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lifestyles magazine Winter 2011

Jeff Wall

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phing. s w ho hotogra . Artist by not p camera ge, begin carry a reporta doesnt y, or ll ograph pture. Jeff Wa y phot d to ca mentar h ey n ee t em. e docu nt, and ts by th practic d to hu hing ge e me. I somet ins, ne ated if tting by he expla feel defe hing ge toget ey will in som eet pho And th erested rage str t ur ave go. I let s I m in gs as yo t them Wherea em. I le any thin as m raph th witness photog st dont subject I ju once a rapher. . n. And tioncape pressio s a rela them es develop ke an im y ma red his ate, he But the germin t it ente momen egins to e ibe it ot, b transcr ends th takes ro vent it, t transc of in h it tha I can re the kind ship wit erefore . Thats Th r me things vision. of those begins fo field of y blend nd it all d by, a y, or an tage. intrigue faithfull o repor dom I m s with ic free nity to d rtu scenario artist staged he oppo and, ning t involve e sets, by decli laborat ns often e of his ventio ricate, His rein re. One ors, int , softwa nal act es usai), fessio fter Hok f decad nonpro Wind (a ouple o ust of e last c udden G over th orks, A S own w best kn

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)


Photo courtesy of the artist

Winter 2011 lifestyles magazine

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Jeff Wall

Pleading The Des oom troyed R

completed in 1993, involved the seamless digitized collation of over 100 separate images. It also happens to be a faithfully magisterial and yet completely original rendition, in style and in form, of Hokusais woodblock print Jejuri Station, Province of Suruga, from 1832. But there was nothing digital about the work that first established him a work of very real, very physical destruction. Lets begin by not talking. Are there any unsung artists whose praises youd care to sing? I probably could name you 20 people, but I dont want to name you 20 people. Whom do you admire among your contemporaries? I dont pick favorites. I dont want to make those lists for you. Sorry. Can we discuss the meaning behind some of your works? Im not so interested in interpreting my work or anyone elses right now. Not for any great reason. Actually, there is a reason, but well get to that. Vancouver, 1946. Jeff Wall ( future Officer of the Order of Canada, Hasselblad Award winner, exhibitor at galleries and museums around the world) is born to a physician father and a mother who takes a conventional role and who is interested in art and architecture. She doesnt quite
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lead him to art, exactly (comic books are an early inspirational spark), but both his parents (each the child of Jewish immigrants from Odessa) are certainly supportive of his artistic ambitions. At 24, his booklet of photographs taken from a car in various Vancouver locations is included in an exhibit at MoMA. But this doesnt satisfy. He stops making art and throws himself instead into graduate work at the University of British Columbia, where he meets his wife, Jeannette, a transplanted Brit. They have two children and temporarily relocate to London, England, where Wall pursues postgraduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Upon their return to Vancouver, he gains a teaching post at Simon Fraser University, followed by another at UBC, where he remains until 1999. Why did you stop? That was 25 years of teaching, he exclaims, with as close to a raised voice as one might imagine his voice gets. For the most part its quiet, polite, flat but not cold, serious, but capable of a chuckle. Id had enough of that. Early on, he teaches in order to pay the bills; as soon as he can sustain himself with his art, there isnt time for anything else. He writes screenplays and attempts a filmmodeled on Hitchcock, about a female kleptomaniacwith a few artist friends. But the attempt fails for a variety of reasons, including collaborative tensions and issues of artistic control. The filmalong with any thought of becoming a
Photos courtesy of the artist

