Inside Wolfgang Tillmans’s Superb Tate Modern Survey

The new show feels unquestionably relevant.

wolfgang tillmans tate modern
Wolfgang Tillmans poses in front of his works at his exhibition “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017” at Tate Modern. Photo courtesy Tate Photography.

The opening today of “2017,” Wolfgang Tillmans’s survey at Tate Modern, is bringing a much needed breath of fresh air to the London museum, and not because recent exhibitions might have been lackluster—on the contrary, the ongoing Robert Rauschenberg retrospective is a triumph, and the recent solos of Agnes Martin and Sonia Delaunay were impeccable, to name a few.

Yet, showing a living and breathing artist who’s making art in response to current events has turned those white walls into a stage that feels unquestionably more relevant.

And if there’s one artist who has been making work about urgent matters, it is definitely Tillmans. His “EU Campaign” posters became the defining pro-Remain, anti-Brexit artwork, ahead of the UK referendum last year. Articulating what many people had in mind but were struggling to find words to express, those posters became emblems, freely distributed and printed, stuck to windows and wielded in demonstrations.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Shit buildings going up left, right and centre (2014). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Shit buildings going up left, right and centre (2014). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Working tirelessly since the early 1990s, it’s been many years now since Tillmans’s oeuvre completed, with flying colors, the arduous journey from the pages of fashion magazines to the walls and floors of museum across the world—Turner Prize included, an accolade which Tillmans won in 2000, becoming the first non-British artist do so.

The transition somewhat echoes that of fellow photographer Juergen Teller. Both were born in 1960s Germany, and started their careers as young artists in London. Both became beacons of youth culture thanks to their work for cult magazines like The Face or I-D. And, ultimately, both were accepted by museums, galleries, critics, and curators as “serious artists” (whatever that means).

But, while Teller’s mostly figurative photographic work feels humorous, buoyant, and theatrical, Tillmans’s work has always been introverted, exacting, and precise; keenly interested in formal experimentation and display, curious about the possibilities of abstraction, and definitely politically oriented.

“2017” is not a retrospective, Tate tells us, but this gathering of works—dating mostly from 2003 to now (with the exception of the 1983-89 series “FRAGILE”)—is exhaustive enough to encompass all the key strands of his multifarious practice.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Collum (2011). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Collum (2011). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Pretty much everything is here: portraits of friends and exquisitely-cropped fragments of the bodies of lovers; domestic still-lifes; clubbing scenes; travelogues of trips to Ethiopia, St. Petersburg, and Los Angeles; abstract, almost sculptural works in the shape of folded prints in box frames and paper drops; his works on tables, most notably his “Truth Study Center” series; artist books and magazine interventions; the pro-EU posters…

Here we also find his forays into sound installation—music being one of his most enduring passions—via his ongoing “Playback Room,” where music is played and lectures and conversation staged; performance, through the video Instrument (2015); and even running an artist space, Between Bridges, launched in London in 2006 and then transferred to Berlin, where Tillmans is now mostly based.

His voracious curiosity is palpable, as is his creative energy. In fact, surveying Tillmans’s career is akin to witnessing his relentless ambition and the development of his talent. Having mastered a signature photographic style, and having carved a name for himself in the world of fashion and editorial photography, was clearly not enough for him. He had more and bigger things to say, and had to find new means to say them.

Engaging with forms of display was a natural step, a knack probably stemming from seeing his work laid out in countless magazines and books. The influence that Tillmans has had in contemporary display can’t be overstated, particularly in the now-ubiquitous style of exhibiting photography unframed and pinned to the wall with bulldog clips.

Wolfgang Tillmans, paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Wolfgang Tillmans, paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Perhaps as a continuation of his more textural photographs—depicting fabrics and still lifes so close up they become difficult to read—experiments in abstraction followed suit, many of them featuring what is perhaps his favorite motif: the fold, which, as the exhibition’s curator Chris Dercon kindly reminded us, was considered by the philosopher Leibniz as one of the most accurate ways to depict the complexities of the human soul.

In 2005, he began one of his most celebrated series: “Truth Study Center,” table-based installations, sometimes in very large clusters, in which he displays newspaper clippings, creating new readings and meanings while questioning the veracity of those claims.

Installation view of Truth Study Center at “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017.” Photo courtesy Tate Photography.

Installation view of Truth Study Center at “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017.” Photo courtesy Tate Photography.

“Truth Study Center,” which is ongoing, has always felt compelling, one of Tillmans’s most daring and astute series. But in our current “post-truth” world of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” it feels simultaneously incredibly prescient and of the moment.

“I was enraged and concerned and spending a lot of time reading media and thinking about all these different claims to the truth, ‘the big truth’ which was the ultimate justification behind all that violence and those wars. I realized that all the problems that the world faces right now arise from men claiming to possess absolute truths,” Tillmans told me in 2010, when I interviewed him about this specific series of works, which were being shown as part of the exhibition “The Last Newspaper” at New York’s New Museum.

Installation view of “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017” at Tate Modern. Photo courtesy Tate Photography.

Installation view of “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017” at Tate Modern. Photo courtesy Tate Photography.

Almost seven years have passed, and his words and works seem just as relevant, if not more. In the show, there’s a slew of explicitly political works, besides of course the anti-Brexit posters.

Particularly poignant is a 2016 series of images taken in border controls (“Border Installation”), and photographs of various seas and of a rescue mission in the island of Lampedusa, all referring to the plight of migrants and refugees, and how the western world is becoming a much more unwelcoming and dangerous place for those seeking new beginnings.

And yet, even at his most political and conceptual, there is always beauty and poetry in Tillmans’s work.

“This exhibition is not about politics, it’s about poetry, it’s about installation art. It’s about thinking about the world. I’ve never felt that the private and political can be separated, because the political is only the accumulation of many people’s private lives, which constitute the body politics,” Tillmans told me yesterday.

“My work has always been motivated by talking about society, by talking about how we live together, by how we feel in our bodies. Sexuality, like beauty, is never un-political, because they relate to what’s accepted in society. Two men kissing, is that acceptable? These are all questions to do with beauty.”

Wolfgang Tillmans, Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012). Photo ©Wolfgang Tillmans.

Ultimately, Tillmans’s work states the belief that art is valuable and has a purpose—that beauty can have a positive effect. His stance is basically the opposite of irony and jadedness. Instead, he is earnest and optimistic, and his works seem to say that the world is beautiful, that life and freedom are precious, and that we should all work together to secure and preserve them, especially in the face of current threats.

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017” is on view at Tate Modern, London, from February 15 – June 11, 2017.


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