MANIFESTO

#63

CHANGE OF SPACE

DAYDREAMS

2024.02.05

Text by Francesca Fontanesi

The exhibition at Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Basel, celebrates the artistic journey of Jeff Wall, a pioneer in photographic metamorphosis. The breadth of subjects in his works almost compels us to crystallize our attention: Wall’s large digital montages demand the ability for meticulous observation to fully digest their meaning.

Transporting viewers through urban landscapes and poetic suggestions, Jeff Wall elevates photography to the most liberated form of art. Since 1970, Wall has explored an indefinite number of ways to expand the artistic possibilities of photography: he himself has defined his work as cinematographic, seeing in cinema a model of creative freedom and invention that was previously stifled in the dominant definition of photography as documentary. Many of his photographs are constructed images that involve particularly extensive planning and preparation, in collaboration with extras and performers: Wall’s images deviate from the idea of photography as a faithful documentation of reality but go beyond the threshold. Born in 1946 in Vancouver, Canada, Wall began to take an interest in photography in the 1960s, at the height of conceptual art. Since the 1970s, he has started producing large transparencies mounted in lightboxes: through this format, previously associated more with advertising than with photography, he inaugurated a new form of artistic exhibition. Around 1990, he expanded his repertoire, first with black and white photographs and later with color prints that became the subject of numerous solo exhibitions worldwide, including the Tate Modern in London (2005), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2007), the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2014), and the Glenstone Museum in Potomac (2021). As Jeff Wall’s imagery evolves between visual documentation, cinematic composition, and poetic license, viewers are forced to confront a wide range of oxymoronic subjects and themes: beauty and ugliness, ambiguity and discomfort, naturalness and artificiality, poverty and wealth, reality and fiction.

Jeff Wall, Overpass, 2001.
Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent loan to the
Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. © Jeff Wall
Jeff Wall, Parent child, 2018.
Courtesy of White Cube. © Jeff Wall
Jeff Wall, The Flooded Grave, 1998–2000.
Courtesy of the artist. © Jeff Wall
Jeff Wall, Boy falls from tree, 2010.
Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent loan to the
Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. © Jeff Wall

“I see photography as a kind of untheorisable medium, a kind of polymorphic, multivocal and multivalent construction.”

– Jeff Wall

The exhibition at Fondation Beyeler, open to the public from January 28 to April 21, 2024, begins with the juxtaposition of two works from 1999: Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona and A Donkey in Blackpool. The first depicts the interior of the German Pavilion in Barcelona, a glass-walled structure designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The minimalist space is illuminated by the bright morning light, and in the foreground, a steel pillar divides the composition almost in half. Beyond the pillar, across a expanse of dark carpet, a custodian is busy cleaning a glass wall. While the rigorous form of the building and its luxurious materials convey a sense of luxury, the presence of the custodian draws attention to the support systems necessary to maintain Mies’s artistic vision, characterized by the principle of less is more. On the other hand, A Donkey in Blackpool captures a stable, an apparently modest but visually rich space, occupied in the foreground by a family animal at rest. The juxtaposition of the two images brings together very different social and cultural worlds but highlights their commonality: both the human and the animal have profound relationships with the interiors that host them. Various echoes resonate with comparisons and parallels.

JEFF WALL, A DONKEY IN BLACKPOOL, 1999. KUNSTMUSEUM BASEL, ACQUIRED WITH THE GOVERNMENT PURCHASE LOAN AND A CONTRIBUTION FROM THE MAX GELDNER FOUNDATION IN 2001. © JEFF WALL

“If I see something on the street, I don’t photograph it. So I could be looking and hunting for things, but I just don’t photograph them. It’s only a small difference. The actual event disappears as a photograph. It vanishes as a potential photograph.”

