Installation view of Jeff Wall’s solo exhibition at White Cube, Hong Kong, 2015. Copyright the artist and White Cube. Courtesy White Cube. 

JEFF WALLChanging Room, 2014, inkjet print, 199.5 × 109 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

Jeff Wall

White Cube
Canada Hong Kong

Careers spanning several decades understandably undergo vast changes and reinventions. However, at no expense of relevance, Canadian artist Jeff Wall’s artistic philosophy has stayed steady for nearly 50 years. His output of large-scale, photographic tableaus since the 1970s has remained deliberate, calculated and fiercely respectful of his chosen medium.

Wall is one of the forefathers of photoconceptualism, a movement that prioritized the intellectual content of photographs over aesthetics while acknowledging photography’s original documentary function. Known for his hyper-staged, hyper-real photographs, Wall began his career with color transparency lightboxes, most notably The Destroyed Room (1978), which pictured a sitting room torn to shreds by an unseen imposter, and Picture for Women (1979), an image that reflects the composition and pose of Manet’s 1882 painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Formally educated in art history rather than photography, Wall makes work that borrows from paradigms of painting and filmmaking: the setting is carefully composed, from which elaborate narratives are constructed. Figures are positioned in his tableaus so as to most effectively interact with one another and the viewer. Even the scale of his photographs is reminiscent of history paintings: “I thought, for my purposes, that . . . photography needed to be made visible at the scale of the human body, the scale of natural vision, a scale by which painting had mastered.”

In the decades since these early works, Wall has come to be known as a pioneer of a quasi-documentary photographic style that elaborately restages real and imagined happenings: an Indigenous woman beneath an overpass recounting a story to listeners showing varying degrees of interest; or dozens of fallen soldiers conversing while lying dead in a muddy trench. Each shot is painstakingly developed over long hours and with the help of intricate lighting systems and an enormous crew. Wall has said that stumbling onto the scene of one of his photographs being taken is like walking onto a movie set. While his subject matter may sometimes seem mundane, such as his photographs of everyday street scenes, his images often exude a sense of unease and disquiet. Drawing on the complexities of human behavior, natural beauty and urban decay, the images invite a closer look at everyday life to “reactivate our visual awareness” by presenting what he calls “a combination of absolutely concrete and specific things created by no one and everyone, all of which becomes available when it is unified into a picture.”

JEFF WALLListener, 2015, inkjet print, 159.4 × 233 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

Wall’s exhibition at White Cube in Hong Kong includes new works made over the last 18 months, shown at Marian Goodman Gallery in London and New York. Several new large inkjet prints—taken between Vancouver and Los Angeles—populate the walls at White Cube. Changing Room (2014) depicts a woman in a cubicle pulling an animal print garment onto her body, abstracting her figure and obscuring her face. Her identity fluctuates between human and beast, as the image subtly questions whether members of our species are just animals dressed up as people—brutish, opportunistic and violent. Listener (2015) pictures a shirtless man on his knees, circled by intimidating-looking men, the scene lingering on the precipice of a larger and likely bloody event. The scene is charged with an anxiety of power imbalance. Wall’s obsession with composition is evident in the way that only one eye of a supposed assailant glares out towards the onlooker from the left of the photograph’s frame, revealing just enough information about his character to heighten onlookers’ interest. Taking on a timely quality is the work Approach (2014), which shows a homeless woman looking at a makeshift cardboard shelter out of which a single shoe emerges. The viewer is unable to determine whether the footwear is discarded or belongs to a sleeping person. While revealing little about the process, or whether the woman is an actor or not, Wall has said that he took over a month to make the image in Los Angeles, a city which recently declared a state of emergency to address its rampant homelessness.

The photographs included in the exhibition, interestingly shown in three major international shows, call forward larger political implications of social responsibility and human nature. Viewing the Hong Kong show, I was reminded of Wall’s earlier work Mimic (1982)—not included at White Cube—in which the grubbily-dressed male half of a couple, walking behind an Asian man in an industrial area, slanting his own eye upward using his middle finger, imitating the Asian man’s appearance in a violent and racist gesture. Like this monumental image, Wall’s new works remind his audience to consider their everyday circumstances, and to stay critically aware of what happens just out of view.

JEFF WALLApproach, 2014, silver gelatin print, 188.3 × 240.9 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy White Cube, Hong Kong. 

Jeff Wall’s solo exhibition is on view at White Cube, Hong Kong, until January 23, 2016.