Jeff Wall

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isib After Inv

le Man,

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filmmakeris abandoned, although the idea of control, or the misnomer of control, will resurface. Are you ever tempted to return to film? No. I have so much affection for the single picture because of the fact that it doesnt develop in time, and there doesnt have to be a beginning, middle, and end, and things dont have to be resolved. The uncertainty of the event, especially when its isolated, opens up possibilities for viewers that wouldnt be there if they knew what the next moment was going to be. I dont enjoy the idea of having to conclude a story or bring it to an end. I like the middle. Im devoted to the single image. Im interested in what escapes the picture. But youve done a few multi-part pieces. I hate to seem so blandly eclectic, but I would do these thingsa diptych, a triptych, moreat any moment that the opportunity and the theme popped up. As a matter of fact, he suddenly recalls, hes recently completed two such works in anticipation of his forthcoming show at White Cube in London. So perhaps its fair to say youre returning to film, but one frame at a time? He chortles charitably. In his view, he never really left; hes always been a cinematographer. He currently has an exhibit in Brussels, where hes paired some of his works with works by artistsincluding filmmakerswho have affected him over the years. Among the films whose clips are featured are Terrence Malicks Days of Heaven, Bergmans Persona, and Kubricks Barry Lyndon. But hes not disconnected from current cinema. For instance, he saw Malicks recent Tree of Life. I liked it partly because I thought it included some extremely bad pas-

sages, but that made it more interesting. Im fascinated that he had the courage to include things that could seem inappropriate and even really wrong, and yet made his film more complicated that way. And he considers Kelly Reichardt, a young independent American filmmaker (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and most recently, Meeks Cutoff), a kindred spirit. Her lens, like his, lingers on unexpected, often surprisingly quotidian subjects not typically accorded artistic attention. A real original, he calls her. In 1977, Wall takes a break from teaching and travels with his family to Europe and Morocco. At the Prado, in Madrid, he is impressed by the luminosity of Velzquez. On the subsequent journey, by bus, from Madrid to London, various stops feature back-lit advertisements for the standard fare: cigarettes, clothes, cars. And its here, peering out from the bus, that Wall makes the conceptual connection between the lambent Velzquez and these garish commercial displays, although he insists that the idea of using light boxes (large-scale transparencies lit from behind), which were to become his signature, was hardly a lightbulb moment. Thats a story thats circulated and gotten simplified. Id already been interested in transparencies before I made that trip, he says. Wall wants his work to be able to age so that the passage of time might infuse the material and enrich the viewers experience. The problem is that the dye in traditional color photographs loses its potency at a far more accelerated rate than does the oil used in paintings. Metallic dyes last longer, but Wall doesnt care for the paper theyre printed on. Before the trip, a photo lab technician in Vancouver had suggested transparencies. Wall had considered the notion but was hardly convinced. Afterwardwith the bus ads perhaps having nudged him
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Jeff Wall

along more than struck him on the nogginWall gives it a shot. But contrary to the by-now-apocryphal recounting, he says, It wasnt my first choice by any means. Would you ever consider exhibiting your work at bus stops, in homage to that fateful (if unduly credited) ride from Madrid? No. Im not interested in art in public places unless its really appropriate, like a monumental sculpture thats going to survive out there. I think pictures need shelter. But not, apparently, a bus shelter. In 1978, Wall has his first solo show, at Vancouvers Nova Gallery. The featured piece is a light box transparency, roughly five feet tall, eight across, blocked into the front window of the gallery so that nothing else is visible from the street. The picture, The Destroyed Room, presents a room, destroyed as advertised. Three mud red walls and the pale ceiling of a modest room, complete with a bed, a dresser, and womens clothing. Violence has been done to it allthe furniture, the clothes, the window, wall, and door. The lit scene is particularly jarring at night, especially for passing motorists. A few tire-screeching near misses ensue. The work is purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. Not a bad debut. While The Destroyed Room and A Sudden Gust of Wind are both modeled on paintings, Wall has also drawn on literature to great effect (which is not to say he scribbles in the margins). He makes overt references to other artists in
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Wall looks ov er museum of m a model for his san fran odern art retro cisco spective.

