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Recreational Activities

November 2012

  • Suzanne Fraser

Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand at the NGV


The past year has witnessed a changing of the guard at the National Gallery of Victoria: out with the old and in with the contemporary. Tony Ellwood, the recently appointed Director of the NGV, has been heralded as a bringer of both fashionable contemporary art and engaging new media devices (or “delivery platforms”), the introduction of which is set to progressively shake-up Melbourne’s gilded bastion of historic art. And so it begins. The forthcoming summer season at the NGV presents two independent yet complimentary exhibitions of contemporary photography across the museum’s two premises.

On display at Federation Square, Jeff Wall Photographs is the first survey exhibition of Wall’s work to be staged in Australia. It would be presumptuous to suggest that this exhibition is symptomatic of the fresh gusto for contemporary art currently blowing a gale through the NGV. The exhibition is in fact the result of a three-year preparatory project undertaken by the NGV in conjunction with the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA). The exhibition was originally envisioned in 2007 by the Deputy Director of the AGWA Gary Dufour. Yet the timing of the exhibition’s opening in Melbourne is impeccable; the Canadian artist typifies the tenor of innovation championed by Ellwood, both with respect to Wall’s conceptual approach to photography and his employment of new media advancements in conceiving his practice. His triumphant tableaux A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993) is an intricate digital amalgamation of over a hundred images. The artist has commented on the “generosity” of the Tate, London, in lending this work to the current show.

The exhibition consists of twenty-six works spanning the artist’s career from 1978 to 2010. While the curatorial responsibility fell principally to Gary Dufour at the AGWA and Isobel Crombie at the NGV, the curators have been keen to emphasise the hands-on role of the artist also, particularly in selecting works to be included. Former Senior Curator of Photography Isobel Crombie – who was recently appointed Assistant Director of the NGV – notes that, through this approach, “we get a sense of the artist looking at his own history.” According to Crombie, Wall’s curatorial efforts offer “an added inflection” to the exhibition, which seems to parallel the concepts of partiality and subjectivity explored in his photographs.

A key aspect of Wall’s practice involves the artist observing a scene and then actively “not photographing” it. As Wall states, “it vanishes as a potential photograph, it doesn’t happen. But it doesn’t disappear.” Instead the artist recreates the scene from memory and then photographs the performance. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle conceived that something can only be potential if it also has the potential to not happen. However inadvertently, Wall’s photographs seem to celebrate this formula. Where a photograph has the potential to exist, the artist fulfils this condition by intercepting the potentiality and facilitating a different photograph (or actuality) in its place. In turn, Wall’s practice seems to question the power of potential in our lives: whether something could happen is ultimately immaterial, what matters is the actual process of human intervention. The role of subjective experience is also emphasised. Wall’s art is drawn from memory and reflects his partial vision of the world, complete with biases, aspirations and interests.

With respect to the relevance of partiality in art and life, Jeff Wall Photographs provides a stimulating compliment to the NGV’s second contemporary exhibition of the summer. On display at the St Kilda Road gallery, Thomas Demand incorporates fourteen photographs and three 35mm films by the Berlin-based artist. Demand’s practice begins when the artist observes an existing image – in a newspaper or advert, for instance – and then recreates the scene using paper and cardboard. He then takes a photograph of the recreation, but not necessarily from the same physical perspective as the original image. The paper sculpture is then dismantled. As Susan van Wyk, Curator of Photography at the NGV, observes, “it is a fascinating intellectual exercise” – as well as an immersive and engaging aesthetic experience.

Jeff Wall has stated of his recreation works: “They can be done in real places quickly and simply. I think of them as being constructed pictorially and performed without any method.” Thomas Demand’s works, on the other hand, are vigorously staged. He recreates documented sites using impermanent materials, removes any figural presence from the scene, and then makes the site visually durable through the medium of photography. The staging process is thus central to the resultant work, as is the intersection between reality and fabrication. The images are also subtly comical. In Poll from 2001, Demand incorporates paper representations of… paper. Through this work he presents a self-referential and highly political study of contemporary society.

In presenting the works of Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand concurrently (and on the same ticket), the NGV offers the visitor a rare opportunity to compare and contrast the practices of two distinct contemporary artists. Unquestionably their bodies of work deserve independent consideration. Yet the conceptual cross-pollination between the art of Wall and Demand will undoubtedly make for a perceptually bracing gallery experience. Both artists offer shiny visual experiences that engulf the viewer through their large-scale formats and uncannily recreated subject matters. These two exhibitions also announce a new phase in the NGV’s history, one with Tony Ellwood at the helm. With these exhibitions, the old guard can no longer ignore the writing on the wall, or on the newly featured touchscreens in the gallery spaces. It is digitally-enhanced and spells contemporary.


Jeff Wall Photographs shows at NGV Australia, Fed Square; Thomas Demand shows at NGV International, St. Kilda Rd, both from November 30 – March 17.



Untangling (1994, printed 2006), Jeff Wall,  transparency in light box, AP. 189.0 x 223.5 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. 2006 © Jeff Wall.

Badezimmer / Bathroom 1997. Thomas Demand. C-Print / Perspex. 160.0 × 122.0 cm. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Sprüth Magers Berlin London, Esther Schipper, Berlin, Matthew Marks Gallery © Thomas Demand.

Double Self-Portrait 1979, Jeff Wall. Transparency in light box, AP. 172.0 x 229.0 cm. Collection of the artist © Jeff Wall.




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