Jeff Wall‘s display lightboxes contain some weird perspective. The celebrated Canadian is showing at NGV at Melbourne’s Fed Square (till March 17, 2013). I regret was not well enough to attend the Forum in the Great Hall Wednesday 28 November and it is a measure of the NGV that they had both Thomas Demand 1 (showing at NGV International) and Jeff Wall in the same room to talk to an Australian audience.
Consider how big lightbox images like these appear in the flesh, as opposed to print, or on the screen, which is the way we in Australia are accustomed to receiving the work of such international luminaries 1. In a 2010 interview with The Economist on the publication of Phaidon’s Jeff Wall: Complete Edition he volunteers that,
“I don’t think my pictures look very good in books, but still, the better the book, the better they look—or the less they seem inadequate. They are made to be a certain size and scale and that can never be captured on a page.”.
On several occasions he refers to this proportion as ‘life-scale’ (but not ‘life-size’), which is of course a somewhat elastic measure in reference to any photograph; the foreground being of one ‘scale’ while the background is diminished.
Something odd does happen here in our encounters with such huge lightboxes. Look at Polishing (1989) for example, in which a young salesman polishes the heel of his shoe in a (decidedly down-at-heel) motel-room. Cleaning and ickiness, tidiness and chaos are polar obsessions of notoriously meticulous Wall. The bending figure is the same scale as figures of the audience looking at it, and slightly smaller than the man in the neighbouring Doorpusher (made 14 years before) who bends in the opposite direction.
There is a perceptual discomfort in viewing this image on the wall that is not apparent in the desk-top experience of it. I’m referring to a weird skewing of the perspective of the room. Wall has tilted the monorail of his 8×10 camera down toward the corner of the room, making the left hand wall of the bathroom lean uncomfortably, more than does the patched join of the wall panels to the right. He has then shifted the lens left, thus positioning the one vertical (right behind the figure) to the right of centre. The bathroom door, draped with a towel, looks as if it is hanging off its hinges, at variance with the top of the entrance door which remains horizontal. Conventionally, an architectural photographer would square everything and Wall does that in Doorpusher which though shot from an extremely oblique angle employs a radical drop-front to correct the verticals.
Wall conditions our awareness of this particular space. He did much earlier and less subtly in The Destroyed Room 1978 by allowing us glimpses through door and window of the warehouse studio housing the set. The disturbing effect of perspective in his works, is not unlike that we experience in front of Mantegna’s The Lamentation of Christ c. 1480. It is due only in part to their scale. The neighbouring work Diagonal Composition 1993, opposite in this section of the exhibition, is one of a series become modellos for this, all titled Diagonal Composition (though only Diagonal Composition No.2 is contemporaneous with Polishing). They are shape-shifting tricks replete with the deliberately zig-zag perspectives, faux textures and even the colours beloved of Juan Gris and fellow Cubists. This and other ‘footnotes’ in this space help account for my vertigo in viewing Polishing and other works in this exhibition.