Research point: Jeff Wall, Insomnia (1994)

As a research point, we are asked to read OCA tutor, Sharon Boothroyd’s article, Beneath the Surface. The article is a discussion about Jeff Wall’s photo, Insomnia.  In this article Boothroyd demonstrates how to use photographic theory to deconstruct an image.

Insomnia, 1994 by Jeff Wall
Insomnia, 1994 by Jeff Wall

The first order of business is to look at the image as it stands. In Insomnia we see an old gas stove against the left wall. Opposite to this on the right wall is a fridge/freezer. Against the rear wall we see avocado green kitchen cupboards. Some of the cupboard doors stand ajar. In the middle of the kitchen floor is a small table with two chairs beside it. Under the table lies a man. These are the cold, hard facts of the image which is known as the denotation.

But the denotation only tells us what is there. It doesn’t describe or allude to any emotion or meaning. This is where connotation comes into play. For instance, we know that avocado green was a very popular colour during the 1960’s. This conveys a sense of age to me and if we look at the gas stove, we can see that this too is a very old model. The lino on the kitchen floor has definitely seen better days as well.  The stark light in the kitchen together with the cold green of the cupboards convey a sense of sterility to the image. This kitchen does not conjure up any sense of it being the ‘the hearth and home’. It does not convey warmth and security at all.

The half open cupboard doors and the scrunched up brown paper on top of the fridge are indicative of a unsuccessful search that has taken place in the kitchen. Had the search been successful, the doors would most likely have been closed.  Further evidence of a search is the awkward positioning of the two chairs in the kitchen. Were they moved to their current positions to aid in the search, or were they shifted to make space for the man below the table? Why is he lying on the cold floor, one has to wonder? Here we can attempt to delve into some psychoanalysis by means of research into symbols. In his unpublished work, Symbolism of Place, John Fraim of The GreatHouse Company makes the following comments on the symbolism of the house:

The symbolism of the house is associated with enclosed and protected space similar to the mother’s womb. In fact it is the first place in each person’s life. As an enclosed space it serves to shelter and protect from the outside world. … each house symbolizes that place of our earliest years and the nurturing cradle of those years. … A house or home can also be viewed as simply a place where we can express a private and unguarded self in an increasingly public world.  … houses symbolize the lives of their inhabitants. … (It) reflects the psychology and personality of its inhabitant.

John Fraim in Symbolism of Place

Indeed one can see from his body stance and gesture, it is clear that the man has assumed a slight foetal position and is seeking protection (under the table and within the confines of a small room).  The man under the table serves as the punctum to this image. His placement is totally unexpected. The fact that he is lying on the floor alludes to his mental state. Something is obviously worrying him a great deal. He has a disturbed look about him.

Freud goes even further in his A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis and states that:

We already know the room as a symbol. The representation may be extended in that the windows, entrances and exits of the room take on the meaning of the body openings. Whether the room is open or closed is a part of this symbolism, and the key that opens it is an unmistakable male symbol.

Chapter X: Symbolism in the Dream

Now I’m not sure that I would agree with Freud. I have never studied Freud, but the little I have gleaned over the years is that his ideas all have sexual connotations, some very far fetched in my opinion. The idea that open kitchen cupboard doors representing female organs seems to be quite the stretch in my humble opinion! No doubt one can really get involved in psychoanalysis if the expertise is there.

Jeff Wall is known for creating his photographs of moments or instances that he has witnessed after the fact. Wall’s image is created in the Renaissance style of the old master painters. The mise-en-scène of the photograph is well thought out from the set design (the 1960’s kitchen) to the lighting (stark bright light) to the space (rather cramped) to composition (the use of diagonal lines to lead our eye all around the frame, the vertical and horizontal lines to provide some solidity to the image and the light and shadow in which the man is lying) down to the costume that the man is wearing.

He plays with the notion that implicit in every photograph is the sense of what happened before the moment depicted and what may happen after’ (National Gallery of Canada). This statement sums up the crux of Wall’s intent with his images, for when we look at this image we are left wondering what caused this man to end up on the floor in such a state and what is going to happen to him. We, the viewers, are left to our own belief system and culture to complete the narrative.

In the video below, Wall gives a little background to his method of working.

Daniel Chandler suggests, in one of his online course modules, analysing an image by looking for the following:

  • signs
  • signifiers (are there any paradigms?)
  • signifieds (denotation/connotation and binary oppositions)
  • various codes (cultural, photographic etc.)
  • syntagmatic relationships
  • intertextuality (does the text refer to other artistic genres?)

I am now familiar with some of the terminology, but need to get up to speed on some of the other aspects of semiology.

Reference List

Boothroyd, Sharon (2012). Beneath the Surface [online] Open College of the Arts. Available from: http://weareoca.com/photography/beneath-the-surface/ [Accessed 19 January, 2016]

Chandler, Daniel (2014). Advertising [online] Available from: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Modules/FM21920/ [Accessed 19 January, 2016]

Freud, Sigmund (1920). A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis [online]. Trans. by G. Stanley Hall. New York: Boni and Liveright; Bartleby.com, 2010. Available from: www.bartleby.com/283/ [Accessed 19 January, 2016]

Fraim, John. Symbolism of Place [online]. Symbolism.Org. Available from: http://www.symbolism.org/writing/books/sp/3/page2.html [Accessed 19 January, 2016]

Jeff Wall [online]. National Gallery of Canada. Available from: https://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=5764 [Accessed 19 January, 2016]

Jeff Wall: “I begin by not photographing” [webcast, online]. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California,  07/07/2010.  2 mins 26 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yG2k4C4zrU (accessed 19/01/2016)

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