"It's more interesting to look at the picture as a representation than to look at the event as an event." Jeff Wall
Certainly if the average person were to describe the event recreated in Wall's "Morning Cleaning" below courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, it most likely would not evoke anywhere near the response the photograph does. Seeing it so small, on a blog, really does it a disservice since the beauty of the photograph is in the depth of the shadows and light, barely discernible here on the chair legs, in the drops of soapy water on the window in the shade. But Wall's ability to bring the quotidian, the domestic, and the banal to life is no small part of his appeal I suspect. As is his ability to include so much of the various depths available to the eye at a given moment, as he does here. This is one of my favourite Wall photos, but yes, there are many in that category.
What makes the photograph work? Or, what gives me pleasure in viewing it? First of all it's an exquisite location. The marble wall inside contrasts so beautifully with the wall outside. There appears to be a reflecting pool outside, and the black carpet on the inside also seems to be a pool. The luscious red curtains, the irregularly placed chairs--a style that seems to sum up the last decade of conspicuous design consumption.
There is then, the beauty of composition and the sense of spontaneity that seems to inhabit all Wall photographs, or at least the ones he stages. Like all good writers, or artists, his work seems to be "carrying on" now, to exist in a kind of continuous present. The work is framed mid-action so there is immediately a sense of narrative, a bracket of questions that lead to an extended viewing. Really, what one notices when one is in a gallery of Wall's work is how long people stand, staring.
This quality translates to narrative and poetry as well. One thinks of the work of Lisa Robertson for example, the layers of compression, the intensely knit images. The fact that one is abstract and one is, well, what? Is it hyper-realism? In any case, it's not the aesthetic practice under scrutiny here it is the quality of absorption as Michael Fried has noted, the percentage of thought and visual intensity that creates a visual or literary event one can sink into.
There is mystery too. Fried points out the degree to which the human figure in this image is immersed in his work. This is not confined to "Morning Cleaning" by any means, all of Wall's images reflect an intense level of emotion that seems impossible to stop. The work then, even when it is still as it seems to be here, is always forward moving.
This aspect, doubled with the sense of intellectual depth apparent in the composition and attention of the work, creates, as does the work of poets such as Erin Moure or Lisa Robertson, a sense of walking into a space that has been and will be and is available for you to inhabit as well. Fried is right, it is absorptive, but it's also inhabitable. We are all ready inside the frame.
Too much work I encounter forgets this. One wants to engage, one wants to be teased, one wants to find something new when he or she returns to the work. The figure in the garden, for example, only seemed obvious to me after several encounters. The patterns in the marble, they too teased themselves out over time. As did the contrast between the opulent setting and the rather rudimentary, poorly designed cleaning bucket, the rag on the floor beside it. These are key features of the Wall photograph. The bit of ugly, the glitch, the torn, the sweeper, the tender, the constant reminder that things are being made, unmade and tended is always an aspect of his work, even in the more conventional photographs such as "Diagonal Composition no. 3," 2000, which features a bucket, a mop, a floor that will never be cleaned, and again in "Volunteer, 1996," which may in fact feature the same bucket and mop, this time in a community center.
A further note on this level of absorption. It can't be added "after the fact." The thinking of a piece of art is not tonal. No matter how emphatically one reads a poem that does not have intellectual or emotional depth, it will not magically appear. And why would one want to do that? One thing that artists such as Wall make very clear is that it is in the layers of preparation and in many ways, the daily labour, that the stunning is laid into a work.
Not to say that the stunning can't be captured in an instant. I'm sure it can. Particularly after the kind of dedication that we see in a process such as Walls. How many hours have gone into each of these photos? Is there some kind of exponential payback for both artist and viewer? Consider the light in "Morning Cleaning," exquisite, and perhaps perfected in "After 'Spring Snow' by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34, 2000-2003," which I have already posted on here. Each time Wall takes a run at a particular aspect of his work he finds something new in it, a new revelation of light of composition, and of presenting his work to the public. The latter of course an important consideration for Wall who turned the banal advertising light box on its head.
But none of these images are best viewed on the net, alas. The above image, courtesy of the Tate, is a much lighter version of the one included in Schaulager Catalgoue Raisonne 1978-2004. The version printed in a New York Times slide show is equally light. One really needs to see the work on the wall, in a gallery to sink into the moment as fully as Wall has made it possible for us to do.