Jeff Wall exhibition at MCA

1st May – 28th July 2013

jeff wall exhibition

Just under a week ago on the 28th of July the lively Jeff Wall retrospective at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Arts (MCA) came to a close. Only a few weeks earlier, upon entering the expansive, clean and orderly exhibition space I was confronted by the strikingly vivid colours and immense scale of the luminous photographs lining the white walls before me; images I had only previously gazed upon in books. Despite the easy reproduction of photographs within various contexts, as I found out first hand one cannot appreciate the overwhelming size, bright hues and immense detail of Wall’s work as they appear in the flesh.

A renowned, highly influential Canadian photographer, Jeff Wall produces cinematic images that expand photography’s terms, redefining the medium within an increasingly interdisciplinary and boundary-crossing contemporary art scene. As Fried discusses, Wall’s practice involves “triangulating between photography, painting, and cinema”, reconstructing photography as a medium which appropriates and connects conventions of other artistic practices, marrying the narrativity and movement of painting and cinema with the stillness of photography (Fried, 2008, pg. 10). A number of Wall’s photographs make reference to or re-stage history paintings within a modern environment.Fried discusses a new photographic regime that art critic Chevrier describes as the ‘tableau form’, characterised by large scale images and “an intention that the photographs in question would be framed and hung on a wall, to be looked at like paintings…rather than merely examined up close…as had hitherto been the case” (Fried, 2008, pg. 14).


Jeff Wall
‘The Destroyed Room’, 1978
transparency in light box
159 x 234 cm
Collection of the artist
– Makes reference to Eugène Delacroix’s painting ‘Death of Sardanapalus’, 1827


Eugène Delacroix
‘Death of Sardanapalus’, 1827
oil on canvas
392 x 496 cm
Musée de Louvre
image source:

Wall’s photographs often emanate a painterly impression through diffuse treatment of light, intricately constructed compositions referencing the ‘rule of thirds’, their large scale (not previously possible for photography), and acute attention to detail – qualities of the tableau presentation. There is movement however between this form and the photographic – the work reveals its “artificial identity” as a photograph through its physical glossy flatness and realism (Fried, 2008, pg. 37). In this way Wall recodes the terms of photography, painterly conventions complicating the definition of photography, further challenged by the images’ presentation against an illuminating lightbox – appropriating an advertising format.


Jeff Wall
‘A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai)’, 1993
transparency in light box
250 x 397 cm
Tate, London
– Makes reference to Hokusai’s ‘Ejiri in Suruga Province (a sudden gust of wind)’, 1830-1833


‘Ejiri in Suruga Province (a sudden gust of wind)’, 1830-1833
Colour woodblock
dimensions unknown
The British Museum, London
image source:

A staged, cinematic quality also radiates many of the images, evident in the highly orchestrated positioning of characters and settings and an almost filmic atmosphere. There is however an avoidance of theatricality and dramatic emotional expression or ‘overacting’ which distances the work from cinema, reaffirming its photographic status and complicating the interplay between stasis and narrativity. The sense of narrative inherent within painting and cinema, the alluring glow and vividness of light-boxed advertisements and the flat, frozen-in-time quality of a photographic image converge in both unsettling and compelling arrangements, creating new opportunities for photography within an integrated cultural arena.

A friend and I, slowly meandering through and occasionally sitting to absorb the great detail of these powerful images, both left reflecting on the stories, ideas and beauty of the photographs, feeling energetically inspired.


Fried, M., 2008; Why Photography Matters As Art Never Before, Yale University Press, Singapore, pgs. 10, 14 & 37