Dead Troops Talk (A Vision after an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) is a monumental, glowing image by Jeff Wall. Created in 1992, this tableau of the dead rising up and conversing during the Soviet-Afghan War is one of the most recognized and written-about of all Wall's works. In this image, Russian soldiers are shown sporting wounds that would not look out of place in a slasher flick, with dismembered limbs and cavities in their heads; a foot is even shown having been blasted off its owner and lodged behind a rock. This is the shell casing-strewn fog of war, yet is an image of aftermath, with the victorious Mujahedin shown picking through the loot. Unbeknownst to them, conversation has broken out among the troops, many of whom appear to be comparing notes, some of them humorously, in a deliberately traumatic and distorted resurrection.
Wall explained that the inception of Dead Troops Talk came from out of the blue: "I had a sudden notion of a dialogue of the dead, coming from I don't know where. It had nothing to do with the Afghan war, but the subjects needed to be soldiers because it seemed important that they would have died in an official capacity, that would surely give them something to talk about... At the time I was thinking about it, the Afghan war was coming to an end" (J. Wall, quoted in C. Burnett, Jeff Wall, exh. cat., London, 2005, p. 59). Wall explained that he was influenced by war photography, and also by the contrast between the gritty realism of those images of the front line and their predecessors, the dramatic paintings created before the camera was taken into the field that were used to convey a sense of the drama and spectacle of war. In Dead Troops Talk, Wall plays with both conventions: the composition appears staged, following a formal rhythm across the canvas that recalls the nineteenth-century paintings of artists such as Gros and Géricault as well as Edouard Castres' panorama of the French retreat during the Franco-Prussian War which remains a tourist attraction in Lucerne - and itself became the subject of another of Wall's photographs during this time, Restoration. Dead Troops Talk is staged, like those images; however, the incredible impact of the gore of the wounds, the sense of the dustiness of the rubble, the sheer scale of the figures, all allow the soldiers to spill into our world under the pretenses of documentary evidence through his use of photography.
Wall plays with our expectations of photography in order to heighten the impact of Dead Troops Talk: each detail, such as the uniforms, the weapons and the wounds, had been studied in order to lay claim to an impossible authenticity: "It was important to have that level of plausibility, and it's more interesting aesthetically to do it that way. It has a relation to ways of seeing the truth, but it doesn't have a direct relation. That's why I called it a 'hallucination', a 'vision''"(J. Wall, ibid. p. 59). Unlike the snapshots of so much war photography, the products of a captured moment, Dead Troops Talk was created over a span of six years, reflecting the incredible attention to detail that went into its contents and composition. Wall used a small team to create a set within a temporary studio in Burnaby, British Columbia. There, he recreated an imaginary rubble-strewn landscape, arranged the props, and took the group of photographs of the various clusters of people which were subsequently joined together using digital technology - in fact, for only the second time in his career (see T. Vischer & H. Naef (ed.), Jeff Wall: Catalogue Raisonné 1978-2004, Basel, 2004, p. 338).
Wall has pointed out that, when he first had the idea for Dead Troops Talk, the Soviet-Afghan War was drawing to an end. Indeed, the Russian expenditure on the futile occupation of Afghanistan, which they had essentially invaded in order to support a Soviet regime there, and the constant battling against insurrection led by the Mujahedin was a key factor in the collapse of the USSR, a process accelerated by the rapprochement between the American President Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart from 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev. Dead Troops Talk shows Soviet troops - theoretically the enemies of the West - engaged in an animated conversation following their implied deaths at the hands of the Mujahedin who are present in the scene. One is inspecting the contents of a paper bag while the legs of two others are seen in the upper right, standing by the assembled weapons and ammunition of the slain Russian soldiers.
This grants Dead Troops Talk an historical specificity; however, the theme of the horrors of war is almost timeless. Dead Troops Talk takes up the mantle of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya - indeed, the deliberately muted palette, which is lightened by the flashes of color of the blood as well as the sweets spilt in the centre, allows Wall to echo Goya's Disasters of War etchings. Wall is also referencing the documentary images that did so much to change people's concepts of these conflicts, giving them a grim, vicarious impression of the realities of life at the front, as demonstrated throughout the history of war photography, be it in Timothy O'Sullivan's 1863 photo Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Robert Capa's harrowing images from the middle of the Twentieth Century or the pictures that we still see flowing from Afghanistan to this day, showing the destruction wrought during another occupation there.
Wall has pointed out that, "In a sense, war pictures cannot really be 'anti-war.' They can, however, repudiate military glamour, the glamorization of combat and strategy, and focus on suffering" (J. Wall, quoted in M. Schwander, 'Restoration: Interview', pp. 86-95, Jeff Wall: The Complete Edition, London, 2009, p. 93). Essentially, in Dead Troops Talk he has circumvented the complicity of the painters and photographers who depict those conflicts, instead creating an hallucinatory image showing the range of reactions of the thirteen dead soldiers in his picture. Some of them are clowning, one showing off his wound in an echo of the depictions of Doubting Thomas and Christ, another dangling an ear from his hand. The reactions read in the faces of the thirteen reanimated corpses range from humor to horror to sheer disbelief, and what comic content there is serves only to underline the overall tragedy of the situation. Perhaps more fittingly, a couple of the soldiers lie, facing the sky, perhaps still dead, perhaps staring upwards. Straddling the border between life and death, they highlight the ambiguity of this highly narrative image. Meanwhile, life carries on: the Afghans are oblivious to these carnivalesque, grotesque goings-on, implying that this may all be, as the title implies, a vision, less like the Lady of Mons than an hallucination caused by the drugs that were so rampantly trafficked in Afghanistan, or perhaps the chaotic, feverish imaginings of another dying soul.