Wolfgang Tillmans is a German photographer. Until 11 June 2017, you can see his exhibition, 2017, at the Tate Modern in London. “Each room in the exhibition has been specially configured by Tillmans as a personal response to the present moment.” What you take from the show will depend on your own views and preferences. There are stunning figurative photographs and beautiful abstract works, mostly photographs created without a camera, as well as an eclectic collection of materials on topics that interest Tillmans and pieces where he sculpts the paper on which an image sits into three dimensional objects. Something for everyone.
It’s not always obvious what the message of each room is. This is exacerbated by the minimalistic labelling. I did wonder how visitor-friendly the exhibition will turn out to be. I attended at 10:15 on a working weekday and I had no problems navigating the galleries. However, it might become a little fraught if it does get busy. My advice is come early (or late – Friday and Saturday late night openings are a great invention). Oh, and if you use glasses, bring your bi-focals to avoid taking them on and off again to read the labels and look at the artwork!
Tillmans feels increasingly less obligated to create documentary images. This is a shame and I hope he doesn’t give up completely – his eye for a scene, landscape or people, produces wonderful, beautiful images.
It seems quite bizarre that photographers are now looking at “the rudiments of photographic processes and their potential to be used as a form of self-expression.” First photography pushed artists to do something rather than simply portray reality as accurately and technically as possible. Now photography yearns to follow in their abstracted footsteps.
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There follows a more long-winded survey of the exhibition and the pieces that caught my eye.
One of the first pieces you see in room 1 is “End of Broadcast” (there is another of the series in room 11) so let’s look at the abstract works first. “End of broadcast” works show analogue static, photographed directly with a high-resolution digital camera from a digital screen. This would not be possible from an old cathode ray tube, which created the picture through scanning.
Tillmans finds ways to create photographs without a camera. The Silver are “prints made by passing monochromatically expose photographic paper through a dirty photo-developing machine, they collect particles and residue from the rollers and liquids. This makes them … a record of the chemical and mechanical processes from which they originate.” I think the Silver prints are quite lovely, grand fields of colour interrupted by sharp shapes, circles and lines.
To create the Greifbar (or Tanglible) works, “working in the darkroom, Tillmans traces light directly onto photographic paper.” These are beautiful. Yellow fields with fronds and flocks of lines in black or in red, in different pictures. They reminded me of iron filings caught by a magnetic field.
With the Greifbar, in the same room are two pieces called Paper drop: a piece of paper folded without being folded flat so it makes a loop, like a horizontal water drop. The edge of the paper closest to the viewer has a sharp edge but within there are swirling reflections.
He also sculpts the paper on which an image sits into three dimensional objects. I found these quite satisfying, responding both to the colour blocks and the toning as well as to the folding and shaping.
Putting these abstractions aside, there are some wonderful, figurative photographs from Tillmans’s voyages around the world. The Iguazu falls between Brazil and Argentina; a night sky bursting with stars; a market in Africa, bigger than life size and full of wonderful faces and vibrant with colour; and a hotel room with in a Jurys Inn in the days of bulky analogue TVs. These altogether in room 3 as an embarrassment of vibrant riches.
A quick shout out for “Like praying” in room 1. I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and the photograph is just Child’s Pose. Things speak differently to different people.
Amongst the abstracts in room 5 there is a picture, yellow from street lights, called Shanghai Night. It shows a group of men relaxing in what looks like a hot night, a group in the foreground playing draughts or similar. It is beautifully composed.
A riverside room is filled with papers and display cabinets. I ignored them and enjoyed the real life view of the river and St Paul’s from the window as well as the photograph of Venice with a vaporetto and gondole at a quay without the normal grand buildings. An interesting juxtaposition.
Room 11 has some amazing figurative photographs, including “The most beautiful place in the world”, hanging high above a large pure white rectangle. We are told that it is taken from inside a cloud. Next to it is a smaller, a sixth or eighth the size, image showing blue sky through two clouds. They are intriguing and beautiful. There is also a photograph of tree trunks, Wald. I couldn’t quite tell if it was just a simple photograph or whether it was made of components, tree trunks stitched together like a collage. In this room, Tillmans wants to highlight the coexistence of the personal, private, public and political spheres. It probably says something about me that I saw and focused on the pictures of the natural world, not seeing the other material!
