… we often feel humiliated when we observe soberly the way we do live.
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Jeff Wall: … Today I think that each artist has become his own academy. He has internalized commands that used to come from a real social institution to which he was directly subjected without the mediation of the market. It is a kind of spiritualization of the premodern situation where society — the court, for example — had a direct use for art. Since than, the utility of art has been ambiguous and indirect. Now, you have to build a kind of institution inside your own psyche, something like a superego.
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Jean-François Chevrier: Where is the humour noir in your work?
JW: It is everywhere. Black humor, diabolic humor, and the grotesque are very close to each other. Bakhtin talked about the “suppressed laughter” in modern culture. Things can be laughed about, but not openly. The fact that the laughter is not open gives it a sinister, neurotic, bitter, and ironic quality. It’s a kind of mannerist laughter that is similar to Jewish humor, Schadenfreude, and gallows humor. I feel that there is a kind of “suppressed laughter” running through my work, even though I am not sure when things are funny. Humour noir is not the same as the comic, although it includes the comic; it can be present when nobody seems to be laughing.
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JW: … If you are a slave, you must always at some level wonder what it would be like to be free. In The Storyteller, for example, I attempted to create an image of a way subjected people might try to build a space for themselves. I imagined the picture as a speculative project. All my pictures about talking, about verbal communication, are in fact about the ways people work on creating something in common, about how they work to find a way to live together.
Jeff Wall, The Storyteller, 1986
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JW: … Bakhtin emphasizes the fact that an utterance derives not from one isolated individual but is already a response to the words of others. Thus the storyteller is not a hero separated from others by a special relation to language. I like your reference to antiquity because I feel that my work is in fact both classical and grotesque. Ancient art imagined the good society but was also open to the concept of the deformed. That is, it was able to recognize that it was not the society it could imagine. Now we are living at a moment when we have already imagined, and even in great and excessive detail, better ways of life than the one we are actually living. As a result, we often feel humiliated when we observe soberly the way we do live.