Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition at the Tate Modern is definitively not a retrospective. Though photographs such as paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse and Anders pulling splinter from his foot have become familiar, his practiced method of displaying prints as whole-room installations invites infinite new perspectives and interpretations, and address a new range of political and social concerns. Meditations on shifting cultural attitudes, distrust of the media, conflict, climate change, utopianism, and activism, are presented alongside personal motifs reflecting on youth and aging, the public and the private, sexuality, and vulnerability.
By placing his images in constantly mutable environments, their meaning irreducible and unsettled, Tillmans explores the element of indeterminancy within photography that seems alien to its nature; he rejects the assumption that meaning is inherently embedded within the photograph, instead suggesting that photographs take on new meaning as they are re-contextualised and re-considered in relation to other images.
Hundreds of photographs of every size, framed and unframed, grouped and alone, bent, curved, and crumpled, held in place with tape, glue, pins, and clips, draw attention to the materiality of the photographic image as an object, and the artificial environment of the exhibition space. The arrangement echoes a world crowded with stimuli; photographs peer down at you from the ceiling, or look up at you from below, clusters of 6x4 prints lure you into corners, and huge abstractions are hung in narrow rooms to soak you in their delicate forms. New technologies offer a depth of detail that is at once compelling and excessive. Repeated images ruminate upon the photograph as an indefinitely re-producible image, where each print has equal value to that of the original. There is no material heirachy, a high quality hand-print is presented on the same plane as an inkjet print, and these are interspersed with iphone screenshots and articles ripped from newspapers in a deliberately fragmented and often provocative display of juxtapositions.
Cameraless images such as Greifbar and Blushes #136, evoke something ethereal and otherworldly, delicate and transient, ink falling into water, or threads of blood pulsating below the surface of the skin. The formation of these pieces rely upon the erratic nature of light itself, combined with the physical gestures of the artist, the results cannot be re-produced and yet elements of chance distance them from the process of painting, asserting the images as inherently photograpic. The cameraless images within the exhibition also work to dissipate the idea of Tillmans as the eyes through which the viewer sees, and distancing the exhibition from autobiographical interpretation.
Tillmans’s rejection of a hierachy is also seen in his range of subject matter, portraits of Morrissey, Frank Ocean, Oscar Niemeyer and Patti Smith, sit alongside friends, lovers, and anonymous street figures. The mundane is approached with deliberate formality, a discarded plastic bag is photographed with the same reverence as a blossoming apple tree. The camera is considered a tool by which to nurture sensitive perception, drawing attention to the banal, and encouraging moments of clarity within the frenetic flood of imagery that is contemporary culture.
Publications, sculptural pieces, and videos are also on display; in the South Tank, Tillmans experiments with light and sound, offering immersive environments with a range of artistic collaborators.
Book for Architects in the Tanks Studio, presents over 450 images detailing Tillmans’s longstanding facination with architecture. The photographs are displayed via projection with changing perspectives and vantage points that aim to present a dislocated multi-layered vision of contemporary built environments and the modifications inhabitants have made to suit their evolving needs. The project is simultaneously figurative and abstract, extracting visual forms from the social fabric without presenting a city stereotype.
Though his practice has continued to expand, the overarching ambition of Wolfgang Tillmans’s work remains unchanged, exploring the boundaries of the photographic medium in order to discover new ways to represent and express the inexhaustible complexity of his subject, which is indeed, life itself.
Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 is open at the Tate Modern until 11 June 2017. Written by Camron Intern Elizabeth Mahoney.