality and created images is the most blurred in Wall’s so-called “near-documentary” style, as exemplified in light-box-enhanced Mimic, which he made in 1982.
There are three figures in the picture. On the left is a smartly dressed young Asian man, and to the right are a casually dressed Caucasian man and woman. The most evocative element of the 1.98 m. x 2.28 m. transparency is the fact that the man is pushing up the corner of his right eye with his finger, in reference to the Asian man’s ethnic origin. This is not the documentation of an event snapped in real time but a recreation of something Wall saw on a Vancouver street. The end product is no less powerful for the artificial temporal process used to capture it.
“The idea was to recreate or replicate something we call reportage or street photography,” explains Wall.
Once he had settled on the idea that he didn’t necessarily have to snap an occurrence at the time it actually took place, Wall realized he had a far larger ball park to play in.
“I have done a lot of pictures where I have reproduced something I actually saw, but others have different starting points. What I began to like about my own practice was that here was no given starting point. It could begin from a witnessed occurrence, something I read, something I heard, something I daydreamed. It could be anything,” he says.
Fieldwork is the nearest item in the exhibition to straight-ahead documentary photography and features an archeologist at work.
Wall did not manipulate any of the elements in the shot but spent several days with the archeologist, observing him at work in order to achieve a convincing shot.
Wall eventually moved on from the light-box phase. The show also includes black-and-white prints and color prints without back lighting. The more powerful recreated event prints include the statuesque monochrome Men Waiting from 2009, again something Wall witnessed but did not snap at the time, and the dynamically captivating black-andwhite War Game from 2007. The latter feeds off Wall’s hankering for a pre-hi-tech-enhanced slower world.
“It was difficult to find this empty plot in Vancouver because there are so few of them now, but I wanted to capture these children playing a real war game,” says the artist. ”These days, children play war games on their computers, so here was a chance for these kids to play a real game. They liked it, and so did I.”
If Wall had his way, we’d all be living in an analogue, more relaxed world.
“It takes more time to iron the sheets for your bed than to throw them on not ironed; but when you go to sleep, you appreciate the benefit,” he says.
There’s something to be said for that.