Pictures from an explosive world

January 11 1988

Pictures from an explosive world

January 11 1988

Pictures from an explosive world


Two Canadian photographers, each producing work with ramifications beyond. the world of art, published books this winter. Maclean’s art critic Geoffrey James filed the following reviews of Jeff Wall's Transparencies (Rizzoli, 112

pages, $35.95) and Robert del Tredici's At Work in the Fields of the Bomb {Douglas & McIntyre, 192 pages, $17.95):

In the photograph, a young Oriental man is walking along a Vancouver street. Beside him, holding on to a girlfriend in shorts and a halter, is another young man whose denim vest and greasy hair proclaim him to be from the wrong side of the tracks. As he looks at the Oriental, the young man pulls his eye into a slit—a sudden gesture of racial hatred.

In the way it appears to capture a complex moment of flux, with the girl pulling away in embarrassment and the Oriental registering a swift look of disgust, such an image might seem to be the work of a sharp-eyed street photographer. In fact, Mimic (1982) by Vancouver artist Jeff Wall is a work of complete contrivance. It was carried out with actors and presented in museum display cases as a large, back-lit transparency—a format commonly associated with advertisements for whisky or winter vacations.

Wall has worked with transparencies for almost a decade. In doing so he has carved out a territory that is entirely his own, creating pictures that are at once beautiful to look at and subtle in the games they play with the history of art. As with Mimic, his work frequently has a strong psychological undertow that can engender a distinct sense of unease. The combination is a potent one and may explain why in recent years Wall has received probably more international attention than any other Canadian artist. With solo exhibitions at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Stedeljik Museum in Amsterdam, he has become something of a fixture in the major European group shows. In Canada, his work has been less visible, a shortcoming that is partly overcome with

the publication of Transparencies.

The book, which contains plates and details of 20 Wall pieces—the bulk of his output since 1978—is no substitute for confronting one of his large, glowing transparencies. What it does have is Wall’s highly articulate voice as he talks about his work with Dutch curator Els Barents. Wall, 41, pursued art history studies to the doctoral level, ending up at London’s Courtauld Institute. His work, as he explains it, is a

mix of rational artifice and pure intuition. It is also consciously filtered through the art of the past—a strategy that risks creating an art that arrives on stilts, tottering atop a pile of historical footnotes.

But Wall rarely falls into that trap. For his tableaus to work, it is not always necessary for the viewer to be able to understand Wall’s references. The Destroyed Room (1978), his earliest transparency, consists of a trashed bedroom: a ripped mattress, a violently tilted chest of drawers and, strewn everywhere, women’s clothing and jewelry. The whole creates a sumptuous Baroque still life that is at the same time pregnant with evidence of violence and revenge. That Wall borrowed the tumbling diagonal composition of Death of Sardanapalus by 19th-century French painter Eugène Delacroix adds little to the work’s impact.

But to understand Picture for Women (1979), the viewer would have to have some knowledge of the painting of which it is quite literally a remake—Manet’s famous Bar at the Folies Bergères. In the original, a waitress stands behind a bar, the mirrored wall behind her reflecting the gaiety of the famous nightclub. In a corner of the picture is a reflection of a customer giving her a hard, hungry stare; her own look is curiously detached and dis-

tracted. The title of Wall’s piece ironically underlines the fact that for several hundred years, most paintings have been made for men, who want to look at pictures of women. In his version, the bar becomes an empty classroom, with the mirror reflecting the camera that creates the image. Wall himself, tripping the shutter, becomes the voyeur. The woman stares almost defiantly at the viewer. Manet’s psychological algebra has been subtly changed, but Wall has maintained the same strange tension between man, woman and viewer.

More recently, Wall’s work has taken on a tougher, political edge. He wanted, as he told Barents, to move on from the “dream-world of art, to show something of the dirt and ugliness of the way we have to live.” His newer works are peopled by prostitutes and criminals, by working mothers and na-

tive Indians. There are several dangers in this, one of which is that by using actors, he is reducing the marginal and the dispossessed to ciphers, reinforcing the stereotypes he sets out to undermine. Another paradox is that although Wall employs the technology of advertising, his works have been confined to the closed world of the museum. Transparencies, the book, may do something to remedy that.

At the heart of Robert del Tredici’s book of photographs and interviews is something that cannot really be photographed—the

deadly and disturbing phenomenon of radiation. “Radiation—you can’t see it, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t feel it,” says one of del Tredici’s subjects, a farmer who lives near the Savannah River nuclear plant in North Carolina. The farmer has a strong suspicion that all is not well at the plant, which, for more than 30 years, has produced plutonium and tritium for the United States H-bomb program. According to another of del Tredici’s subjects, environmentalist William Lawless—who oversaw nuclear waste disposal at the plant for five years—the farmer is right. Over a period of three decades, the plant has dumped about 500 billion gallons of toxic and radioactive waste into the environment. And until recently, it buried plutonium and other radioactive wastes in simple cardboard boxes.

At Work in the Fields of the Bomb is

del Tredici’s attempt to come to terms with a subject that most people would rather not know about. In 1980 the 49year-old Montreal photographer published a book called The People of Three-Mile Island. His original intention was to simply make portraits of people who had suffered through the 1979 disaster at a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa. But in carrying out his project, del Tredici learned what he now calls the Three-Mile Island axiom: the closer people are to a problem, the less able they are to perceive it. As a photographer, he writes, he also found that “what people say is

as important as how they look.”

Del Tredici has applied those lessons on a much larger scale to his second book. Armed with a Leica and a tape recorder, he spent six years travelling in Russia, Japan, Europe and North America. He amassed some 30,000 negatives of the whole nuclear cycle, from uranium mining to high-tech factories to the human side effects of radiation. He talked his way into missile silos, nuclear factories and the homes of many key figures in the history of nuclear development. When denied access to civilian nuclear facilities, he took aerial photographs. This is a book in which nearly everyone has their say: public relations men, health researchers, ordinary industry workers and the not-so-ordinary people who lived downwind of test sites.

As a photographer, del Tredici has an understated style. Although his

photographs have been shown at Ottawa’s National Gallery and are scheduled for exhibition at major museums in Europe, they lay little claim to an independent esthetic life. Avoiding the dramatic tricks of photo journalism, they are memorable for their subject matter and for a certain matter-offactness. In the Elliott Lake region of Northern Ontario, he photographed what looks like a line of hills—and which turns out to be a wall of more than 100 million tons of radioactive mill waste. In Lapland, del Tredici snapped a huge freezer of contaminated reindeer meat. The animals had fed on radioactive lichen after Chernobyl.

As an interviewer, del Tredici has a way of asking ingenuous questions that draw out his subjects. What emerges from the material he presents is the overwhelming momentum of the technological imperative— if something is technically possible, man will do it. Equally clear from del Tredici’s testament is the manner in which the global nuclear industry has covered up its mistakes—mistakes based on taking a short-term view of a material that remains fatal for millenia.

The virtue of his book is that it renders the arcane world of the bomb less mysterious. As environmentalist Lawless told the photographer, “The secrecy aspect of it has made people feel that if they question what’s going on, they’re traitors.” At Work in the Fields of the Bomb makes those questions easier to ask. □