just a handful of his more than 130 works, but among them are two stunning pieces. In a cluttered room, festooned with 1,000 lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling like an upside-down field of bulbed wheat, a man sits in a chair. Its a moment from Ralph Ellisons novel Invisible Man. Another literary ode is an inkjet print of an impossibly elegant young woman in the coach of an ancient car, her back to the viewer, emptying sand from one of her shoes. This one is inspired by a heartwrenching passage from chapter 34 of Spring Snow, by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Like most of his works, these are staged ( for Spring Snow, the dress had to be made, the car manufactured). Do you favor this approach (in contrast, say, with reportage), in part because it doesnt impose on the unsuspecting man on the street who may not wish to be featured in your art? Not in the least. If you walk out on the street, others have the right to photograph you without your permission. If you dont like that, move to a society where no one takes photographs without the states authorization. And he is at pains to point out that, in fact, he does practice straight reportage from time to time. A poignant example, Pleading, features a young couple at night on a city street in the throes of what might be a desperate conversation. I dont think theres any mode of photography that I want to be closed off from. I dont draw any lines between
Photo by Katy raddatz/san francisco chronicle/corbis

What I do is a confusion of intention and accident. Accidents are alway s happenin g and I wor k with them . Im pretty ambivalen t about the idea of co ntrol.

so-called staged and unstaged, documentary and not. What I like about photography is how you can flicker between all these positions and blend them and never settle on one necessarily. He sees what he does as having a relationship to reportage, not an abandonment of it. Reportage itself, he notes, isnt always pure. These are just nuances of practice inside of what photography is. They blend into each other very quickly. For example, if youre out on the sidewalk trying to take street photographs and you point the camera at someone and they notice you and they do something, even if they just somehow respond to you, youve created a collaboration with that person. Theyre performing. Its the thinnest of differences. To Walls evident irritation, a failure to grasp this fuels the most common misconception of his work: I have a reputation for somehow controlling everything in my work, to the last inch. Thats the most prevalent clich that I hear and read all the time. The most inaccurate thing thats said about what I do. Which is? What I do is a confusion of intention and accident. Hired performers, for instance, dont always behave as directed, or dont always interpret directions as one might expect. Accidents are always happening and I work with them. Im pretty ambivalent about the idea of control. Often I create it so I can play with it and then let it go. Theres no denying that his process is intriguing. Some of his pieces take years to come together. But he rails against the current fascination with going behind the scenes, a trend encouraged by the plethora of DVD extras accompanying every new movies release. Now people just want to be insiders. Wall urges spectators to learn to enjoy their status, to butt outfor their own goodof the artists

Jeff Wall
business as he goes about it. Theyre in the privileged position of just enjoying the result. What that result means to the artist, or how he achieved it, is decidedly second rate, and perhaps entirely discountable information. To hear an artist declaim authoritatively on the creation or significance of a work is, in Walls view, an impingement on the freedom of the viewer, which is really the single most important thing about art. This concentration on the notion that you might know how a thing was made is a distraction. Whats wonderful about the spectator is that hes not an insider. But he can become an insider by being a great spectator. Some of Walls pieces have gone for upward of a million dollars. Has success affected your work? I made my pictures with very little money at the beginning and I could make them that way now if I had to. And I dont mind the idea of doing it that way. Im still capable of going back to where I was in 1980, scuffling around the street by myself. In terms of the financial part, thats great: I have a studio, I employ people, I dont have to carry heavy objects. But if I had to, Id do it. I dont think its made my work any better. What about critical success? There, he says, things just get harder. If you accomplish something and raise your standards, then theyre that high and they cant get lower. If it wouldnt get harder it would probably get boring, so Im quite happy with that. But its easy to believe that youre really good because people say you are. And thats not in your interests as an artist. So I am wary that way. Despite his earlier protestation, there is a perfectly good reason for Walls disinterest in engaging in self-reflexive interpretation at the moment. He is intensely focused on completing the work for his London show, slated for October (which, among other things, makes him exceedingly difficult to pin down for a conversation). When Ive been struck by a subject, I know that subject has meaning which could be unraveled by people who are interested in meaning. But at the moment I dont want to think about meaning very much. Because I know that the goodness of the picture will reveal the meaning. And if the pictures not good, then of course it wont have any meaning that anyone cares about. So for me, its rolled up in the quality of the work. If its successful, then meaning will emerge. But Im happy for it to emerge for other people. Generous with his time, Wall now signals that the discussion is drawing to a close. He has to get back to work. And to do soat least for nowwithout thinking too much, or at all, about what it means.
Winter 2011 lifestyles magazine

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