Friday, March 16, 2007

Jeff Wall and Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

This is a photograph by the artist Jeff Wall titled "After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000."

It's a recreation of a scene from Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man, as the title of the photograph suggests, a scene from the prologue:
I sat on the chair's edge in a soaking sweat, as though each of my 1,369 bulbs had every one become a klieg light in an individual setting for a third degree with Ras and Rinehart in charge.
The unnamed protagonist, invisible to the world -- or at least to white New York in the fifties -- sits bathed in the light he stole from them, so bright from 1,369 bulbs ("I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all of New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer's dream night," he tells us), and yet still no one can see him.

On creating this scene, Wall told the Guardian, "Writers have it very easy. They have the pleasure of imagining these scenes. Working on that picture, I really learned about what Ellison's 1,369 lightbulbs means. You can only have a few on at a time. I got to know that room as well as the Invisible Man would have, had he existed."

The invisble man continues:
Perhaps you'll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form. A beautiful girl once told me of a recurring nightmare in which she lay in the center of a large dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me. Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.
He's not only basking in pure light, a sort of new truth or enlightnement made manifest, but he's also sapping a tremendous amount of physical, electrical power from a power source that literally runs the power structure behind New York City.

Why Jeff Wall, a white Canadian baby boomer, chose to illustrate this scene from this book is unclear to me, but I'm glad he did. He's tackled issues of race before -- for example in a photograph called "The Storyteller" from 1986. Here's what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said about it:
“The Storyteller” (1986) is an imposing picture, more than fourteen feet wide. Six negligently clothed Native Americans lounge under or, on a grassy and wooded slope, beside a highway overpass. One, a woman, transfixes two others with what she is saying across a dying campfire. The historical irony—of a tribal custom maintained on expropriated and ruined land—is painfully obvious and, coming from a mandarin white artist, borderline presumptuous.
Wall has also tackled literary themes before, as in a scene from Japanese writer Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow, a novel set in Tokyo in 1912. Mishima wrote it in the late 1960, and published it only two years before he commited seppuku, or ritual suicide.

Is staging elaborate photographs of scenes from great literature an art historical mis-step equivalent to filming and refilming great literature? Is rehashing stories that exist only in our minds a mere cheap trick that gets our approval only because we're proud of ourselves for recognizing something we've read about?

You could certainly argue that, but I'd prefer to see it as an excercise in building upon another work of art, adding to the work, and innovating. After all, Invisible Man is built on its own predecessors, not least of which is Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground (at least in the prologue). Crossing mediums as Wall does -- photographing literature -- is not often done. As Schjeldahl says, such literary tie-ins are "perhaps the single most despised genre in the lexicon of modern art." And that's a shame.

I'd prefer to judge these homages on the basis of the individual work of art: did Wall pull it off? He did, in the case of Ellison's Invisible Man -- I'm back looking at the book again, and in a new way. I'm fascinated by the practical constraints of photographing more than 1,000 lights. I'm impressed with how lived-in Wall made the scene. At first I was inclined to say that Wall's photograph ought to be on the cover of Ellison's book. I'm not sure if I think that now -- it might soften the scene in the book and take some of the impact of the photgraph -- but it's better than what they've been doing till now. (See cover, left.)

There's an amazing resource on the Tate Modern's website: more than seven hours of video lectures on Jeff Wall's work, specifically, a forty minute lecture on the Ellison photograph by the chief curator of the Louvre, and Michael Fried, a Johns Hopkins humanities professor, discusses Wall's After 'Spring Snow' by Yukio Mishima, Chapter 34. The Tate's putting these lectures online reminds us of all the possibilities the Web hold for museums, and how seldom they take advantage of them.

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