An Interview with Jeff Wall
As a teenager in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, Jeff Wall painted huge canvases—fifteen feet wide and inspired by Robert Motherwell—working out of a shed in his family’s backyard. At the University of British Columbia he experimented in conceptual art, emulating, as one curator later observed, “the flat-footed stylelessness of technical manuals, cheap brochures, and the most banal diagrams and photographs.” When he was twenty-three, his roughly assembled black-and-white pamphlet Landscape Manual was included in a landmark conceptualism exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1970 he started, then abandoned, a PhD in art history at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art; his proposed thesis delved into Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. He returned to Canada, taught, and figured he might make a film.
But when he “drifted into” photography (as he recently put it), he came to realize he could use the medium to address all of the complex and seemingly conflicting ideas that had absorbed him for years—aspects of the old pictorial tradition, film, and the avant-garde. His first solo show, at a small Vancouver gallery in 1978, signaled the arrival of an important, fully formed artist. Before the show ended, his breakthrough work, The Destroyed Room, had been bought by the National Gallery of Canada. (In 2006, the photograph would grace the cover of a Sonic Youth album with the same title.) Along with a small circle of his contemporaries, Wall would transform photography into a natural peer of the painterly tradition: landscapes, still lifes, and, most famously, exquisitely staged (and often digitally crafted) scenes, in which the real and the imagined exist seamlessly side by side. Wall called his art “cinematography.” For many years, his pictures were exhibited as large color transparencies mounted on fluorescent light boxes. Their size suggested the grandeur of oil painting from centuries past—but they glowed like bus-top advertisements.
Wall is obsessed by each tiny detail—a pose, a sliver of shade. But he’s also preoccupied by the sheer physical beauty of a picture, whether it’s of a pile of logs or a scene from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. His subjects aren’t easily bound together. His early work tackled larger philosophical issues—in the history of art, but also in Marxist and feminist theory.
Wall and I first met at one of his Vancouver studios in the spring of 2013. His hair, brushed back, fell to his shoulders. He looked smart: jeans, sneakers, cardigan. He was in the middle of two new projects, neither of which he was prepared to discuss. His photographs take months to complete and the process is like that of making a film. He builds sets. He hires casting agents. He spends weeks getting ready. Afterward, the editing might be just as laborious. Wall owns four buildings in this neighborhood, the Downtown Eastside, each suited to a different aspect of his picture-making operation.
We met again a few weeks later, then emailed on and off. Later, we revisited the transcript of our initial conversations. He was extremely courteous, then he began to emend, elide, and query nearly the entire text. Not a single minute matter escapes his eye.
I. TELLTALE TINGLE
THE BELIEVER: You work in so many different ways now. You might go in any number of directions, no matter how you come to a subject—whether it’s from a book, your imagination, or the streets.
JEFF WALL: It’s a real gift to find a subject that opens a door to something I want to do. Because I don’t usually go out with my camera in the streets, I don’t have a known starting point. Some photographers who have more of a set way of working will get up in the morning and think, Today I’m going to look at people at work or people at the circus, or something like that. They will have some kind of way of getting started, and that works for them. For me, it’s all totally random. I have to see something that becomes inescapable, unavoidable somehow. And as you say, it could be something I read, I see, a daydream, a memory.
BLVR: You’re speaking fundamentally about content.
JW: Yes, but that content has to lead to making a certain kind of picture possible. The subject must disclose something about me and about the world, but it also has to reveal an opportunity for a picture that I didn’t realize I could or wanted to make. That theme, whatever it may be, strictly speaking, can only be treated perfectly in one picture—if there’s such a thing as “perfectly.” I’m convinced about the singularity of pictures. I don’t see any reason to make more than one image of a subject, to make a series. I feel that each theme has one essential realization, for me, at least.
BLVR: You’ve said that you’re always hunting.
JW: Hunting. Musing. Drifting about. Everything I’m seriously thinking about—what art should be, has been, could be, might be, and ought to be—is playing a role in that process. There are sort of different wheels turning at the same time to create that energy. The subject is already not just the “subject”; it’s a coalescence of other things that you wanted to have happen as a picture, but you don’t necessarily know what they are.
BLVR: The majority of your work has been shot in and around Vancouver, yet you’ve always maintained that it has very little to do with the city. How would someone characterize Jeff Wall’s Vancouver?
