In the fifth instalment of Art21’s “Summer of Shorts,” Vancouver artist Jeff Wall explains his 2014 conceptual photograph Changing Room. Blurring the lines between photographic realism and conceptualism, Changing Room is charged with the dual thrill of voyeuristic transgression and occupying a liminal, perspectival space that probes the limits of surveillance and public space.
In Changing Room, we see a woman pulling a dress over her head, but from the impossible perspective of a mirror that contradicts the mirrors visible in the photograph. “What you see happening happened,” Wall demurs. “How it happened is secondary to the fact that it happened.”
The point is well taken. The impulse to understand how an image came about often circumvents the more pressing matter of dealing with the questions posed by an image. Rightfully so, Wall is reluctant to give away too much: “You’re not allowed to have one-way mirrors in dressing rooms. You can’t have surveillance cameras in dressing rooms…. Therefore, the only thing you can be seeing is what the mirror sees, so that’s a picture that can’t be made.”
Changing rooms are one of the few spaces that are exempt from constant surveillance, violating a uniquely inalienable, site-specific right to privacy that is often taken for granted, and one that we are becoming less accustomed to expect in a militarized, technocratic surveillance state. The implicit sleaziness of the one-way mirror view makes the viewer-cum-voyeur a co-conspirator, demanding that in viewing the image, the viewer is implicated in its composition—one that they are unable to extricate themselves from.
Years later, Wall’s dedication to opacity keeps Changing Room an endlessly compelling image. “The most beautiful artistry is hidden,” Wall says.
Vidal Wu is Canadian Art’s editorial resident. He tweets @vidalwuu.