By Jan Tumlir, Originally published in ArtForum, March, 2001
Vancouver, BC – British California, some locals call it, referring no doubt to their city’s ongoing annexation by the Hollywood dream factory. As a matter of fact, Vancouver’s topography and even its temperature are reminiscent of Golden State climes, and there’s that nagging sense of unreality. Vancouver, like LA, is a filmmaker’s paradise, providing every sort of setting-city, suburb, and wilderness-in a relatively compact area. Jeff Wall has lived in the Canadian metropolis since earliest childhood, and his photographs, even at their most fantastic, are inevitably rooted in the quotidian details of the place, in the simultaneously over- and underdetermined character of its various districts as well as the sudden, almost hallucinatory transitions between them.
This interview took place in Wall’s studio, located in Vancouver’s oldest neighborhood, an area blighted with alternating signs of homelessness, drug traffic, and generic gentrification. A pair of adjacent two-story townhouses have been converted into an all-purpose photo production facility, in accordance with the artist’s wishes to conduct every phase of the imaging process “in-house,” as it were. In the first building, a clean computer workstation extends toward a massive custom-made vat for developing the oversize transparencies Wall is known for. The second building houses sets, props, and costumes-the lights, camera, action. Separated only by a somewhat unfriendly alleyway, this arrangement provides a concrete analogy for the Janus-faced method at the core of Wall’s practice ever since his 1991 The Stumbling Block. In that work, several discrete photographic moments, shot both “in the field” and in the studio, were digitally conjoined. This montage process, which suggests the piecemeal production of a “history painting” like Courbet’s Burial at Ornans updated by the very latest technological possibilities, remains central to Wall’s thinking. The particular photo graph that I had come to Vancouver to see and discuss, The Flooded Grave, might well be considered its apotheosis. Although essentially a landscape picture free of human subjects, it is unrivaled in its technical complexity, not to mention the time and trouble the artist took to make it. The fruit of two years’ labor, this 90-by-111-inch image was finally unrolled in January onto an appropriately enormous light table. (The Flooded Grave made its public debut early last month in Ottawa as part of the National Gallery of Canada’s “Elusive Paradise” exhibition.) In fact, most of our conversation took place as we perched on either side of a tall folding ladder–to take in the picture in its entirety.
JEFF WALL: The “event” shown in The Flooded Grave–the “event” or the “theme,” sometimes I’m not sure what to call it–is a moment in a cemetery. The viewer might imagine a walk on a rainy day. He or she stops before a flooded hole and gazes into it and for some reason imagines the ocean bottom. We see the instant of that fantasy, and in another instant it will be gone.
JAN TUMLIR: This phantom moment, or phantasm, seems to recur in your pictures, especially the ones that have holes in them–people digging in the earth as in The Well , or in The Drain  and The Vampires’ Picnic , which are set around sewage works. One can’t avoid the fantastic, Through the Looking Glass-type associations. There is a blatant symbolic link to the subconscious. It’s even overdetermined. You have the ocean, the grave, the hole: all these stand-ins for the underside.
JW: Yes, I guess the subject is almost a cliche, but that doesn’t bother me because it gave rise to a picture I thought would be good, and a picture has to be something more than its subject.
JT: Right, it doesn’t exhaust itself in the description. But how then do you avoid trivializing the subject? Thomas Crow described your return to an iconographic, allegorical mode as “nontrivial,” precisely because you tend to couch it in the guise of the mundane and everyday. Another strategy has to do with compression, providing a surplus of symbolic cues. It seems that here you deal with the problem of the trivial by facing it head-on, by giving these obvious readings a chance to collect, but still to surprise the viewer, somehow, through their realization.
JW: Maybe the “trivial” is just a failed version of the “everyday.” The everyday, or the commonplace, is the most basic and the richest artistic category. Although it seems familiar, it is always surprising and new. But at the same time, there is an openness that permits people to recognize what is there in the picture, because they have already seen something like it somewhere. So the everyday is a space in which meanings accumulate, but it’s the pictorial realization that carries the meanings into the realm of the pleasurable.
JT: Well, let me ask you about the making of the picture. To begin with, why did you choose this particular cemetery?
JW: I went through all the cemeteries in Vancouver, making photos in 35 mm. This one had the right feeling. Most cemeteries in Vancouver have no upright stones, only flat markers. I think that makes maintenance easier. But in this one there are upright stones and even some old statues. It also has the solitary, well-placed trees that we identify with cemeteries. I liked it best.
The camera is positioned at a low spot where flooding could actually occur. The background was shot there, in November and December of 1998. All the shooting was strictly documentary–very straight photography. I had to wait for the right light, and just captured what was there.
However, I couldn’t shoot the foreground in the same cemetery. There was already a grave in the place where I would have had to dig. So I went to a second cemetery and arranged to have a hole dug there. Now, the problem was to make it possible for the hole dug at Cemetery z to appear correctly in the pictures of Cemetery I.
