I’ve loved Wolfgang Tillmans’ work since I first saw it. When was that - a decade ago? Maybe longer. Back in 2012, I tried to articulate why in an article for The Shed Gallery -
‘His aesthetic defines this era, as if he’s recording the most important bits of today with tomorrow’s perspective already in the bag’
After seeing his new show at Tate Modern, I exited with just the same feeling of elation I had when I first encountered him. First off, the new exhibition is pleasingly huge in scale, which suits this most prolific of artists. How much pleasure all those white walls must have given him! You can feel his delight in choosing and ordering, but also, however light and adroit its touch, the intense concentration, consideration and no doubt angst that went into this most major of showcases here in Tillmans’ long-adopted homeland (even if he splits his time these days between London and Berlin…).
The exhibition has a friendly informality from the outset. There are no big panels of introductory text and the absence felt strange at first. I even resented momentarily having to read the pamphlet rather than stare at big type on a wall, but very quickly the absence was just something different and before long it was positively liberating. It’s non-prescriptive after all. You can look at the images in any section and read the notes afterwards. Or before. Or not at all. And, most importantly, the words don’t compete.
The layouts are fresh and refreshing with endless variations in size, groupings and interesting adjacencies – all challenging you to look again. The images are hung without frames, either on clips or directly attached to the wall, which is both humble and direct, refusing to demand a bent knee on the part of the viewer, but also ensures a simple and non-sensationalist element of surprise. There’s a soundscape room too, offering a refreshing change in pace. I spent a surprisingly long time in there, lulled into contemplation mode.
The net effect of all these stimulating differences in portrayal and removals of barriers is a powerful sense of immediacy - and of dialogue. This is what all of Tillmans’ work does. It brings viewers closer to the image, to the work, to the vision, to the man himself. Tillmans’ art is fundamentally an act of communication; a naked and generous one. You sense an intensely human desire to share and plead for his cause of fragile and non-obvious beauty, tolerance and inclusion.
A whole sensibility is on show in this exhibition, tangible as you weave your way through the rooms. The word implies a certain skinless sensitivity in terms of the artist’s reaction to the world, but it’s combined with a heightened and refined aesthetic too. This highly individual sensibility is also backed by a powerful intellect, which we see at times in restless mode, sometimes engaged, sometimes angry – but always and predominantly curious. It’s an intellect that betrays a profoundly German earnestness too, of the same deeply-enquiring ilk perhaps as Goethe’s or Herzog’s. Tillmans also laces his cleverness with ironic humour, though never to the point of being cynical. Even at his most world-weary, he is the antithesis of cynicism.
Whilst the work is often highbrow in concept, you always get the feeling that Tillmans follows his instincts, almost religiously in fact, whether the object of his fancy is a car’s design, a nightclub, a desktop, food packaging or the beautiful fold of a garment or placement of a limb. He follows light down tunnels until he can see clearly. He likes to engage with and demystify technique as well, asking questions of his medium in a similar way that Hockney does with painting.
There’s no overall attempt to knit it all together into one big theme. The rooms have broad-brushstroke themes, but no overall grandiose statement. Even when Tillmans follows the great photographic tradition, such as travelling to document a changing world, the results are presented with no more fanfare than any other subject. You, the viewer, will only see the few images that passed muster.
I was really struck by one aspect of the travel photography and that was the lack of assumption of superiority on the part of the photographer. Not for Tillmans the pseudo-anthropological eye that makes the subject/object into some kind of freakshow oddity or victim. There’s always respect, even to the point that the subjects seem to demand their space and leave the photographer no choice. When Tillmans takes a portrait of a young taxi driver in Jeddah, it’s because a) the guy is handsome and b) his personal style is borderline bling and he knows it. There’s no daylight robbery or soul-stealing going on here.
A highlight of the exhibition is ‘Market 1, 2012’. This incredible shot, showing a group of people market trading in a dappled clearing in the trees in Ethiopia, is sublime; full of myriad activities and colour, with the complexity and attention to detail of a Renaissance masterpiece. I stood in front of it for a long time. The more you look, the more you see, from the two highlights of yellow fabric catching the sun top-right and bottom-left, to the shabby dealer counting his notes out mid-deal bottom right, his outfit convincing customers how little he can afford, to the contrasting super-flash dealer top-right, using his grand attire to intimidate and impress. Tillmans’ pleasure is in rejoicing in the humanity before him and making himself invisible, beyond the light imprint of his heartbeat.
Wolfgant Tillmans celebrates the low-impact beauty of easily-disregarded fragility. He is an outsider, a counter-cultural beacon, always the foreigner, living outside of his country – and outside mainstream heteronormative sexuality of course too. His position is always clear, brave and unsullied. I love his work for all these reasons, but most of all I love the small, quiet, still life images he shoots now and then – a plant, fruit, windowsill, ashtray - and for sharing these and all the other moments most people would simply walk on past and never see.
My Insta 12-image homage to Wolfgang Tillmans - https://www.instagram.com/caroline_r_collett/