Jeff Wall’s Insomnia
This link is to a post by Sharon Boothroyd titled, ‘Beneath the Surface’ about interpreting Jeff Wall’s Insomnia, (1994)
Insomnia, 1994 by Jeff Wall
Sharon Boothroyd says of this image that ‘for this image I see a kitchen, denoted by the cooker, fridge freezer and table and chairs’. (WeAreOCA. 2018). So, the use of kitchen appliances, kitchen table and cupboards clearly signifies a domestic kitchen. However, there is more to the image than its literal translation as we are led, by the starkness, harsh lighting, dark shadowy corners and cold colours to interpret this kitchen as functional, a bit unsettling, depressing and unwelcoming even ignoring the fact that a grown man is sleeping under the table.
If I had not seen the title ‘Insomnia’ I don’t think I would have interpreted this image as such. At first I thought of drunkenness, or collapse. Realistically though, a person cannot collapse underneath a table; the man has purposely got himself in this position. I now think of a man who, not being able to sleep upstairs, wanders down into his kitchen in search of a snack, and in desperation and distress tries to get comfortable on the floor, or is he seeking a ‘safe’ place? I feel that he is suffering mentally or emotionally and is troubled by something; anxiety or panic maybe.
Continuing with my interpretation, I notice that not only is this kitchen dated and neglected (carpet and walls) and there are no items of comfort or luxury, but it gives a sense of being without a family (bare walls, no curtains, no handbag hanging over the chair no fridge magnets holding a child’s school drawings). The view from the window is of bricks which makes the room cell-like – no way out and no visitors in. This man is alone, lonely.
In my interpretation of this image I bring my own cultural expectations and my own experience, and as I have never seen anyone lying under a kitchen table like this before, I necessarily think that this scene is odd. It is odd enough for me to wonder what happened to bring this man to this situation, and what is going to happen next. If he had been sitting at the table drinking a coffee then I would not have held this same curiosity.
There seems to be some particularly staged elements to this image; the tea towel on the chair the salt cellar on the table and the paper bag on top of the fridge as though they are clues to his state of mind. They are basic items, ugly, functional.
Boothroyd S (2014) Context and Narrative. Open College of the Arts.
WeAreOCA. (2018). Beneath the surface. [online] Available at: https://weareoca.com/subject/photography/beneath-the-surface/ [Accessed 6 Feb. 2018].