Jeff Wall – intimate alienation

I still remember well when I first came into contact with works by Jeff Wall at the MoMa in 2007. The MoMa had dedicated an exhibition to the Canadian photo artist (born 1946 in Vancouver). Large-format photographs illuminated by bulky light boxes. The then familiar, characteristic color nuances of pre-digital photography did not yet seem as distant as they do today.

The photographs immediately worked like a pack of prodepressants – and yet they had a magical power to captivate the viewer.

So now, Jeff Wall can be seen in the Collection of Modern Art at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.

Eager museum-goers are probably familiar with the work “An Eviction,” which was purchased in 1992.

In many ways, Jeff Wall could be considered a pioneer. As one of the first people to illuminate their photographs with light boxes as early as the 1970s, he established a direct link to the advertising methods commonly used at the time. While these – little different from today’s messages – propagated the fulfillment of private and individual happiness, Wall’s work always referred to alienation. Topics such as the isolation of the individual through globalization and urbanization had an almost prophetic character. Other themes such as social violence, brutalization and brutality seem to be gaining renewed relevance after a period of bourgeois prosperity. Many a scene from the 1970s could be re-staged in many American suburbs without much effort. However, the photographs only acquire their documentary character through the temporal distance with which we look back on one or the other quite disconcerting scenery today. For Jeff Wall, the human being, the individual, has always been the focus of his interest. Perhaps it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head when I’m tempted to make a reference to romanticism. On the other hand, Jeff Wall’s involvement with art history is obvious: the photograph “The Thinker”, which is also shown here, establishes a direct reference to the sculpture of the same name by Auguste Rodin. In other works, too, references to artists of other epochs, such as Manet or Delacroix, can be found. At the beginning of the article, I described Jeff Wall as a pioneer. In fact, he was already working with digital retouching back then. Some works consist of individual photographs that have been masterfully and almost invisibly assembled into one. In this approach, he sees himself in the tradition of John Heartfield, who became famous for his montage techniques (and whose work “Adolf the Superhuman – swallows gold and talks tin”, which I saw at the Great Art Exhibition in Berlin in 2000, is so etched into my memory that I can show it here without doing any research – this is only mentioned in passing).

Many of his works are also meticulously planned and the compositions constructed. Thus, many of the human protagonists of his illustrations are not accidental visitors to the subject, as it may seem. Rather, he arranges the persons as in illustrations of historical paintings.

And what does all this have to do with us? – I have no answer to that. As a Central European socialized in the bourgeoisie, the work remains a great deal foreign to me. It’s like looking into another reality. A reality that is not mine. Almost a warning, a social appeal or the simple realization: man is alone, alone, alone. In a noticeably unhealthy way, I still like the photographs.

∗Tobias Vetter