A Sudden Gust of Wind (1993)

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993

As the sudden gust of wind washes the scene and the figures, a woman on the left looks in shock while concealed by a scarf. The blast blows sheets from her portfolio dispersed into the sky. Men hold their possessions against the force while another person embraces it and looks up, staring at the papers in the trail of the blustery wind, and his garments lean. Trees bend like swinging willows. Leaves drift away. The suburban landscape of brownfields and canals sets the stage under the overcast sky (Tate). The piece of iron on the left adorns the dirt track, hinting at the industrial atmosphere. Small shackles and telegraph poles play a cameo role at the back of this cinematographic performance. The work captures the moment of the splendid play of nature’s power and human helplessness against the sublime through the depiction of artificiality.

A Sudden Gust of Wind and Its Japanese Predecessor

The work is a large, back-lighted colour photograph made by Canadian photographer Jeff Wall in 1993. The composition and photographed subjects are based on Katsushika Hokusai’s woodcut from The Thirty-six Views of Fuji series (Need Link). It may seem the photo was taken at the perfect timing, but do not let it fool you. The composition was staged with the help of actors in Vancouver, an international hub for cinema and television production. It also wasn’t spontaneous, Wall waited for the perfect weather for five months. After taking the shot, Wall collaged the photograph digitally to resemble the Japanese wood print. Combining the modern western art medium of photography with a traditional east Asian work, he renders the photo with transculturality and internationality.

So what makes this photo an epitome of Vancouver history, and perhaps even one of the most representative pieces of Canadian art while it has nothing to do with “the aroma of sizzling back bacon, Moosehead beer or conceptual art pieces based on Toronto Maple Leaf jerseys”? (Need Citation) The answer lies precisely in its international elements.

Since the 1960s Vancouver’s commercial galleries’ (close contact with the US art industry constructs a binary framework of North America Art vs Other arts. Wall, the emerging artist of that time, appeals to the public as a North American rather than a Canadian artist. The public tends to empathize with the “borderless art” concept between the states and Canada (Global and Mail). In the eye of many people outside North America, Vancouver was often labelled as a west coast backwater. However, the Canadianness of Wall’s work was more related to its historical significance rather than an apparent aesthetic distinction.

Since the late 1800s, Vancouver has served as a transportation gateway trade across the Pacific. British Columbia mainly exported natural resources such as gold, coal and salmon. In the Gold Rush of 1858, hundreds of Asian miners joined the gold-seekers heading to British Columbia. Motivated by many factors, Asian immigrants arrived in Vancouver and participated in urban development through both labour and investment. The close contact between different cultures offered Wall a glimpse of traditional Asian art. A Sudden Gust of Wind was created within such a diversified cultural atmosphere.

Vancouver Photo School 

In the 20th century, foreign investments, stock exchanges, Expo 86, and expansive urban renewal projects contributed to the transformation of Vancouver, both economically and artistically. The internationalizing city welcomed a group of talented artists and theorists, creating a highly developed intellectual climate. Jeff Wall’s photographic practice emerged in this context.

Wall started as a painter at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Though he never finished his Ph.D., Wall read widely on art-related topics and became a member of the Vancouver School of Photoconceptualism. The school began to include artists in Vancouver, such as Wall, around 1990. The school refers to a standard critical sensibility rather than aesthetic similarity or genre . It represents the development of Vancouver Photoconceptualism. The theory prioritizes ideas over traditional aesthetic, technical, and material concerns. Wall’s conceptual photograph often utilizes staged composition to illustrate an idea. Thanks to the group of intellectuals, the term “Vancouver” has become a brand name, representing artistic qualities of conceptualism and post-conceptualism. The work of the Vancouver School launched Vancouver into the international art market. Although Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind does not exhibit a “regional” aesthetic, its relation to photoconceptualism renders it unmistakably(?) Canadian.

Vancouver Art Market

While Vancouver underwent continuous post-war redevelopment during the 1960s and 70s, there was no mature art market for commercial purposes. “Nobody in Vancouver buys art … they are not interested in painting,” says Andy Warhol (cite this?). Indeed, the local art market of this hub for trade between Canada and Asia started small. However, as the towering concrete building rises and mixes with the well-balanced magnificent natural surroundings in 1955, the city welcomed the beginning of their commercial gallery, an American couple, Alvin Balkind and Abraham Rogatnick. Interested in Vancouver’s Old British charm, their modern aesthetics drove the couple to open the first commercial gallery in the city, called the New Design Gallery (NDG). While creating marketing for local artists to benefit financially, the New Design Gallery became a meeting place for contemporary art, establishing an “art club” for artists to socialize. The gallery was crucial for popularizing contemporary artistic ideas among knowledgeable audiences and patrons, but its story does not end there.

In 1966, Doug Chrismas from West Vancouver took over the gallery after purchasing it and renaming it Douglas Gallery. Chrismas was internationally connected. Along with the record gains for the Vancouver stock exchange in the 1960s, Douglas Gallary attracted young artists with idealistic dreams worldwide. The gallery was no longer a local market but an international trading center for art and ideas as it renders Vancouver art with internationality. The aesthetics of the Vancouver art world leans toward the global rather than the local.

Both NDG and Douglas Gallery exhibited primarily contemporary paintings. As a relatively newer art medium, photography did not have a decent collecting tradition in Vancouver. In other words, people did not buy into collecting photos. After the end of Douglas Gallary’s era in the 1970s, NOVA Gallery carried on its legacy and aesthetics, dedicated to exhibiting photography of local artists such as Jeff Wall. With the international atmosphere inherited from its predecessors, NOVA planned to create a new group of photography collectors and patrons. It underwent group exhibitions of local and international photographers to popularize the art medium. The attempt was successful financially and artistically, laying a foundation for the thriving of Canadian photography.

Wall’s A Sudden Gust of Wind was a result of the ongoing development of the Canadian art world. Its transcultural theme resembles the diversified culture of Vancouver. Its ideology follows the theory of the Vancouver intellectuals. Its art medium marks the thriving of the Canadian art market and galleries. The photo is the epitome of the history of Vancouver’s internationalization. For this particular reason, the work should be credited as meritorious Canadian art.


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O’Hagan, Sean. “Jeff Wall: ‘I’m Haunted by the Idea That My Photography Was All a Big Mistake.’” The Guardian, November 3, 2015, sec. Art and design. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/03/jeff-wall-photography-marian-goodman-gallery-show.

Tate. “‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’, Jeff Wall, 1993.” Tate. Accessed May 26, 2022. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wall-a-sudden-gust-of-wind-after-hokusai-t06951.

The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Vancouver.” Accessed May 26, 2022. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/vancouver.


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