Who is going to be able to cut this Gordian knot? (Part 1)

The infinite circuit of possibilities created by the organization of items in an exhibition space is finally subjected to chosen connexions made by a curator or group of curators. Therefore, the definitive relation established between different objects in a specific space will communicate particular messages to the audience that will be deciphered by the use of stylistic connexions, geographic connexions or linguistic connexions to name just a few. In some cases, however, the artist specially demands to be involved in curatorial decisions, and in that case, the arrangement of the objects will depend in common agreements between the curator and the artist him/herself. But what happens if an artist wants his pieces to speak individually, avoiding curatorial narratives? How does the curator organize the works without entailing any kind of narrative or connexion? Is that in any way possible?

The 1st of March 2014, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam will open its doors to present the work of Jeff Wall. The Canadian artist, who is well known for his important role in elevating the status of art photography in the museums (Satallabrass 93, 2010), will be presenting his late 1990s pieces as well as new works made for the occasion. However, not just that Jeff Wall wants to be presented as an artist and not as a photographer is problematic, but also that he has decided to not write or comment at all about his new pieces can raise many doubts that can impair the credibility of his works. Jeff Wall has been considered since decades not just as an artist but as an “art theorist” or “art historian” as well. His writings have become as important as his graphic work, being rarely held up to critical examination but taken as uncontroversial. Wall’s writings have influenced the ways his works have been hung and juxtaposed as well as read by the audience. Nonetheless, even if the identification of sources seemed to be an exercise in assuring that the works receive the right attention as art (Satallabrass 118, 2010), the artist has nowadays guaranteed that he is no longer concerned to comment on interpretations of his works or any one’s. While the concept of “the everyday life” has certainly shifted in Wall’s works over time, his scenes are often seen as updates of Baudelaire’s vision of art: the art that would capture everyday life. Consequently, It seems logical that no explanation has to be done from art pieces that emulate mundane scenes, each of which can be perceived and understood by a major audience because of its daily proximity. Nonetheless, and putting aside the problematic that the previous statement can entail, if Wall’s pieces had been always referencing mundane landscapes, why is Wall specially now remaining so silent?

Furthermore, the obsession of the artist to induce the viewer in individual narratives, while avoiding series, has produced major problems when ordering his pieces for an exhibition display, yet for Wall each of his art objects should avoid to have any curatorial dialogue. Hirpsimé Visser is the person who is shuffling the cards in Jeff Wall’s upcoming exhibition in Stedelijk museum. She is the person responsible to order Wall’s works while creating an exhibition display that must ideally avoid any meaningful narrative. Definitely an awkward task that has made Hirpsimé Visser clarify that the organization of the exhibition has finally followed “media relations”. But here again, isn’t it the question of medium the one that has arise more controversies about Wall’s reputation? The multi-layered medium of his art, extensively compared to painting, sculpture, theatre, cinema, television and advertising, has provided many samples of the extensive efforts to define Wall’s work in terms of art historical traditions. For that reason, Rosalind Krauss has named Wall as a mere “pasticheur”, yet instead of working within the autonomy of one medium, he merely reworks the old masters (Adams 96, 2007).

Overall, with so much mysticism and secrecy in an utopian search for the autonomous interpretation of the audience, let’s see if it is not the exhibition display what is going to be a “pastiche”. Black and white photographs, light boxes and Wall’s recent works are going to be intertwined on Stedelijk’s white walls. Without any more explanation or reference, are we all going to be able to undo (or toe cut) this Gordian knot? To answer this question we definitely have to wait till the 1st of March.

Photo: Jeff Wall, The Volunteer,  1996.

Published in Beyond the Walls.