Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 / Reviewed by Alastair Levy / 03.03.17
On entering the first of fourteen rooms in Wolfgang Tillmans’ show 2017, a short paragraph informs visitors that the wall texts which would usually be present in each gallery have been confined to the exhibition booklet. This refreshing gesture on the part of the artist articulates the importance that space plays in his work and illustrates the fact that his practice is as much sculptural as it is photographic. His images dynamically activate the whole of the spaces which they inhabit and institutional add-ons such as these disrupt the flow of his exact language.
As always with Tillmans, the most striking thing about this show, which focuses on work made since 2003, is the incredible diversity of forms, subject matter and scale. There are chromogenic prints and inkjet prints (framed, unframed, taped or clipped). There are videos, sound works, books, posters, magazine pages, personal artefacts, show invites and press releases. Portraits face abstractions, still lifes sit alongside landscapes. It is simultaneously all-encompassing but extremely specific, and it is the particularity of his approach to every detail that gives the work its coherence and its strength.
The technology of image-making is a continuous theme. CLC 800, dismantled, a (2011) depicts a colour printer, possibly in Tillmans’ studio, taken apart to such a degree that the myriad of components reminds us that the shells of our everyday hardware conceal complexities which are difficult to fathom. In Sendeschluss/End of Broadcast II (2014) we see a close up of the static interference emitted by a digital TV screen losing its analogue signal. What is first taken to be a monochromatic image slowly reveals a pink hue; Tillmans’ delicate handling of colour is a constant source of pleasure throughout.
A new iteration of the artist’s ongoing work truth study centre (2017) takes on added significance in light of recent political events. Articles on global warming accompany pages relating to advertising and consumerism. A print-out of a screenshot from an email incorporates the subject line: ‘Life is a miracle and you can feel that’. A seemingly heartening message until you realise that it’s spam and that the content of the email reads: ‘Score huge savings on the best drugs’. Tillmans acknowledges that he has become increasingly political since 2003 and there are several other signifiers of this, most notably with the series of pro-EU posters that he designed in the run-up to the referendum last year.
Tillmans’ gaze is a critical one but not a cynical one. He approaches all subject matter as equal and brings a lightness of touch which is rare. It feels as if he is showing us everything, but we know that to be an illusion. It is only a very carefully edited selection of observations and gestures that we receive in the end, firstly through his choice to take or make, and secondly to present. It is this ability to make such precise decisions appear almost incidental that makes his work so energised, dynamic and full of life.
– reviewed by Alastair Levy
Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 continues at Tate Modern, London until 11th June 2017
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG