INSPIRATIONS (Magazine contribution)
Art Quarterly, The Art Fund 2006

Until relatively recently I have not been a great fan of artists who deliberately set out to use an existing piece by another artist as the model for their own work. Given my misgivings, why is it that I have had a change of opinion and am fascinated by Jeff Wall’s ‘Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’, a huge backlit photographic transparency, based on a 19th-century Japanese woodblock print?

My fascination with this work does not diminish each time I see it. When I first saw it in 1996 I knew very little about Jeff Wall. I had seen many of his images before, but had paid little attention to them. But with this particular work there were many things that I just did not understand, and this kept my interest in it. For a start, there was the question of illumination. A backlit transparency of a landscape is a contradiction in many ways. At first you think it is just like looking through a window on a bright sunny day, but the way the light box works could not be more different. The light box comes towards you from the surface of the wall whereas the actual landscape recedes away from you. A landscape seen through a window is moving around the sun, a fixed light source 93 million miles away, and this light and our vision create an ever-changing and graduating perspective of immense complexity. On the other hand, the light source for the photographic transparency is immediately behind it. This gives a charged and beautifully seductive luminescence to the picture but at the same time forces an awkward compressed verticality that fights with the illusionary perspective of the photograph, producing a new visual quality.

I found myself wondering how it was possible to take a photograph that was so precise, so perfectly composed and in focus. How many times do you have to get everybody in position and throw the paper into the air to get the one shot that works? I had a lot of catching up to do to understand photography in the digital age. Jeff Wall’s work has helped me do this and it has changed my views on the use of photography as a medium. What I now really enjoy about his digital photomontages is the fact that these pictures become more and more like traditional landscape and studio painting. This is because of the time involved working in the landscape, in waiting for the right light conditions, in working in the studio, in dressing and placing of models, together with the accumulation of many photographs (in Sudden Gust of Wind, more than one hundred) which are then cannibalised to become the digital palette from which the final photograph will emerge.

In Sudden Gust of Wind, Wall sticks closely enough to the compositional structure of the original for us not to question too much. The horizon is slightly lower than in the Hokusai print and the trees are in the same position. The elegant diagonal of the path from the base of the trees that takes our gaze back in to the landscape is replaced in the photograph by a somewhat stark stretch of river water. The harsh edge of the dark earth banks contrast against the lightness of the wind-rippled water in the same way as the dark reeds do against the light path in the print. The romantic presentation of landscape in the Hokusai is brutally dismissed by Wall’s choice of the industrial farming landscape with its telegraph poles, bare earth and rickety huts. The exquisitely minimal mountains in the woodblock are merely hinted at by a large, presumably industrial, building and a pair of tall chimneys just poking up over the horizon. Smoking industry replaces snow-covered volcano.

The original print and Wall’s photograph each have five figures in them. In the photograph, two of the larger figures are dressed in city clothes, looking out of place on the raw dirt road. Wall’s figures are caught by the sudden gust of wind, which rips open a folder of papers held by the city person on the left of the picture. These pieces of paper and the leaves from the trees are the real stars of this show. Blowing from bottom left diagonally upwards to the right they animate the whole photograph. But what is very strange is that this animation is so static, so prearranged, and so not-of-this-world. The central figure, which could be straight out of Singin’ in the Rain, is frozen solid.

This conflict – between a medium that has always in the past seemed to say ‘Yes this is true’ and the frozen evidence of the painstakingly constructed photograph in front of me – produces a magical frisson that I find hard to resist.

Text © Bill Woodrow, London, 2006

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