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Jeff Wall

A fight on the sidewalk, 1994

Photograph | C-print in a lightbox
189 x 303,5 cm.



Jeff Wall’s photographs are dramatic stagings of urban life and contemporary alienation that converge –like film shots- in elusive instants and fleeting emotions and gestures that attract and involve us in what they depict (forcing our indifference). These images become a seductive mishmash of reality and narrative fiction where, rejecting all ornament and artifice, they appear to want to talk about the flow of life; about those moments of neglect when the boredom of life is replaced by the suffering of the self. His characters are subject to strong social pressure and considerable alienation, where no one seems to be doing what they would like to do; they are individuals full of repressed emotions that show us the internal contradictions that agitate them. We could be any one of them, their experiences are not external to us, what we see in their faces is nothing more than an outer reflection of a slow degradation: our own.

Jeff Wall knows that the city, its streets and inhabitants, are the subjects that best express many of the central issues concerning contemporary individuals. In this way, in Fight on the Sidewalk, he presents a violent scene within an urban landscape, a fight in a street between two anonymous men who are rolling on the ground whilst a third man watches them from a distance. The street is presented as a place of transit, but also one of chaos and violence where moments of infinite solitude are experienced. But Wall’s intention isn’t to represent the event, but to reinvent it in order to generate anthropology out of daily life, to comment on the unhealthy atmosphere we find ourselves trapped in, to show us a geographical space that, containing a deep psychological charge, speaks to us about destruction, fear, or the secret and hopeless will to survive within the depressing community one finds oneself in.

What we see in this photograph, through a fairly mundane reality, is a scene that contains great doses of solitude and violence; it is the depiction of narrative imagery that leads to a traumatic signification and a pessimistic view of human beings’ existence. But despite a certain atmosphere of catastrophe, stillness and silence dominate the scene, showing contemporary individuals’ confusion and vulnerability; in a time that appears to have stopped, the human figure is contemplated in all its fragility. A Fight on the Sidewalk depicts disconcerted beings, frozen moments, immobile actions, desolate backdrops and silent figures that bring to mind certain atmospheres from Beckett, where the possibility of security and tranquillity is disrupted by a sense of unease and uncertainty.

Here, as in many of his works, Jeff Wall manages to show the underlying violence and extraordinary solitude present in every daily situation, no matter how mundane and anodyne it might appear to be. It is through scenes and images that reproduce the most vulgar of incidents that the highest charge of expressive tension is portrayed, generating a distancing from the everyday, whilst provoking reflection upon it.

Jose Miguel G. Cortés


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