Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall, Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

Jeff Wall and His (Critique of Contemporary) Photography as Art

The fact that an artist is discussing with other art critics about his own works – and about the art itself – shows how contemporary art is conceptual or intellectual, though indeed they were talking about the conceptual aspect of contemporary art. It was not disturbing for me to follow the way in which the artist sometimes explains his works and their political-historical environment and sometimes defend and appropriate the cultural-theoretical situations his works located. However, it was a little prickly when the discussions were overwhelmingly overstating or over-signifying about what the real artwork is – that is to be very ambiguous and changing. Most of all, it was a very confusing experience to read a written work (critique) by the artist – who is saying here, Wall as an artist or as an art critic?

As an artist, he is feeling the tension between form and content, which is somehow reflected in his works. Thought it is not clear from the reading how he go through and make it an artwork, I’ve heard that his work requires extraordinary endeavor and labor as well as extravagant time and money. Almost all the works are produced through the intentional settings and the elaborate direction by artist: studio setting, digitalization, tens of performers, long-time field work and so on. His works are big enough to fill the wall of gallery as if they are the Baroque masters’ works in size. Interestingly his works are, like street advertising, positively printed on transparent film (Cibachrome) and framed on fluorescent backlight box.

While his innovation in the form of contemporary photography is clearly significant, it is still not obvious why he works in that way. If I complain like a modern consumer of the arts, it is difficult to understand the meaning his works bear. That is because they are not manifestative. Thus they are abstract, or rather “conceptual.” Nonetheless, the features in his works – even though staged or dramatized – make certain gestures (“Gestus”?) as if they are performers on the stage or actors in cinema. As The Storyteller is trying to do, his works seem to talk or to want to communicate something strange within and without the frame. Then his works are provided as a sort of drama, or they are “cinematic.” But it is still ambiguous what sense or meaning do gestures in the cinematic drama emit or whether they are intended certain non-sense. If I follow Serge Guilbaut in an interview with him, “this redefinition of the parameters of renewed critical type of art after the implosion of Conceptual and post-Conceptual attempts is … if not impossible, certainly difficult at least”(223).

Jeff Wall’s writings and interviews provided a chance for me to think about the role of art critic in contemporary society as well as the function of art. They were also helpful for me to draw a conceptual map where his works are located. According to my reading, he has respected Delacroix, Poussin, Velasquez, and Manet, has been inspired by avant-garde arts in the 1920s and theories of Benjamin, Bakhtin, and the Frankfurt School, and has been in the lineage of Conceptual Art (or post-Conceptual Art) in the 60s and the 70s – which might be shared its problems with Minimal art and Pop art.  He began his career in painting, but was converted to photography: “I was exiled into photography” (204). For him, who “wanted to remain in the world of imagery, photography seemed like the only open space” (203), under the age of “high modernist” painting.

As both an artist and an art critic, he (and his interviewers) goes over diverse themes such as subjective position, capitalism and art, representation, consumption, and so on. According to his discursive explanation, his political art photographs seem to be close to the artists social-cultural-political researches (or experiments), rather than themselves critiques of society. I mean that his photography works are not (cannot be) political practices per se, though it is not clear whether he intends to perform political art through the theoretical militarization. I was wondering why he was not a militant Marxist photographer who takes documentary pictures accusing the degenerated capitalist society where bourgeois culture dominates and fetishistic consumption prevails. Are his photographic works as great as his discursive critique? Are his works really political, revolutionary, and alternative? Why are his political art works not constructed in the form of documentary?

Though there is various opinions about whether art is a tool for the critique or for the domination (ruling), contemporary art has inherited a critical function for society (or the political which enables the social) from the 19th and 20th century avant-garde and modernist arts – indeed, art’s critical function is already melt in its concept and practice. Thus, critical (contemporary) art is tautological. Art – avant-garde or modernist – has been a relentless process of realization of revolutionary concepts. How to keep revolutionizing the social and cultural lives was its main problem.  Political art, revolutionary art, new art has been always turned into the object to overcome by fetishizing and reproducing itself.  Is that the reason why he adheres both to art practice and to art critique, and thus to reworking of the field of art history, in order not to be objectified in the late capitalism?  For me, though he argues that “critique suggests alternatives, and without the composition of alternatives, even speculative ones, critique loses its reason for existing” (216), he seems hesitating or lost (still!) between the “regime of representation” and the “regime of distribution.” Put it differently, he might be trapped in the infinite circuit of the contradiction of modern art, especially Conceptual Art, by alternating between art and critique. Nonetheless, that seems to be the only way to resists and protest against the stubborn and aggressive absorption of art into commodity in this capitalist society.



“Photography and Liquid Intelligence”

          “…inter-relation between liquid intelligence and optical intelligence in photography, or in technology as a whole. In photography, the liquids study us, even from a great distance.”(110).


“About Making Landscape”

          Plato in The Statesman: “… the excellence of beauty of every work of art is due to this observance of measure.”

          Idealist, rationalist aesthetics à capitalist or anticapitalist modernity (the most striking feature of modernity – “unevenness”)

          Overdevelopment – mannerist, Baroque hypertrophy and exaggeration, postmodern “cyberspace”

          Underdevelopment – poetics of inconclusiveness, secessionist rural pathos, “Arte Povera”

          “The measure and proportions of the picture themselves imply, and reflect, the serenity of ideal social relations”(170).

          Tension between form and Content

          Landscape – “gesture of leave-taking, or, alternatively, of approach or encounter.”

          Certain distance – “we have to calculate certain quantities and distances in order to be in a position to formulate an image of this type, especially in photography, with its spherical optics and precise focal lengths”(171).

          “It is only at a certain distance (and from a certain angle) that we can recognize the character of the communal life of the individual – or communal reality of those who appear so convincingly under other conditions to be individuals.”

          Modernist social and cultural critiques and theories have concentrated on revealing the social semblance, the social mask, of liberal idealism’s most important phantom, the “subject,” sovereign, individuated, and free.”

          “In modernity’s landscapes, figures, beings, or persons are made visible as they vanish into their determinations, or emerge from them – or more likely, as they are recognized in the moment of doing both simultaneously. Thus they are recognized as both free and unfree; or possibly misrecognized, first as unfree, then as free, and so on.”


“Representation, Suspicions, and Critical Transparency” (interview)

·         Critique and art (photography):

          As an artist and an art critic, where is Jeff Wall’s position?

          Subject positions – presence of author’s subjectivity in photographs?

          “Critique suggests alternatives, and without the composition of alternatives, even speculative ones, critique loses its reason for existing” (216).

          “My work comes out of the process of experimental critique, but is itself an experimental critique of aspects of that process”(216).


·         Art and politics (Capitalism and representation)

          A critique of late capitalism / a determination to hold on to a critical idea of capitalism (206).

          Suspicion of the artworks in the late ’60s early ’70s: “The work of art was seen as implicated in a regime of representation and a regime of distribution, and was thought of as perhaps an entity to be criticized among others as belonging to the capitalist field”(206).

          Lorenzetti’s Allegory of the good and bad government…

          “social realism …as the other side of the coin of modernist art” (206).

          Artistic subject (the unified subject, the monadic person) in representational art and the ideology of the individual, “the legal person who is a legal possessor of property”(216).

          “Iconophobic representation”(215).

          Peter Burger…  “… the avant-garde as a movement expressing and reflecting this desire to pass beyond the bounds of bourgeois art forms into a new cultural world but becomes fetishically attached to its own arrested state”(217).

          Modernism and Avant-garde

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