Issue ten: Wolfgang Tillmans
I visited the Wolfgang Tillmans survey exhibition, ‘To Look Without Fear,’ which opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York last week. Here are four observations.
Tillmans is an artist of pleasure and leisure. He makes images of people relaxing, posing, brooding, dancing, playing, socializing, kissing. He shows us inside artist’s studios, clubs and bars, he documents the aftermaths of parties. His images are sensuous, diaristic, intimate. We see individuals sitting quietly at home, swimming in the ocean, enjoying a bath, sneakily flashing their genitals next to an in-flight meal.
At MoMA I saw images representing loss and injustice. Still lifes, abstracts, shots of astronomical events too. But I did not spot many pictures of people at work. The museum blurb tells us that Tillmans shows us “what it feels like to live today” and “the idea of togetherness.” Work is a big part of life, so it’s a curious blank. I saw what looked like astronauts in a lab. Soldiers and police doing their jobs appear on the newspaper front pages he makes use of. (His book of archival images, Soldiers—The Nineties, placed an emphasis on military down time and on the way men interact with each other, rather than the grunt work of soldiering.) You might argue that the artists, models and musicians he has photographed were working, because posing for portraits is the promotional part of their job, or in the case of models, it is the job.
The critic Johanna Burton describes the way Tillmans disperses his images in magazines, books, posters, postcards, album sleeves and other places as “tactics of distribution.” Perhaps. (I’m not much of a fan of quasi-military terms that art historians use. “Strategies,” “interrogations,” “tactics.” There’s violence in those words.) A number of images at MoMA date from Tillmans’ years shooting for style magazines such as i-D. There’s a full magazine spread taped along one wall, an i-D article about the Love Parade in Berlin. In a way these magazine pages are his representations of work, because the photos in them were originally editorial commissions, work for hire. They weren’t tactics, they were jobs.
There exists an alternative universe, far cheesier than our own, in which large exhibitions of Tillmans work are not given poetic titles such as MoMA’s ‘To Look Without Fear’ or Tate’s ‘If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters,’ but instead go under corny proclamations of skill and beauty. The sort of titles you might see a small museum in the south of France give to a Cezanne or Renoir show. ‘Wolfgang Tillmans: Poet of Light.’ ‘Tillmans: Master of Colour.’
This universe regards Tillmans as an old-fashioned photographer interested in formal, pictorial qualities. In our universe the common line that’s taken on his work is structural. It’s about ‘the wandering image,’ the idea that a given picture might first appear in a magazine spread, then get blown up huge for the wall of a museum, then printed thousands of times for a flyposter, then circulated online, each iteration giving it a different weight. It’s about the way his photography emphasizes the medium’s reproducibility, informality, glut, democratic approachability. I get that. But the medium changes how an image looks. How colours appear on a screen are not how they appear coming out of an inkjet printer. Light becomes richer when a photograph is made glossy, and it relaxes into a casual flatness when served on newsprint. These all affect the punch and weight of an image. Tillmans is a skilled colourist and a keen hunter of light, and this can’t be separated from the way his images are distributed.
An example. At MoMA were two images: Shaker Tree, from 1995, and JAL, made in 1997. Shaker Tree is a winter landscape. It puts the grey-green trunk of a tree at the centre of the frame, directing the eye upwards to the point at which the tree twists, almost like a hair braid. JAL gives a mid-air view along an aeroplane wing of two jet engines, beneath them a grey-brown field of cloud, and above, a band of fresh blue sky. I was tickled to see these two photographs hung near each other on the same wall because both were contenders for the cover of frieze in 1999, soon after I began working there. We made mock-ups of both—I think some of his Concorde photos may have been in the mix too—and had long debates about which should get the cover. The jet engine won. I don’t remember exactly why, but it would have been to do with which was the most visually arresting image, which one would catch the attention of a potential reader. The distribution of JAL in this instance was linked to what a group of editors felt about its formal composition. A plane wing isn’t subject matter that demands deep discussion and this wasn’t a heavy intellectual decision, it was a fun one about design, but it was important for the way the image went out into the world.
