Terry Atkinson, Jeff Wall Dead Troops Talk – John Zeppetelli

[Fall 1995]

Wiese Verlag, Kunstmuseum Luzern, 1993
50 pp., 21 ill. (5 col.), $ 28.00

Hijacking large-format transparencies in backlit display cases from advertising, and stealing the meticulous orchestration of detail, lighting, and rehearsal from film production, while also subscribing to the nineteenth-century imperative that the artist should be a peintre de la vie moderne, Jeff Wall develops compelling yet critically detached allegories.

Jeff Wall Dead Troops Talk is a catalogue documenting one such photographic image from 1991-92, Dead Troops Talk. A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter, 1986. Re-imagining the uneasy alliance between death and representation, Dead Troops Talk, set in a stony Afghan ravine, pictures the miserable yet grandly allegorical death of the Red Army. The theatrically gaping wounds and carefully composed scramble of bodies, combined with the weird, arrested frenzy of the not-quite-dead Soviet soldiers, almost obscure the solitary, youthful Mujahideen in the composition. Unscathed, wearing sneakers and a traditional costume, quietly rummaging in a bag, this figure – though tucked away to the left of the picture – assumes a nagging narrative centrality.

Via Walter Benjamin and Marxist critique, Terry Atkinson’s essay probes the depths of this complex picture by scanning the inscriptions on its surface. Atkinson captures the picture’s great resonance as he voices the waning historical soliloquies of the Soviet talking corpses, while seeing in the lone Islamic figure an allegory of play and the persistence of the revolutionary subject. The luminescent, light-box Cibachrome technology is read here not as commodity-as-value but as commod-ity-on-display. “Wall,” Atkinson notes, “commodifies history painting only to point out that late-capital commodifies history itself.”

Illustrated with production stills by Roy Arden.