JW: I would never claim that I’m doing a survey of the townscape of Vancouver. But over the long term, inevitably, some of that will accumulate and people would see it as at least one person’s vision, my response to the place, piece by piece, picture by picture, without any overall program of carrying that out systematically or archivally. For me, it’s maybe more akin to the way Stendhal described the novel: as a mirror carried by an individual along a muddy road. One person carries the mirror and so it’s tilting this way and that; it changes its angle all the time and it captures instantaneous and fragmentary glimpses of the area. It doesn’t achieve a panorama, just a shard of this, a shard of that, and over time the shards accumulate into some sort of believable ensemble—I guess depending on the character (and the endurance) of the carrier.
I think if my pictures will show anything about Vancouver they will show that only because of the kind of pictures they are. It won’t be because of any aim I had to define Vancouver as a place. As a person I could be interested in that, because I’ve lived here most of my life. But artistically I’m ambivalent about that whole idea. As an artist, I don’t want to depend on any sentimental attachment to the place, any investment in genius loci, because I am more interested in—or maybe more emotionally attuned to—the decay or weakening of those attachments, which is a complex thing. The way we both do and do not live in our place, the way we both need and resist that attachment. I need to keep it indecisive. I guess it has to do with my love-hate [relationship] with Vancouver.
BLVR: So much of your work is a kind of conversation with art itself. Does this come from a conservative place? An implied acceptance of a canon, of the masterworks of art history?
JW: Nobody likes to see himself as “conservative,” because that suggests they’re inhibited, probably less intelligent, afraid to try new things, prejudiced, and hidebound. And, anyway, I don’t accept that being interested in the goodness of art is “conservative”; or, I don’t really know what people mean when they call an artist “conservative.” I’ve always been interested in the goodness of good art. And there are many kinds of good art. When I was a little boy, I knew I could tell what was good.
BLVR: How did this kid figure it out?
JW: How does one know without learning? Judging art is something one does because one loves doing it and so you get to have a sense of what that is after looking, enjoying, experiencing for a while. It can’t be defined, only experienced and judged. Take something canonical, like Picasso’s Gertrude Stein portrait. We’ll say that’s good. It has all the qualities that you could list that are likely to be in good art, if you want to list them. But that’s not really how you do it—you experience it.
BLVR: Nabokov called it the “telltale tingle” at the top of the spine.
JW: That’s the sparkle you feel when you see something that you know is superior. I’ve always admired it. And it always brought me great enjoyment, even as a child looking through art books, never having seen the originals. I know from my own history that it can happen without really learning anything, because I didn’t know anything much. I knew there was an artist called Rembrandt, because his name was right on the page. But I didn’t know any artists, or anything like that. We have had a new and different, even an opposed kind of art for some time now, one that tends to insist that the older kind is too limited and compromised to be valid in culture as it has evolved into the contemporary situation. But I don’t feel that that new version of art has displaced the older one. I think there is a new relationship between these two versions, but the older version remains as valid as ever. But I don’t see that as conservative. I see that kind of art as so alive, and so full of potential, that it has nothing conservative about it.
BLVR: Some people have said that to enjoy your photography, especially the early work, you need to be armed with layers of art history.
JW: That is a cliché that’s grown up around my work over twenty five or thirty years, partly because of a few things I probably shouldn’t have said thirty years ago, and didn’t mean to be eternal guidelines. The great thing about pictorial art is you don’t need any knowledge to enjoy it, if you can enjoy it. If you do enjoy it, there’s no limit to the responses that you can have, or no real order to the directions you could take it in. So the enjoyment that you have in art irradiates you in a way, gives you energy, stimulates you. When you then turn away from the picture, turn back to your everyday life, you take some of those feelings with you. What you do with those feelings—and any insight they lead to—is unpredictable. Some will become curious and want to know more about the art. Some will find that their curiosity is displaced from the art and goes into other domains, and shows them that they can approach their everyday problems in more-creative ways. I believe art does have a consciousness-raising quality, but it’s not controlled. It’s not determinate. Every person takes it in in a different way. You never really know what an art experience that really moves you is going do for you. It will emerge in unanticipated ways.
II. “ANGER IS NOT THE MOST MEMORABLE THING”
BLVR: Your old friend, the artist Roy Arden, has written about seeing The Destroyed Room when it was first shown, in Vancouver in 1978: he was in his car, captivated, as he drove by this entirely new, illuminated image in the gallery’s front window. For many who saw that first show, the reaction was immediate, visceral.
JW: Well, at that time, yeah, because the light box was so unusual. But after not so long that became something I began to dislike about the reception of my work.
