In 333 BCE during the campaigns of Alexander of Macedon against the Persian Empire, Alexander was advancing with his army across Anatolia and came to Gordion. While at Gordion, the Macedonian king informed Alexander about a special wagon that was situated in the Temple of Zeus. The pole of the wagon was tied to the wagon body with an intricate knot of cornel bark, and a prophecy had foretold that whoever could unfasten the knot would go on to rule over Asia. Many critics have often wondered about the operation of the condition of “pastiche” in Jeff Wall’s images and have investigated about his reclamation of history painting. However, like many people tried to undo the Gordian knot but all in vain, Jeff Wall’s denial of any inherent narrative in his “art work” is also making the effort to undo his conceptual knot an impossible mission.Therefore, after a long meditation, I have finally accepted that the qualities that I have criticized in Jeff Wall’s work are the very qualities that he is pursuing, and that as Alexander drew his sword and cut right through the knot, maybe it is also the time for me to cut Jeff Wall’s knot, since to undo it has proven to be almost hopeless. By doing so, I have to sadly reaffirm myself once more that as some might see Wall’s work as a rehearsal of old themes or as a regression, I do see an inability of commercial art works to move forward, to progress beyond their current limitations.
Surely it has been a long time now since reformulating the history and theory of photography has seemed a vital intellectual necessity. In 1970s-1980s conceptual artists problematized the role of photography by emphasizing its non-aesthetic function. Instead of exploring photography by its medium specificity, they used photography in an intermedia continuality in an attempt to liberate photography from its ties to the traditional western picture. By reinstating the picture in a new guise, conceptual artists redefined the parameters of photography as a theoretical object (Krauss 1999, p.290). It seems forgotten that Jeff Wal’s first steps were as conceptual artist, who as many others, used his work to question the notion of what art was. However, as many as his fellows rejected the museums and galleries seeing them as defining authorities, Wall called for another avant-garde, the one that should not abandon traditional media and modes of representation and instead should serve to perpetuate historical tradition in the museum. Thus in his case was perpetuated with the creation of dialectical relationships with pre-existing images, specifically with late nineteenth-century painting (Lütticken 2006, p.80). Following this statement, it seems almost possible to situate Wall in a different context, one whose importance Peter Bürger and Jeff Wall himself seem to minimize or even eradicate. I refer here to the concept of Appropriation used by neo-avant-garde movements from the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the view of these neo-avant-garde artists, Appropriation was more than an unintentional prologue to the restoration of the great art of the past, since by appropriating images they thought to contribute to find new ways to deal with an industrial image culture that perverts the visual (Lütticken 2006, p.82). However, far from even uttering this sense of the word “appropriation”, Wall keeps arguing that his photographs should be seen as “near documentary” images, in which the meticulous reconstruction of reality is a must and a necessary step for the production of his art.
Karl Marx argued that historical facts are repeated first as tragedy and then as farce. After that, Jean Baudrillard suggested that the Gulf War never took place and that all what we really know about it was in the form of propaganda imagery (Baudrillard 1991). Wether it was in Roland Barthes’ mythology or in Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum, by the 1960s photography had left behind its identity as a historical or an aesthetic object to become, as I suggested before, a theoretical object instead. In a period in which images are extremely mediatized and reality can easily be manipulated, one must recall the meaning and the reason of photoconceptualism and question the power that photographs have to redefine the world. Even if photography documents an action that at some point happened, one should not forget that the concept of reality has gain nowadays more layers than ever. What we see in Jeff Wall’s photographs are mere reproductions of his own ideas of reality, in which the term “near documentary” squeaks more than anything. Far from even pronouncing the word “simulacra”, Wall states that “if it feels true it is true”. Seems that the sentimental naturalization of the past as a mere “tradition” is gaining the upper hand over a conception of the past as an anachronistic challenge to the present as neo-avant-garde artists did. Sad as it is, Jeff Koons propagation of “Banality as Saviour” in 2009 is gaining strength in the Art world, in which pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, or hollow ostentatiousness are becoming its main characteristics. Engulfed by Jeff Wall’s images, which sometimes can turn to be really accusatory, one fantasizes that the characters of the photograph will turn and talk. However no character is looking out of the picture or showing any threat of protest, as if they would announce that Jeff Wall’s photographs are for contemplation reasons only, which none surprisingly, remind us to the very first functionality of some great art of the past. Overall, I think I do understand now why it was so difficult for me to undo Wall’s knot, and that is because I was not aware that there is no knot, and thereafter, there is nothing to be undo or cut. This non-existent Gordian Knot is just to be contemplated, and for contemplation only is his current exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam. Now, silence please.
Published in Beyond the Walls.