Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ debut exhibition 2017 at the Tate Modern is a week away from closing but is still attracting the attention of many visitors. Although born in Remscheid, Germany in 1968, Tillmans has spent many years in the UK and became both the first photographer and the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in the year 2000. Most of the works displayed at the Tate today, however, are from 2003 onwards.
Although the exhibited photographs span the past 14 years, 2017 is not a compilation of Tillmans developing style and skill, but rather a focus on the present day. Most people would define a photographer essentially as someone who takes photographs, but Tillmans takes the name to new levels. Each room has been specifically arranged by the artist to help visitors engage with themes of community, politics and society.
Rather than simply hanging photographs on walls, Tillmans has experiemented with whole-room installations, publications, videos and music. As visitors walk around the gallery, they can see snapshots laid out on tables where individual pieces can be studied in detail. The majority of the works that are on the walls are printed on papers of a considerable size, often meaning they are better viewed from a distance. With these mix of approaches, Tillmans is trying to represent how culture and technology shape the way people understand the current world.
Initially, the opening rooms may not enliven onlookers, and, without the provided guide leaflet, may not make sense or mean anything. However, with thanks to the Tate’s written explanations, it becomes clearer that method is just as important for Tillmans as the final outcomes. For instance, Tillmans likes to experiment with technology to show how advanced it has become, comparing digital methods with the outdated manual. For example, Tillmans reveals how much easier it is to photograph an urban night scene from a moving vehicle without the photograph being ruined by blurring. This is a result of the faster shutter speeds the latest cameras possess.
Each room of the exhibition contains a new theme, idea or approach, often displaying photographs from a particular project. One such undertaking is a series of photographs titled Neue Welt in which Tillmans visited the different continents taking snapshots of communal spaces, food, people and still-life, recording the differences and changes that time has had on the different cultures. Some of these are quite beautiful and are a contrast to some of his more abstract works.
Another project is titled Truth Study Center, which is focused less on a photography and more on research. It is in the room that Tillmans has made the most of the scattered tables in order to present his findings. Photographs, newspaper clippings, advertisements and so forth are laid out to express contridictory opinions and statements that have been issued by the government and politicians over the past couple of decades. This study questions what truth is and whether it is possible to trust what individuals, groups or organisations profess.
It is clear from a great number of photographs that Tillmans primary topic of interest is
social life. He believes that everyone is vulnerable and is determined to prove his belief through unstaged imagery. He is particularly concerned with freedom and the interweaving spheres of personal and public life. Tillmans photographs people on the street and contrasts them with pictures of a more private nature, occassionally consisting of nudity.
Like many photographers, Tillmans has played around with portraiture, however his commercial outputs, and presumably his method of earning money, are a mix of posters, catalogues, magazine spreads, leaflets and books – principally items that can be mass produced. Examples of these can be found on tables in one of the exhibitions rooms. There are too many to be able to study them in detail, but the underlying theme is prominent. These lucrative formats are a means to express political opinion and contemporary interest. Although these compositions may not make his name known, Tillmans can still impress his views and beliefs over a widespread audience.
Interestingly, since he was born, lives and works in Berlin, Tellmans is passionate about the effects of Brexit, and in 2016, produced a series of posters encouraging British citizens to vote “remain”. Not many of these advertisements are amongst the selection of commercial items, however the photographs used on the designs are displayed in the final room of the exhibition. These images may look like tranquil sea-scapes, but they have an ulterior purpose. Tellmans is intrigued with the tangible lines and borders on the horizon caused by what looks like the meeting of the sea and sky, whereas, in reality, these are fluid. These photographs of the Atlantic Ocean are metaphors for opposing time zones and national frontiers, which may not be causing waves right now, but have the potential to in the future. This is why this series was suitable to illustrate the Brexit posters, because leaving the EU is a journey into the unknown. No one knows how it may affect the “tides”.
These posters were found in an article in the magazine Dezeen.
2017 is an interesting exhibition and not necessarily what you may be expecting. Seeing the processes and research that Wolfgang Tillmans undertakes makes the final outcomes far more meaningful than if viewed solely as artworks with no substantial background information. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the exhibition is finishing soon, the final day being Sunday 11th June. However, there are over 200 photographs on the Tate website for those who wish to receive a basic impression of Tillmans photography, and one series of work (Concorde Grid, 1997) is on show at the Tate Britain as part of the Walk Through British Art display. There are, of course, books such as Books for Architects, available for purchase.