BLVR: But with that first show, it wasn’t just the light box. You’d also mounted The Destroyed Room right up in the front window facing a busy street.
JW: You’ll notice I never did that again.
BLVR: I’m assuming many people shared Roy’s reaction.
JW: Yes, and that was fine. But when I thought about it critically I realized that it wasn’t how I wanted to present my pictures. This is special pleading, making things seem more exciting than they really are, et cetera. So I moved away from it almost immediately to the most sober presentation of a picture on a wall, even if it happened to be a light box.
BLVR: Now some people seem preoccupied with other questions. They wonder what is real and what isn’t, what is predetermined and what is spontaneous. You’ve tried to be clear—dividing the work into two strands, the documentary and the cinematographic. Yet the question persists: if one picture is staged, are they all staged, to one degree or another?
JW: If you saw, let’s say, Rainfilled Suitcase hanging on the wall, would it really, seriously strike you as something that I would have set up when things like that are obviously available every day of the year to any and all photographers? So on huge balance of probability, knowing that I claim I don’t construct everything, why would we think that would be staged? That’s why I thought to designate the pictures with the two terms documentary and cinematographic. And what I mean by documentary is what everyone means by documentary. I didn’t do anything; I just shot what I saw. And cinematographic means I did something. In principle it doesn’t matter what I did, just that I did something. All photography actually breaks down more or less that way.
For most of its history, photography was something that could be seen to be happening when it was happening, because the equipment was large and prominent and normally wasn’t concealed. Whoever was being photographed was aware of being photographed, because the photographer was in plain view. Therefore the notion of collaboration and even of performance was there within the nature of the photographic situation from the very beginning. We cannot expunge it. But the reportage tradition attempted to do that by reducing or suppressing that element of the visibility of the apparatus. So [Henri] Cartier-Bresson got a small camera and he worked hard to make himself almost invisible while working, and he did it wonderfully. But that performance was necessary in order to suppress something that is inherent in the nature of the medium. Of course, that suppression, too, is inherent in the nature of the medium. So the medium does not have a single nature, a unilateral identity. And if you take it from there, you can see how the door opens to other ways of practicing photography. They don’t cancel reportage. They say nothing against it.
BLVR: Your recent photographs seem to have shed the more allusive and polemical aspects of your earlier work.
JW: I’d like to think my work’s changed over the years. I think there was a polemical side to my pictures when I first started making them. I was a polemical person then, and I like that about the early pictures. But it was a polemical time. There was a struggle to establish this other legitimacy for photography. And that was an exciting thing to be involved in.
I think of those pictures as extremely mannerist, very literary. They probably provoke referentiality, although they don’t necessarily impose it. Take The Destroyed Room as an example. If you didn’t know who Delacroix was, who cares, really; it doesn’t really matter. But I put it out there. I even published a catalog with all the references right in there. It was never a secret. I’m not an allegorist. I’m not trying to create a complicated thing for only a certain kind of person to know. Anyone can know. I would go back to doing that kind of thing again tomorrow if the right thing came up. But I don’t think we need to argue for the validity of the singular photograph any longer. That argument’s been completed.
BLVR: You recently said that when you work, you discover things. You’ve been at this for nearly forty years. What have you learned about yourself?
JW: I feel I was always a more affectionate person than I thought I was. I think picture-making is an expression of affection, for the being of the things that get pictured. All the greatest art shows that above anything else—how happy the artist is that that thing is. Just the way the musician is joyful that that set of sounds exists. I think the arts are an expression of immense joyfulness and gratitude that there is a world—this one.
To bring it closer to photography, I will add that I like the fact that some specific entity existed in some specific light. And that’s one of the things that I first want to go through with the viewer: that there is light, that there is space, and then, that there is this light and there is this space. And then there is occurrence, or lack of occurrence. So when I look back on my older pictures, like Mimic, which is about an angry incident, or an occurrence of anger or rage, it doesn’t seem like an angry picture to me. It seems like a tranquil picture of a specific space with a specific light in which a hostile occurrence is taking place. But the hostility is not the picture.
BLVR: Isn’t this sentiment sneaking in—just a fond memory of what it was like to be in your mid-thirties?
JW: No. But when I recall making that picture, I might have felt I was doing what an angry and critical artist would do, which was to force into the face of his viewers something that would disturb and alarm and alienate them, and thereby make them see something he thinks they need to see even if he thinks they don’t want to. That’s not an uncommon attitude. And when I made that picture, I might have thought I thought that. But when I look back to the picture as a picture, and look back on the fact that the picture was the key thing for me from the very beginning, then I feel I couldn’t have really been that angry—because I wouldn’t have made pictures that way if I was that angry. I don’t think that anger plays a significant role in our pictorial culture. Was Goya angry when he did The Third of May? Yes, when he painted the executions, he was angry about what happened to Spain but his anger is not the most memorable thing about the painting.
