Wolfgang Tillmans


Written by Dominic Mealy
24 Thursday 24th June 2010


Over the past two decades few visual artists can be said to have been more influential in redefining the manner in which photography is created, read and displayed as Wolfgang Tillmans. Moving freely through portraiture, landscape, still life and abstraction Tillmans has provided images astutely sensitive to our times, eloquently engaged yet mute of fixed didactic meaning, images imbued with a challenging awareness of the limitations and contradictions innate to the photographic medium.
The Serpentine Gallery’s summer exhibition, the first major UK showing of the former Turner Prize winning artist’s work since 2003, promises to pay testament to Tillmans startlingly innovative and varied output, bringing together a range of works; combining pieces made over the last 15 years with works originally conceived for the exhibition. The Serpentine Gallery exhibition promises in some sense a retrospective of the artists output, highlighting his innovative approach to photography and the common conceptual engagements that have shaped Tillmans’ career whilst also laying out the shape of a new trajectory, one that self-reflexively reworks common themes of the past two decades whilst elaborating on and synthesising these themes and approaches to arrive at a new direction.
Works such as Tillmans’ 2008 piece Dan betray, in their juxtaposition of a titular personal name and depersonalised subject, both a continuity and subversion of the characteristically intimate and direct portrait photos that brought Tillmans to fame in the early 1990’s. Contrasting both with the triumphant absurdity of works such at Rachel Auburn & son and the tense dynamics of confident exposure and vulnerability inherent in works such as Man Pissing On Chair, Dan inhabits a synthetic middle ground between the conventions of Tillmans’ portraits and landscapes; emphasising the portraits subject, whilst simultaneously denying this individual any means through which to engage with the viewer, instead presenting a young man from above, faceless, nude yet unresponsive to our gaze, absorbed in some inarticulable yet seemingly meaningful activity, pale leg and arm raised, clutching at stones. The work clearly references Tillmans’ View from Above series (a set of works characterised by the lack of human presence) yet here the scene appears focused on a central human body, less an engaging individual portrait and more a corporeal landscape mimicking in physical objects the photographic effect created in Tillmans Freischwimmer and Urgency experimental abstractions.
This tense play between the transient moment and the eternal and immovable abstraction appears again in works such as In Flight Astro (II). This work, a starry dusk sky viewed from an airplane window, simultaneously draws upon the sky photographs of the Concorde series and the carefully composed astrological photographs of Venus Transit evoking both a snapshot recording of a fleeting momentary experience and an almost abstract and painterly composition of saturated shifting hues, thereby capturing the distinctive energetic balance between chance encounter and staged composition that lies at the paradoxical heart of Tillmans work.
This process of thematic self-referencing and exploration by Tillmans of his works own paradoxical undercurrents appears again in the newer works of the exhibition in, for instance, Paper Drop (Roma). This work, part of a broader series on the same theme, including the mixed-media Lighter series, skillfully explores the nature and idea of the tactile materiality of the photographic image. Here, the image shows a rolled photograph, a form that appears, like the figure of Dan, as a sculptural object, with a clear three-dimensional physical presence. Such an image thereby challenges the viewers perception of the photograph as a disembodied image, an ideal psychological territory, and at once affirms the corporeal and mechanical volume of the folded photograph and yet affirms its flatness, emphasised by its re-containment through the flat picture surface of the final work.
This broad range of images, exploring interconnected themes of the past 15 years, appears in the Serpentine’s exhibition not as a narrative in stylistic progression, nor as a set of contradictory experiments but rather, to quote Wolfgang Tillmans, as ‘constellations of pictures’ through which he has sought to “approximate the way I see the world, not in a linear order but as a multitude of parallel experiences... multiple singularities, simultaneously accessible as they share the same space”.
Wolfgang Tillmans is showing at The Serpentine Gallery, London until 19 September.


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  • Guest: tube505
    Wed 02 - Mar - 2011, 19:38
    This is complete bollocks, the author has clearly never even stepped within a 5 mile radius of the masters work.