Münchenstein, Switzerland

Jeff Wall


As Jeff Wall remarked about this retrospective at the press conference, it’s most likely the biggest show he’ll ever have. And, indeed, with seventy-two works “Jeff Wall: Photographs, 1978–2004” brought together more than half of the artist’s oeuvre. Given that most of us were used to seeing no more than a few of Wall’s large light-box transparencies at a time, one might have wondered how the individual pieces would hold up in such numbers. Thanks to the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron, and above all to the artist’s precise sense of size and scale, the works did not detract from each other but retained their own auras of sublimity.

The show started off with The Destroyed Room, 1978—a free paraphrase of Délacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus—which was first exhibited in a shop window (Nova Gallery) in Vancouver in 1978; it closed with A view from an apartment, 2004–2005. In between lies a range of autonomous compositions, some iconic and some little known (including eight black-and-white photographs), whose subjects vary from the banal to the apocalyptic—like the Goya-esque Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992. Beyond their tight, pinpoint-sharp compositions and complex references to literature and art history, Wall’s tableaux are most compelling for how they illuminate the silent dramas on the fringes of society. In An Eviction, 2004 (a remake of his 1998 Eviction Struggle, digitally rendered for this show from previously unused production stills), we witness a man fighting police power like a desperate, lower-class Laocoön. The scene is embedded in a large, panoramic view of suburban front gardens whose wide-angled overlook uncomfortably simulates a watchtower perspective.

Interesting within the show’s broad survey is the technical distinction, given by the artist himself in the accompanying catalogue raisonné, between “cinematographic”—meaning entirely constructed—and “documentary” images, where the latter simply refers to the fact that they were not staged. Accordingly these “documentary” pictures are mostly either landscape or still life (and these gain importance in his later work). One exception is Pleading, 1984, perhaps Wall’s only image of people who are not actors. Comparing the brief emotional interaction between a man and woman captured in this documentary street photograph, for instance, with the casually racist gesticulation of one of the actors in the staged street scene Mimic, 1982, shows Wall’s sharp sense of the power of small gestures even as the line between the arranged and the real blurs. His images seem hyperreal. They do not, like snapshots or film stills, separate an image from its context but reconstruct timeless moments via observation, imagination, and memory. One could call it painting by means of film. Wall lifts the photographic image into the dimension of painting by composing it minutely from the smallest detail, blowing it up, and presenting it in light boxes like advertising. Given that, with digital editing, some photographs are assembled from hundreds of slides, the term cinematographic becomes even more apt. Like a movie within a single picture but composed of innumerable frames, they allow the impulsiveness of the moment to gain monumental impact, as with the angrily spilled milk fountain in Milk, 1984, or the hilariously beautiful A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993. The more one lets this impact settle in, the more one may be inclined to think it’s Wall’s sociocritical humanism rather than his perfectionism that’s made him the most influential photographer of our time.

Eva Scharrer