– Jeff Wall

As in most of Wall’s works, recent photographs are often juxtaposed with older images. Fallen Rider (2022), depicting a woman who has just fallen from a horse, bears a resemblance to War Game (2007), where three young boys, seemingly captured during a combat game, lie prone under surveillance in an improvised prison. In Parent Child (2019), a girl lies on a sidewalk under the gentle shade of a tree, observed by a man, likely her father. Like frames from a film, Wall’s photographs seem to capture a moment in the exact second it unfolds: the before and after remain outside our visual field. However, Maquette for a Monument to the Contemplation of the Possibility of Mending a Hole in a Sock Made in 2023 traps another contemplative figure. An elderly woman with a sewing needle in hand gazes at a hole in the worn heel of a purple sock. The mender appears unreal, distant; before us is only an apparition reminding us of the human sense of uncertainty when the time comes to attempt to repair something that has been used for too long, worn, and damaged.

JEFF WALL, MILK, 1984. COLLECTION FRAC CHAMPAGNE-ARDENNE, REIMS. © JEFF WALL

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) is a massive color photograph displayed inside a lightbox. It depicts a flat yet seemingly infinite landscape where four foreground figures react to a sudden gust of wind. Inspired by a woodcut titled Travellers Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri from Katsushika Hokusai‘s series The Thirty-six Views of Fuji, Wall photographed various actors in a landscape just outside Vancouver, digitally assembling additional elements to achieve this composition. The result is a tableau that appears orchestrated like a classical painting: similar to Hokusai’s original, two men clutch their hats to their heads while a third gazes towards the sky. On the left, a woman’s body is frozen in a state of shock, her head hidden by a scarf around her face. The bundle of papers she held in her hands has been scattered by the gust, and their trajectory, above the image’s center, creates a sense of dynamism. Two nearby trees, also in the foreground, bend under the force of the wind, and leaves mix with the floating papers. In Hokusai’s image, the landscape is a winding path through an area full of bamboo near a lake leading towards Mount Fuji in the distance. In Wall’s version, long green and brown fields overlook a canal. Small shacks, a row of concrete pillars, and some pipes evoke the common imagery of industrial agriculture. The unromantic nature of the landscape is reinforced by a small structure made of corrugated metal in the foreground, and the path on which the figures stand is just an unpaved road extending from one side to the other. There is no sense of connection between the characters, whose positions in the landscape appear almost incongruent. Two of them wear stylish city clothes, exacerbating the viewer’s sense of disorientation.

JEFF WALL, A SUDDEN GUST OF WIND (AFTER HOKUSAI), 1993. GLENSTONE MUSEUM, POTOMAC, MARYLAND. © JEFF WALL

Produced between 1987 and 2005, the works dedicated to urban landscapes incorporate a vast range of urban and suburban areas in Vancouver. Jeff Wall considers urban planning a fundamental aspect of his work, allowing him to explore the essence of cities, their relationship with the surrounding areas, and the nature of a backdrop to an infinite network of events that compose our social life. All these images bring together scenes from very different indoor and outdoor locations, both public and private, featuring groups of men and women, the poor and the wealthy, the young and the old, in both color and black and white, large and small, but above all, they depict various moods, emotions, and relationships. Among these is After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2000), a reconstruction of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel. In the novel, a young African American hides in an underground room in the Harlem neighborhood of New York to write his own story. The prologue of the novel lacks detailed descriptions except for this: 1,369 light bulbs cover the ceiling of the narrator’s hideout. Starting from this detail, Wall imagines in his Vancouver studio the concrete form of the metaphorical space of the story, making visible those who are invisible.

In Wall’s view, the art of photography should be free in its range of subjects and processes, akin to all other art forms: poetic like poetry, literary like the novel, painterly like painting, theatrical like theater, all with the goal of being essentially photographic.

JEFF WALL, AFTER ‘INVISIBLE MAN’ BY RALPH ELLISON, THE PROLOGUE, 1999–2000. EMANUEL HOFFMANN FOUNDATION, ON PERMANENT LOAN TO THE ÖFFENTLICHE KUNSTSAMMLUNG BASEL. © JEFF WALL
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