BLVR: Was Picasso angry when he did Guernica?
JW: Guernica is a protest and a lament. And as such it also has to be an accusation. And it’s true that it is not tranquil, structurally, the way a photograph almost always is. But the accused is not shown in Guernica. Maybe Picasso felt the way I feel—that whatever appears in the painting has to be treated with the same regard, the same affection. You cannot paint the accused with less devotion than the victim.
III. “THE SEQUENCE OF JUDGMENTS”
BLVR: You’ve been thinking about art since you were a little boy. What would the fourteen-year-old Jeff Wall have thought of your photographs?
JW: All I would hope is that he’d think, Oh, those are good. I think all artists want to be among the good artists. They don’t have to be the best artists. I think that slightly phony Oedipal avant-garde thing tells you that you have to overcome and kill the previous generation.
BLVR: Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.”
JW: I’ve never felt that very strongly. Maybe it’s because I got along with my father extremely well and I never wanted to get rid of him. I’ve never really identified another artist as a father figure in that overpowering way, so I’ve never been afraid of them or resented them. I’ve always admired the artists I’ve admired, never wanted to displace them. I just wanted to be accepted by them. I feel like they’re people I would like to have been able to know. And in the ’60s and ’70s, when artists were using really militant language against the previous generations, I clearly remember thinking that I couldn’t relate to and didn’t appreciate that attitude.
One artist being good doesn’t rule out another one who’s very different being just as good. Maybe if you’re reinventing art with each new work, in the Duchampian line, you might have a more stressful relationship to art, because you’ve got to cancel the previous definition to some extent. Or at least put it into doubt, critique it in some way. But I don’t think that picture-making really critiques other picture-making. I think it’s more a rediscovery by every new person of a broad and almost ageless process or art form, because it’s such a completely open field that when a new person comes along with something new to offer, it just becomes part of the mandala. It doesn’t have to force its way in. It simply has to survive the sequence of judgments, which is of course the difficult part. But let’s assume that it can do that. Then that new person comes to belong to that group of people who’ve done great things. And they’re there as a new member. But in that process no one got pushed out, no one had to be eliminated. And no one’s work became bad because that new one emerged as good.
BLVR: I don’t mean to be trite, but I suspect that time will be the ultimate guide.
JW: Time in this context takes the form of the sequence of judgments. Art is always about judgment. Enjoyment of a work of art in any medium is also simultaneously a judgment of it. And judging is assessing and comparing and, in a way, moving slowly toward this never concretely achievable consensus that classical aesthetics talks about: that the consensus will emerge and a canon emerges through that consensus. But it’s never definitive, and it’s never complete. It’s always debatable. It’s about the outcome of the judgments that people make about what you do that gives you the only indication that you can have about whether what you’ve done is worth anything. And the only way you can assess that, or interpret it, is sometimes even just to assess the nature of the people who are making the judgments. If, for instance, I see someone who really dislikes what I do, I might pay attention to them, but I want to size them up, to see whether they are making a judgment from any evolved position that could matter. Because many people aren’t really interested in making their own judgments. They prefer to repeat existing judgments, which of course means they are not really judging, which means they are not really experiencing, not really enjoying.
But this is all a very uncertain and complicated process until at some point it becomes obvious with some artists that we know that there’s no real debate anymore. But at the same time, if a person looks at a Matisse and goes, “Oh, that’s a great Matisse,” and doesn’t experience it for themselves, then they don’t judge it. So they never know it—because you have to judge it yourself again; every time you see it, you have to judge again, what this work means to you, and then you’re really living with it. If you don’t do that, then you’re not. So even though the debate is “officially” over with the obvious figures, it’s not over for any individual.
But time is like a big, fairly rough grinding wheel that just keeps grinding at one’s accomplishments and wears most of them away. And there’s nothing any artist can do about it except try and do their best work and see what happens. But the process in which it happens is really always in those judgments. And there’s a kind of truth value in them that emerges, usually slowly but not always. We know there are figures like Picasso around whom the consensus formed very quickly and will never be disturbed. But when there’s too much of a consensus, it does tend to create a shield, or a kind of mask, over the art. And you have to see it again. That’s the excitement for the viewer.