With computer montage, everything has to be photographed from a single camera position and with the camera set almost the same for every shot. Otherwise, the pieces won’t fit together properly. The topography of the sites in the two cemeteries didn’t match, of course. So in order to get things right, we had to survey both sites, then rebuild the area to be photographed in Cemetery 2 to match the slope of the ground in Cemetery I. This was done in the spring and summer of ’98.
At the same time, we were building an aquatic system large enough to contain a set that would be the ocean bottom, the area of the hole beneath the water. My assistant Daniel Congdon and I had to design and build an environment that could sustain sea life for an extended period, since we didn’t know how long the shooting would last.
In the fall of ’98, I shot exteriors at Cemetery I with my other assistant, Scott McFarland, while Daniel was building the ecosystem and tanks. As soon as I felt the background shooting was complete, we moved to Cemetery z to shoot the hole and the foreground area. I wanted to shoot all the exteriors at the same time of year, so the light would be consistent. The foreground shooting had to be done as quickly as possible, since we had to make a plaster cast of the hole when the photography was finished. I needed the cast to make the shape of the imaginary ocean floor match that of the hole in the real world. The imaginary ocean floor would be built in the studio tank. The two “worlds” would be married at the waterline.
From the plaster casts, we made fiberglass molds of all the visible sides of the hole. Then we had to get all the pieces of the mold into the tank in exactly the right position, viewed through the camera. That was very difficult; the molds couldn’t be perfectly accurate since we were taking casts of a muddy hole whose shape changed as you worked on it. We had made a lot of measurements of known positions in the hole, which we used, along with a lot of sweat, to get it right. That was very hard work.
JT: It’s perfect, though; you can’t see the seam.
JW: If you could tell, I would have failed. The picture would be a failure if it permitted any doubt that the two worlds were as one, physically. The idea of a picture having to render a physically continuous space is a central part of the Western pictorial tradition. Photography has, if anything, intensified that. A picture somehow has to account for our experience of the continuity of space, for the knowledge that we have gained from the experience and activity of all our senses, the almost certain knowledge that, for example, the earth in the wall of the graves bends over at the top and goes on without interruption into the lawn, and so on. You could use the same digital montage techniques to question that, to introduce discrepancies that don’t correspond to the idea of spatial continuity I’ve just described. But I’m not interested in that.
JT: Thomas Crow described your use of digital technology as opening up the “occult potential” of, I suppose, representation. How do you understand that word, “occult,” in regard to what you’re doing here?
JW: I think it has to do with the fact that, before photography, the coexistence of separate domains in pictures was taken for granted. Paintings showed angels or demons interacting with humans, for example, as a routine matter, because it is routine within the nature of the medium. Painting and drawing make no demand as to the ontological consistency of the things being depicted; they don’t have any means to do so, and that’s one of the main reasons they’ve been so significant in the history of the imagination. Photography seemed to be something quite different, at the beginning; it seemed to prove that there was only one world, not many-one visible world, anyway. But I think that is only a suggestion made by photography, not a conclusion. And the suggestion can be taken in so many different ways. I think photography, by nature, does have artistically legitimate routes of access into the aesthetic of “multiple worlds,” of “imaginary ontologies.”
JT: In the late ’80s, the questioning of the veracity of the photograph was still the main thing. But in the ’90s, we became more aware of the fact that the camera actively creates certain realities, it promotes behaviors, the building of things, the changing of things. It as a real impact on the world.
JW: I think the process of deconstructing photography as a rhetoric has reached a point of exhaustion. This line of inquiry did not succeed in providing an alternative to our acceptance of a physical basis for the photographic image. We haven’t progressed beyond where we were when the medium was new, and we won’t. Photography is what its first practitioners said it was–pictures created by the controlled actions of nature, of light reflected from surfaces. Nevertheless, we have only been able to suggest what that means for the actual practice of photography. In the 1970S and ’80s, people attempted to develop theories of photography, maybe because the process of deconstruction encouraged them to feel that we understood what photography was. Now I feel there’s are treat from that, not in the sense of a defeat or a reaction, but in the sense of increased respect for photography as a medium, a process, even an institution.
JT: Well, interestingly, when you talk about the light rays that the photograph shares with the object it depicts, the indexical link, that clearly is being broken in your recent pictures. You don’t see any substantial shift between your earlier pictures and these, but what about the index?
JW: I don’t think it’s really being broken, because everything in The Flooded Grave is a photograph. The montage is composed of acts of photography, even if there is no simple photographed moment. I don’t think any photographic qualities are eliminated, except the single moment in which the entire image was made. I admit that may be the decisive absence, but I like to make a picture that derives from that absence and contemplates it. So anyway, should I tell you what happened next?
JW: We now had the molds correctly set in the tank. The next thing was to acquire the material from the ocean. For that we worked with licensed marine-life specialists. I wanted the underwater zone to be a sort of snapshot of the sea floor in the area around Vancouver. I didn’t want it to be a representative display of flora and fauna like you see in zoos. So we made sure we only included what might have really been on the ocean bottom at a given instance in time. I wanted to drag up a real moment from the water.