The magnetism of Tillmans’ photographs, their sense of casual intimacy, the way they so powerfully capture personality, or evoke hedonism, dread, loss, 1990s nostalgia, much of this—not all, but a great deal—derives from his skill at making a visually seductive scene. Perhaps this has something to do with Tillmans’ lifelong fascination with astronomy, a science of observing distant light, light that sometimes arrives to us billions of years after its source has ceased to exist. He knows how light travels.
3. Still Lifes
Every Tillmans exhibition is made from a blunderbuss shot of glossy snapshots, exquisite photographic prints, newspaper clippings, Xeroxes, videos and huge inkjet prints. They are pinned and taped to the walls, some densely clustered, others scattered high and low. I visited the MoMA show with the perverse idea that I wanted to see one image. I was looking for a specific photograph that would scratch an itch.
My target was a still life depicting a small vase of flowers, possibly wilted, perched on a windowsill—Tillmans’ old studio in London, I’d imagine. The window behind the flowers is misted up with condensation, diffusing crisp winter sunlight across the ledge. The panes of glass are large, with thin metal leading, the type you find in old industrial buildings, warehouses, 1970s schools, spaces now inhabited by the creative and tech economies. You can feel the cold pressing through the window. There is probably a radiator on full blast beneath the sill and if I were there I’d be warming my hands around a large mug of tea too. (Stephen Shore pulls off a similar trick with his 1974 photograph 21st and Spruce Sts, Philadelphia PA, which is not so much a photograph of a street corner as it is a record of the sensation of recent rain.) I wanted a hit of that bright London chill. I wanted an evocation of where I used to live, of a kind of cold weather that might not be around for much longer.
Of course MoMA didn’t play my song. I don’t think the song exists. I consulted a few Tillmans books after visiting the exhibition, searched online, and couldn’t find the photograph I was looking for. I must have conflated it with a number of his other still life images. It wasn’t Still Life, New York (2001), an arrangement of vegetables and fruit with yellow cabs visible on the street far below. Perhaps I had been thinking of Still Life, Gray’s Inn Road (1999); a thin window sill, shot from above, on which two green pot plants flank a little arrangement of oyster shells, twigs, and shrivelled up fruit. Or Wet Room, Gloves (2010), in which two pairs of yellow rubber gloves hang from plastic suction cups stuck to a grotty window, backlit by strong sunlight which turns them amber. Escape Into Space (2020)—a white-cold window, patterned by the triangular leaves of a purple shamrock plant in the foreground—came close. Window Caravaggio, from 1997, even closer. A flower stem, living off tea-brown water in a ridged drinking glass, climbs up to the tilted, open section of a gridded window. Arranged next to it on the white ledge are five Caravaggio postcards, two are of the same painting, one of which has faded. Window Caravaggio is beautiful but looked too much like summer for it to be the one in my mind’s eye.
Perhaps this indicates that he has successfully created a signature style of still life, strong enough that someone could vividly imagine their own Tillmans window box. Making my eyes roam for one genre and one palette of colour was probably a sacrilegious way to take in the show, because I wasn’t giving myself up to the sense of flow, scale and juxtaposition. Tillmans has a line—“if one thing matters, everything matters”—which often does a pirouette in the institutional spraff that frames his work. You can find it at the entrance to the MoMA exhibition. ‘Matters’ to whom? Where? To what group? What age? When does it matter? These factors change. Looking for the still life also made me notice how nostalgic his 1990s-era i-D photos of musicians and subcultures made me feel. I have a strong generational attachment to those images. I remember them from when they were first published. There was a time when I would have gravitated more to his nightlife photographs, such as his 1989 snap of DJ Princess Julia and Vaughan Toulouse dancing at the Fridge in London, or his portrait of musician Richard D. James, the Aphex Twin, posed outside a suburban garage door, the one that I cut from an issue of i-D as a teenager, and had tacked on my bedroom wall. Now I just want to see the play of light across desiccated fruit and rubber gloves.
