PRINT May 1997


Jeff Wall

JEFF WALL, known for his photographs of artfully staged scenes at once familiar and uncanny, is planning his first monument—a cast-iron sculpture located near Hotel New York on Rotterdam’s Whilhelmina pier, where the Holland American Line ships used to dock. Commissioned by the Dutch government, the piece, a cast of a lost-luggage depot, will consist of an existing street lamp encircled by a structure of shelves holding numerous cast objects: bundles bound with rope, crates, fragments of personal belongings, and suitcases from various eras. Once the sculpture is completed, visitors will be able to sit inside, surrounded by the traces of those who disembarked at or left from this port.

For Wall, these discarded possessions bear witness to a specific moment much the way traces of light do in a photograph. Indeed Wall regards the monument as a “photograph in iron”: “There’s a similarity between casting and photography in that both rely upon indexicality. Both the photographic image and the plaster mold are physically caused by the object in question. This is an aspect of photography that I think André Bazin was the first to point out, and that is crucial to my project. The things on the racks are traces from the past, but not from one specific point in time. Some of them in fact could have been left there just minutes ago, like the Fender guitar case and a contemporary-looking backpack.”

Since the whole piece is cast from existing objects, viewers will be confronted with something both real and imagined, just as they are in Wall’s photographs. In most of his images the scenes depicted, even when they seem natural, are meticulously composed, often from multiple shots of a given scene. Yet his subjects and their surroundings are no less real. While all photographs occupy a space somewhere between document and fantasy, Wall’s make the dual nature of photographic representation a conspicuous and troubling fact, and his sculpture, or “photograph in iron,” is no exception. In addition to being at once a “real” object and a fictional re-creation, it will become part of Rotterdam’s cityscape in quite an ingenious way. As Wall envisions it, “The people who walk along the pier will suddenly find themselves inside a completely artificial world, reminiscent of a stage set. Hopefully, the piece will be able to convey both the everyday feeling of finding some quite ordinary things that have been forgotten and the complex experience of relating to things from the past.”

What is compelling about Wall’s first sculptural project is its multilayered temporality, its evocation of numerous realities. Instead of being a monument to a specific event, it aims to capture several different time periods. Wall himself sees the work as a commemoration not only to those who have passed through this port but to those arriving in Europe today, or those who are yet to come. By looking forward, the piece eschews the ponderous melancholia of most monuments; its theme is not the remembrance of things past but the passage of time itself.

Daniel Birnbaum contributes frequently to Artforum.