Magazine article Artforum International

Being There: Michael Fried on Two Pictures by Jeff Wall

Magazine article Artforum International

Being There: Michael Fried on Two Pictures by Jeff Wall

Article excerpt

THINKING ABOUT Jeff Wall's most recent exhibition in New York, a show of light-box pictures at Marian Goodman Gallery last spring, has led me to reflect on the more philosophical or, say, ontological turn his work has taken during the past four or five years. The central image in the show was Fieldwork. Excavation of the floor of a dwelling in a former Sto:Io nation village, Greenwood Island, Hope, University of California at Los Angeles, working with Riley Lewis of the Sto:Io band, 2003. For all the information the title provides, it doesn't quite say everything. The picture offers us a largely downward view into and across a clearing in a forest where two men are at work. One of the men is seated cross-legged on the ground (actually, he sits on a wooden "mat") before a squarish hole, perhaps a foot and a half deep, which even without the title is recognizable as the product of meticulous excavation. A second man, Lewis, stands about fifteen feet away, looking on as Graesch concentrates on his task (taking soil samples, apparently). The clearing itself gives the impression of being partly man-made: Certainly, some preliminary ground preparation and digging have taken place, and the site has been tagged with bits of orange plastic that make vivid color accents against the deep green of foliage. Orange and yellow plastic pails and a blue dustpan are also crucial to the pictorial effect, as are the wooden mats that radiate outward from the hole for the practical purpose of keeping workers from disturbing the ground but which here serve the pictorial function of directing the viewer's attention to the central motif. There is also a second squarish hole, farther away and to the left of the first, partly obscured by the seated anthropologist. The overall effect is calm, contemplative, absorptive, even as the not inconsiderable distance of the viewer (who is, in the first place, the photographer) precludes all possibility of identification with the two men.

As anyone who has been following Wall's art will have recognized, Fieldwork is an example of the pictorial mode he calls "near documentary," which he has described as "claim[ing] to be a plausible account of, or a report on, what the events depicted are like, or were like, when they passed without being photographed." This description exactly characterizes another recent work, A woman with a covered tray, 2003, that is based on an incident Wall actually saw but which he made in collaboration with the young woman depicted in it through a process of trial and error (having the young woman walk toward the camera, then having her walk away from it, taking innumerable shots in search of just the right image). The final image also required the subsequent putting together of the two basic elements it comprises, the young woman and the house-and-garden setting, with the aid of computer technology. Fieldwork, on the other hand, is not a reenactment of an event but rather a depiction--I don't quite wish to say a straight photograph--of a scene actually taking place just as it appears to us (maybe "near near documentary" is how we should think about it). Wall spent three weeks at the site, first erecting a scaffolding from which to take pictures and then taking a large number of photographs, the idea being that the men excavating the holes would become so accustomed to his presence as to eventually discount it and behave naturally. There is no reason to doubt that this is more or less what happened, but of course the viewer cannot but be conscious of the photographer's elevated viewpoint, and more broadly of the brilliant artifactual character of the light-box image, including the usual horizontal line dividing the upper and lower sections of the transparency.

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This is not said critically. On the contrary, the essence of Wall's "near documentary" (and now "near near documentary") approach consists precisely in the overt tension between the absorptiveness and antitheatricality of his chosen motifs and the artifactuality and to-be-seen-ness (I'm stopping just short of saying "theatricality") of his autograph means of presentation (perhaps we can think of this as a tension between representation and presentation). …

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