I visited MoMA the day it was announced that Jean-Luc Godard had died. A video clip was circulating through all the obits and tributes. Set to music from Godard’s Le Mepris, the video was a 360-degree panning shot, taken from Google Street View which, it was excitedly claimed, had accidentally captured Godard and his partner Anne-Marie Miéville walking along the street in Rolle, Switzerland, where the couple lived. Here was the director who turned the rules of cinema inside-out, and Miéville, herself a filmmaker, as apparitions haunting the new machine of surveillance and mapping technology. For some this was profoundly symbolic: Godard was always innovating, always pointing us to where the moving image medium was going, even when he wasn’t even trying.
There is an enormous desire for art to have traction on the world. To matter in a widescreen, world-changing sense. To represent the spirit of the age and predict in which direction it will travel. This means artists have to be oracles. Hindsight makes it tempting to ordain Tillmans as a prophet of today’s cacophonic image culture, as having intuited that the networked photograph—that ‘wandering image’—would become steroid-enhanced by technology and go on to dominate how people communicate with each other. But what was the message again? “If one thing matters, everything matters”? If you elevate artists into seers then, paradoxically, you remove them from everyday life and you’ll never appreciate the artist as astronomy enthusiast or nightclubber or jobbing photographer or concerned citizen or elderly couple out doing the shopping in a provincial town.
—In the early 1920s, cellist Beatrice Harrison used to practice in her Surrey garden accompanied by a nightingale. When the BBC came to record this duet in May 1924, the nightingale got stage fright, and an understudy bird impressionist known as Madame Saberon reportedly stood in. But the broadcast was an enormous hit, and so the BBC returned the following year. This time they were careful not to scare the bird away. The real nightingale turned up and the performances were repeated each May until 1942. The recording above was made by His Master’s Voice in 1927.
—For a potted history of New York’s Rikers Island jail complex, and the story of how it has become one of the most notorious symbols of mass incarceration and humanitarian crisis in the US, read Sarah Resnick’s new essay on Rikers for the London Review of Books. (It’s paywalled but the LRB allows one free view per month.) Sarah is also my partner, so consider this a recommendation from the Department of Bias and Nepotism.
—Old favourite of mine, this one. Public Image Ltd playing American Bandstand in 1980. Within a minute of the group starting to play, it goes off the rails, beautifully.
—One of the stranger talks I attended at art school was given by Mark Pauline of San Francisco’s Survival Research Laboratories. I recall that he showed us his right hand, which had been blown to pieces in an accident involving rocket fuel while preparing for one of SRL’s anarchic robot-war performances. Doctors had grafted two of his toes onto his hand in place of missing fingers. This Friday, 23 September, is the last screening of selected SRL video works at Spectacle Theater in New York. Stand well back.
—My favourite talks series in New York, The Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, survived the pandemic and is back. The Colloquium, run by the inimitable writer and teacher Sukhdev Sandhu, has staged some of the most thought-provoking, moving, entertaining, educational, occasionally obscure and sometimes downright batshit talks and film screenings I’ve ever attended. This week, on Wednesday, 21st September, they are presenting a talk by Charlie Gere, on World’s End. Not the apocalypse, but the name of an area at the wrong end of London’s King’s Road. Ian Fleming lived at World’s End. So did Aleister Crowley. Samuel Beckett set part of his novel Murphy there. According to the Colloquium blurb: “As a boy, Gere grew up in a World’s End that was still littered by bomb craters and tense with Cold War paranoia. Soon it became a kind of “pornotopia”, part of “pop's cerebral cortex.” World’s End was home to Mariella Novotny— Profumo-scandal prostitute, possible spy, and inspiration for a character in J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition; ‘psychedelic boutique’ Granny Takes A Trip; countercultural hangout Gandalf's Garden; Vivienne Westwood & Malcolm McLaren's legendary SEX store.” Details on the Colloquium’s Instagram.