|Jeff Wall, Summer Afternoons, 2013, detail|
Jeff Wall has to be one of the most interesting and important photographers working today. His photography always features in scholarly attempts to theorize photography, to articulate its ontology, to remind us of why it matters. Given this importance, I was disappointed by this exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The works were hung, loosely chronologically, with no attempt to contextualize through the presentation. There was next to no text to give insight into what is happening in the images. So I kept wondering, well, what is Wall doing now that he wasn’t doing when I saw the retrospective at the Tate in 2005? Where is his work going, how is he using the medium in new and exciting ways? Maybe he isn’t, maybe that’s the point, that he hasn’t moved forward in his thinking about photography over the past ten years. But instinctively, I want to blame the museum, not the artist for lacking creativity in this exhibition.
|Jeff Wall, Summer Afternoons, 2013, detail|
One recurring theme that is never mentioned in the presentation by the Stedelijk Museum is the references to the history of painting, references that underline so much of his best work. In one of two new works on display here, I saw Edward Hopper everywhere. In Summer Afternoons (2013), we are struck by the isolation of the naked woman on a divan, the sun shining on the wall and the end of the divan, the seemingly vast yellow wall, her blond hair, perfectly pink cushions. Is the woman in reflection, is she bored? Is she waiting for her next customer or anticipating her last? When we see her next to the photograph of the man, on the floor, possibly masturbating, across the diptych, the narrative changes. Perhaps she did not satisfy him? But then again, maybe they have nothing to do with each other. She has, after all, left the sofa by the time the left hand side of the diptych is arranged. Or perhaps the woman arrives afterwards. The man, his back turned to us, complicates the image of the woman who was, for me, the focus of the diptych. The colours of the room make it uncomfortable. As do the poses: his pose is the classical female nude with his back turned to us, removed from our gaze. The woman is content, reflective, perhaps following sexual intercourse, perhaps awaiting it. We don’t know, and our ignorance is what makes this and other of Wall’s photographs resemble Hopper’s paintings.
|Jeff Wall, In Front of a Nightclub, 2006|
Wall’s images have become increasingly violent over the years, though the violence is always suggestive. There’s never blood spilt, and there is always the chance that we see the opposite of what is in the photograph. Take any of the images, they are all ambiguous. In front of A Nightclub, 2006, the first thought that comes to mind is drugs and prostitution, and it is not just the woman with the gold shoes, and the black man who is partly obscured that make us think this. The woman on the left, with a strapless top is provocative, made more so by the question of who is that man next to her, or maybe he is with her? Or are they not related, just happen to be walking alongside each other? The low lighting is also suggestive.
|Jeff Wall, Siphoning Fuel, 2008|
In another image that is unsettling because of its ambiguity, Siphoning Fuel, 2008 the cars are old, the man looks poor, though he might also just be dressed in old and casual clothes. The little girl isn’t dirty – but then again, maybe she’s not with him? Her stance is suspiciously like a gypsy girl, she may just happen to be sharing the space in front of the cars. Is the man siphoning fuel from his own car? Stealing it? In typical Wall style, these questions are never answered.
|Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2006|
Monologue, 2013 is another very odd photograph, at first glance because of its setting – a dark forest, that might also be a suburban backyard, in the night side of dusk or perhaps the sky is obscured by the trees? One man sits on a period chair in this forest space? Who is giving the monologue? Is it the man standing up? Is it the one talking? And what is the monologue about? Who are they? What are they doing here? They could be practicing their lines in rehearsal for a performance, or just as easily, they could be gangsters hatching a plan.
Often the titles are very prosaic and almost obvious. Yet the images are so ambiguous that the titles become unclear, destabilized. Men Waiting, 2006 represents what it claims to: men waiting. The image is black and white so the world represented is cold and dark and clouded. One review I read claims that the men are waiting for Godot, but to my eye the men are more like zombies in a science fiction world, standing still against their will, having been hit by some inexplicable, inter-galactic visitation.
|Jeff Wall, Ivan Sayers, Costume Historian Lectures at the|
University Women's Club. Virginia Newton-Moss wears a British
Ensemble c. 1910 from Sayers' collection, 7 December 2009
Ivan Sayers, Costume Historian 2009. must be giving a lecture on the woman accompanying him. I thought at first glance they were in a museum and the man was delivering the lecture to the woman, describing an exhibit. This is an image in which the placement of the spectator becomes the subject matter. An audience within the image who we do not identify with – they are listening to the man lecture, while we are looking at Jeff Wall’s (re)staging of the event. Plus, the audience in the image are mirrored in the door panels. Usually an audience within the image are placed for the identification of the audience of the image. There is a line, a separation between audiences in and of the image: the one is only a reflection, the other watches the reflection, from afar. This line is fascinating, because it is always there, made more or less obvious, in all of his photographs. Something separates us from the photographs, the figures represented from each other, from the worlds they happen to find themselves in, the photographs from each other.
The dividing line in Wall’s photographs might be seen to underline their most powerful thematic element: they are all about isolation. The isolation of the figures in the images is returned to the photograph itself: there is no relationship between each photograph across his oeuvre. His work is not about continuity and yet the Stedelijk museum establishes continuity by arranging the works chronologically, if only roughly. So much more could have been done to elaborate on the forms and themes of Wall’s photographs. Then again, this may be just the point, further alienating us from the photographs so we experience their discontinutity and impossibilities at an even deeper level.
All images courtesy the artist