13 is a room of portraits, a mixture of great-and-good, including a self-portrait taken in a distorting mirror that prisoners had to use in HM Prison Reading. There was a photograph of a painting of William of Orange, but not the usual William of Orange seen in Britain, way too old. This was William I, Prince of Orange, Count of Nassau. The idea of a photograph of an historical painting amused me.
Unusually for Tillmans, the final room uses symbol and allegory to comment on the current situation. The State We Are In, deals “with borders and how they appear clear cut but are actually fluid”. There are some wonderful photographs here. The photograph of the Atlantic Ocean is huge and compelling. I can relate to the pictures taken from planes, seeing the colour of the sky above the earth. I’ve experienced that myself. I also loved the four photographs of the apple tree, I think on his balcony.
One of the most moving is a picture of a man walking towards the wall of Gaza. The great concrete blocks and the size of the wall towering over the man creates a sense of inhumanity.
In this quick survey, I’ve skipped over the rooms concerning music and video. Tillmans believes that we increasingly listen to music on quite lo-fi devices. He creates spaces, Playback room, where we can sit and experience music in quality that is as close as possible to the live experience. It is an interesting idea – and not quite what you’d expect at a photography exhibition. The Playback room is filled with natural light. Room 12 in contrast is very dark, showing a video. Take care walking into it. Don’t fall over the bench. The video failed to move me but the information that the accompanying music was created from the sound of Tillmans feet hitting the floor, “his body becomes an instrument”, intrigued me.
I looked forward to seeing the truth study centre – it is certainly a topic that is right in the news today and it is something Tillmans has been looking at since 2005. It disappointed me. It laid out lots of articles, or parts of articles, including academic pieces about how humans understand and perceive facts and truth but there was no commentary or unifying thought. There was no narrative through the disparate information. The interactive display (click here) on the Tate website (that I’ve just discovered) might work better because he explains the pieces.
The truth study centre is just one occasion where the centre of the room is taken over with horizontal display cabinets. A theme running through these is Tillmans’s sense that “the ‘Now’ should be understood as the history of the future.” He tries to shift our perspective to show that what we think of as key dates are as far away from us today as historical dates were back then. This concept, close to my own perceptions, is one of the ones that has haunted me since the exhibition. So, although these display cabinets didn’t impress me at the time, I acknowledge that they have some power.
As I mentioned earlier, I found the layout of the exhibition difficult in several ways. Pieces are scattered across the white walls. Some are high and almost out of sight, including the piece entitled “The most beautiful place in the world”. It was so high, it was unattainable. If that was the point, that was clever. If not, then it was a terrible way to display a photograph. There are frequent groupings of like materials, often focused in the corner of rooms. This is aesthetically pleasing, but could cause problems with viewing once the rooms fill up.
Navigation is more difficult in the rooms with the horizontal display cabinets. They stand in the middle of the rooms at odd angles to one another. Walking around them, seeing what is displayed, which is not all in the same orientation, is difficult enough when doing it alone. It might be impossible in a crowd.
There is minimalistic labelling. There are no wall panels to provide context and there were no audio interpretations to rent. The only context is provided in the small booklet that the Tate routinely hands out to visitors. These normally reproduce the large panels in each room but the large panels do not exist here. In addition, there are no labels next to the individual pieces. Instead there is, somewhere on the wall, a key, which charts the layout of the walls and the labels for the pieces.
It was interesting to watch the people in the exhibition, clutching their books and looking for the labels, which they mostly found, and for the interpretations, which they did not. People (and I include myself in this) seem to want to know what to think.
A final comment on the presentation: some pieces are framed; others are simply the paper, clipped using those little butterfly clips to the walls. The notes say: “By pinning and taping work to the wall, as well as using frames, Tillmans draws attention to the edges of the print, encouraging the viewer to interact with the photograph as an object, rather than a conduit for an image.” To me, it did the opposite – it made the access to the subject matter more direct, as if I could walk into Tillmans’s London garden in his 4-metre tall photograph of a weed. Still, it was a great picture!