Remaking history

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), 1993

Although referencing other artworks is perhaps most closely associated with the post-modern practices of the 1970s – think Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince in particular – it’s  a practice widely used in contemporary art. Jeff Wall’s large-scale photographic tableaux, many made in the 1980s and ’90s, could perhaps be seen as a kind of bridge between work that uses appropriation as a way to explore ideas about authorship – a key concern in post-modernism – and work that draws on art history and reworks it, perhaps in an attempt to understand the present by looking at the past. These works – shown as large light-boxes, a form that references advertising but also feels related as closely to cinema as to still photography without actually taking on the expected form of any of these – are both visually stunning and fascinating to look at; the detail is extraordinary and the scale – A Sudden Gust of Wind is roughly 2.5m by 4x – makes it possible to examine even the tiniest details. Though Wall continues to make engaging work, in my view his more recent work – which was one of the first things I wrote about here – isn’t as interesting as the earlier tableaux.

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Fact and fiction: Jeff Wall at White Cube

Jeff Wall, Hillside near Ragusa, 2007

I went to Jeff Wall’s show at White Cube unsure quite what to expect. At some point when I wasn’t paying attention, Wall left behind the elaborate tableaux and sometimes less than obvious references to the history of painting and started to tell different stories – somehow simultaneously simpler and more complex – through his photographs. The work here is from two separate bodies of work that feel in some ways as though they could have been made by two different people.

In the ground floor space there are three photographs of the Sicilian landscape. Described as ‘documentary pictures’ in the press release, these tell of a landscape fundamentally unchanged over time but one in which the modern world is nonetheless constant visual presence. The drystone walls in Hillside near Ragusa might have been there for centuries staying low to blend into their surroundings; man is not a recent incomer to this place. By contrast, the electricity pylons stride across the hillside with a confidence that its natural inhabitants – the short, windswept trees growing on the low ground – don’t seem to share.

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