Once everything was hauled up and trucked to the studio, we assembled the rocks into the appropriate form, a little depression or cavity in the sea floor that rose up naturally to meet the sides of the hole above. That was done stone by stone, with Scott or Daniel in the tank and me usually up by the camera. We drained the tank in order to work and then filled it to study the results because everything is distorted when seen through water.
Next, we built the white cloth “tent” or “igloo” over the set, for the lighting. The illumination had to match that of the exteriors, and the tent was the way I bounced the flash to match the overcast November sky. When the lighting was finished, we were finally ready to shoot–in February ’99.
JT: Your pictorial solution seems to be about putting these complementary red colors into a mostly green field.
JW: Yes, that was important. I knew that red anemone and purple urchins were common to the area. The anemone, urchins, crabs, and starfish were shot first, since they are slower-moving creatures and I could use them as a sort of base layer for the composition. They’re slow, but they still move a lot, so each day the situation was quite different. It took maybe a week and a half to get enough pictures of these creatures and to move to the quicker species, the fish. Fish are very hard to control, so I made a point of trying to shoot almost every fish I had in every conceivable position in the tank, in order to make sure I had a good selection for the montage. Despite that, I still had to go back several times during the computer work to shoot additions.
We were doing the computer assembly as we were shooting, and Stephen Waddell, who’s done all my computer work since 1992, was on the set quite a lot. I try to keep the two aspects moving together, so changes are easier to accommodate. We had to make adjustments early on because the color of things on the set was more vibrant and intense than in the exteriors, mainly due to flash lighting.
JT: Generally, that’s in the interest of a kind of faithfulness…
JT: It seems to me that the technical process of making the work takes on a kind of philosophical meaning. Since its themes are largely given, as we’ve established, allegory allows one to reflect theoretically on one’s own practice. For instance, you were talking about that capacity of art to bring together two worlds, two incompatible realities, and then you actually pointed out the seam where they are technically joined…
JW: Because I grew up at the time I did, and experienced the art I did, I’ve always felt that good art has to reflect somehow on its own process of coming to be. I have never been really convinced that this reflexivity had to be made explicit, though, as it has been done in so many artists’ work. I’ve always thought that if the work is good it will automatically contain that reflection, but you won’t be able to see it immediately. It will flicker into view in some subtle way.
JT: Perhaps you’re also recycling themes that had a polemical relation to the medium, to critical theory, etc., but now within this more open-ended framework.
JW: Yes, that’s possible. I see pictures I’ve done in what you call a polemical way as a sort of mannerism, in which different aspects are forced, or exaggerated, or worried, in order to provoke internal problems, to stimulate the kind of reflexivity we were just talking about. But I don’t think this is the only way, or even the best way, to do that. It’s just one possible, interesting way. What I think of as a Neo-Realist strand of my work is just as good, and I’m a bit more interested in that these days. I’ve always done a kind of “straight photography,” along with my performed pictures and my photomontage, and the criteria of straight or documentary photography have always had a lot to do with all my work, even if I’ve argued against the aesthetic principles of straight photography.
JT: But in Flooded Grave, this documentary straightforwardness collides with an immense artifice and symbolic overdetermination. It makes me think of an establishing shot in a horror film. So often they open the film on an archeological dig or a view down into the sewers, as if to say that you are going down into hell. The physical action of digging the earth becomes reflexive of the whole filmic enterprise in this case; it wants you to confront a different level of experience.
JW: I couldn’t deny that, but it’s not the way I see it. Unearthing, digging, even exhuming aren’t automatically horrific. They are acts that can be detached, to a certain extent at least, from those associations if we see them or depict them as instances of the everyday. My picture The Well shows a woman digging a small well. People read a lot into that, and that’s normal, but it is at the same time a direct image of an everyday task.
JT: I see you as a very literary kind of artist, but then, as you say, one can read into pictures, you can make associations, but the meanings aren’t actually there. Of course, making pictures is very different from writing a book.
JW: Literature is not depiction. With a depiction, the meaning is invisible, and seems barely to be experienced, even. As I get older, I’m more interested in what is made invisible in the experience of the picture. This isn’t easy to explain or describe; it’s a feeling, a feeling that the picture doesn’t just display its contents to the eye. It also leaves something undisclosed, something that cannot be seen in the viewing of the work but can be experienced or sensed. Sensed as unseen. In The Flooded Grave, I noticed that it was difficult to get a really sharply focused picture of the underwater elements because of the density of the water, the reflection, and the optical distortion. First it bothered me, then I realized how important it was. Partly because it is just how things actually look under those particular conditions, but partly also because the process of depiction itself caused a loss of visibility, was made from a loss of visibility. Maybe that’s a trace of what I’m talking about: The picture starts to vanish as you look at it.
ASX CHANNEL: Jeff Wall
(All rights reserved. Text @ Jan Tumlir, Images @ Jeff Wall)
All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher