Tate Modern, May 6th, led by Jayne Taylor.
Still struggling to get enough perspective on this to write intelligently about it. It was vast and I wonder if it might actually have been best seen from the other side of the Thames (only joking slightly here). I thought I had a view on it, then I went to the Photographers’ Gallery for the afternoon and found that my view on Tillmans had shifted again. My focus here is to look at the impact and links that this visit will have on, and to, my own work.
His work is prolific. I’m not sure that there’s a genre unrepresented here. It’s like seeing his workings on a large, externalised scale. We see notes, leaflets, articles, trains of thought. We see him engaging with the world, campaigning. It was a bit like walking around someone’s brain, having it all laid out for us like those biology videos that show the sheer size of the digestive tract. Jayne talked afterwards about how important it is to keep a record of the things that engage us, as these objects and experiences are the fuel for our work.
I had watched the suggested videos beforehand and was intrigued by his scale model of the 14 rooms which he would walk through and use to test out the location and sizing of his works. Once actually in the exhibition though, this made me feel as if I was more an integral part of the exhibition rather than a viewer, a spectator. I felt as if I was a tiny ant-person walking through the installation on his gallery floor. I think you can see that this had occurred to him too. This reminded me of dolls houses, and scale – themes that I keep returning to.
His portraiture is very interesting. I had the consistent impression that he genuinely likes people. Holly mentioned that he photographed the little physical things in people that we love but that no-one else sees and I thought that was perceptive, especially the image of the little bit of warm skin under a t-shirt and above the jeans on a sunny day. His work was tender, affectionate. There was no hint of sardonism, of judgement, of anger, of making any comment at all other than observation and an intimacy, however short, between him and the subject. Watching the video that Jayne sent after the visit, I listened to him talk about how he prefers to show what people share rather than what divides us, and I thought that he is certainly achieving this aim. He mentions vulnerability too, how he is as vulnerable as the sitter. Perhaps this accounts for the tenderness, and for the way that I ended up feeling that I knew far more about him, as a result of this show. His work engaged me both emotionally and cerebrally.
I was very happy to see two of the Paperdrop series displayed and I also engaged with his Silver work, where exposed photographic paper is passed through a dirty printing machine. It was interesting that in the video he talks about how people will always try to find a subject in an abstract image, they will always look for something they can recognise and will construct it if need be. This resonates with me at the moment because I am working on a series about the backs of Polaroids, and am struggling about how much it matters to have images of the same subject on the front of the Polaroids.
Detail of Paperdrop
Detail of another Paperdrop
From Silver series
His photographs of crumpled clothes reminded me of how, when my daughter gets up, she leaves this little crumpled nest of duvet, still moulded to her body and still holding the heat of her body and the smell of her skin.
His video was interesting. He danced, in his pants. It looked like he was following a Just Dance game, but the soundtrack was actually made to the sound of his feet on the floor. I don’t know much about the gaze yet, but I thought this work subverted it neatly. One man, in his pants, facing away from the camera, being observed.
The presentation of his work provoked much discussion. He actively stays away from classical framing techniques as he doesn’t want to mimic painting (this was in one of the links sent out before the visit). Scale was played with – from the universal 6×4 prints in acres of space to massive prints in tiny rooms. The unconventional layout forced movement, forced us away from the normal “desire lines” that route us around exhibitions Ikea-style. Prints were attached with tape, or bulldog clips and pins. One of my favourites was where he layered prints, both on walls and tabletops. I like the idea of one obscuring another, of the hint of an idea emerging. On the whole I thought that the presentation emphasised that his work is always in progress, that there is always more to do.
I’m still a bit shell-shocked by this exhibition. I am impressed at the scope of his work, by the variety of ways in which it engaged me, by the creativity and fearlessness, the tenderness and vulnerability, the humour and the social conscience. I like how he engages with the world. This show inevitably provides a huge insight into Wolfgang Tillmans as an artist, but what it also provided was a window into his view of the world as a person, as someone who cares enough to campaign, to engage. On the other hand, it still feels rather too immense and slippery to grasp and to understand with any degree of certainty.