Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

June 13, 2017

If, in 2017, one thing matters, then everything matters. Personal reflections on Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2017 at Tate Modern, by Morten Andenæs

In the autobiographical Barthes on Barthes, Roland Barthes writes that it is not polysemy (multiplicity of meaning) that is praised and sought out; it is amphibology (ambiguous construction): the fantasy is not to hear anything, or even everything, but to hear something else. In short, we’d rather bask in our closed circuits of unattainable fantasies where things are not quite what they seem than be confronted with the unruly, destabilising and potentially castrating ‘anything’. 

My relationship to photography – with its excess of meaning and array of conflicting emotions stubbornly existing side by side that mirrors the condition of the world in 2017 – has never been straightforward. It has always been marked, even marred, by a deep ambivalence: anything and everything. My relation to the works of Wolfgang Tillmans is no exception.

Any relatively young artist working with photography in the last twenty years would be hard pressed not to acknowledge how his or her mode of thinking or their work itself is in some way related, if not directly indebted, to the work of Tillmans. And yet, what does this relationship consist of, and how is it being manifested in 2017? For me, there is a relation, a problematic affinity, I admit, though with a barely audible hint of hesitation. At my BFA exhibition in 2002 I made a spread of photographs on the wall, some mounted and others simply taped up; a few were framed and some were laid around the room. In one end of the exhibition space was a book made specifically for the show, laid within a vitrine and thus not to be touched or flipped through by visitors. The nod to Tillmans was unequivocally there, present both in the presentation and in the pictures themselves, mostly re-photographed images sourced from newspapers, fashion magazines, family albums etc.

I’ve often found myself vacillating between desperate attempts at symbiotic identification with others, and a stubborn resistance to their influence. There’s a constant fear of my work sharing similarities with that of other aritsts, a fear of my picking things up unwittingly, as if there were a kind of porousness in my being sucking up everything in my way, churning it around until the source is forgotten and the thing, the trait, the gesture, the thought has become my own. This fear is bound up with the dread that someone will come along to confront me with a likeness here, a relationship there, affinities and common ground that, when mentioned, might cause me initially to lash out like a threatened animal. ()I would feel stripped naked and embarrassed, as if the very notion that the world (and with it other artists) has an effect on me that subsequently becomes visible in my work or my thinking is somehow akin to plagiarism or inauthenticity, a fundamental wrongdoing that in turn renders me little more than a pale copy. And I sometimes wonder how much this state of affairs has influenced the way I read Tillmans.

Dusty vehicle, 2012, © Wolfgang Tillmans

Tillmans is not your typical ‘good’ photographer. Or rather, he is probably that as well, but what he releases and presents to us in 2017 is not what you’d go looking for if you wished to spend an afternoon being blown away by the kind of stunning and seductive imagery you’d expect from a Thomas Demand, a Thomas Struth or a Taryn Simon. Neither is Tillmans work rife with symbolism (no amphibology or duplicity). In fact, quite the contrary: for lack of a better word, Tillmans work is highly photographic, pointing to this or that in order to show us simply this or that and its relation to other things like this or that. This puts me in mind of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who remarked that the most remarkable thing about the world is that it exists.  And yet, Tillmans is no strict conceptualist either, no Hans Peter Feldman or even an early Ed Ruscha. There is no tongue in cheek. If you come to this exhibition to have your catalogue of obscure references – whether philosophical, art-historical, musicological or pop-cultural – challenged or reinforced so that you can spend the rest of your day gloating about your alleged understanding of this young master, you’ll be disappointed. Technically, there’s nothing fancy about the work, nor about the presentation. The pictures hung on the wall are sometimes small and framed, or large – huge even – and hung up with functional clamps. They have nothing like the overwhelming presence of a Jeff Wall lightbox. The lighting within the photographs themselves depends on whatever was available at the time: a heavenly illumination peeping through the clouds and landing on the surface of the sea, either emanating from the sun or from a rescue helicopter patrolling the Mediterranean for aliens; the greenish overhead fluorescents of the studio; the choreographed, ever-pulsating lighting of some underground nightclub; the mixed light of Sunset Boulevard at night – the list goes on and on. And like the modern metropolis that figures as the subject or backdrop of so many of these photographs, the subject matter itself is sprawling. 

It is 6 June 2017. My birthday. We get out at the wrong Tube stop, which means that in order to reach Tate Modern, we have to cross Blackfriars Bridge. The wind throws itself at us as we venture across. A police boat is patrolling the brown water of the Thames, searching for the last missing person from the 3 June attacks on London Bridge. And I recall a moment a decade earlier, at Tate again, in the bookshop, when I read on the cover of a Tillmans book, If one thing matters, everything matters. I remember I was stunned. Just hours previously, I’d been talking to someone about Tillmans, an artist of an older generation who complained that he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about: Tillmans dabbled in portraiture, landscapes, still-lifes, photographs of technological processes but wasn’t committed to any of them, and nor was he committed to blowing us away with overwhelming beauty, disharmony, destructive chaos or shattering truths. ‘Sure’, the old man said, ‘more than a few of his pictures were interesting, taken by themselves, but as a whole…’ As many readers will know, Tillmans must be viewed through a different set of lenses entirely. His criterion is perfectly summed up by the title of his abovementioned book and its content: if one thing matters, everything matters (did I say he was no strict conceptualist?) – a book comprised of hundreds of photographs arranged similarly on every page, eight photographs per page, with captions. It is an array of the beautiful and the not so pretty, the mundane and the extraordinary, series and individual shots, the politically challenging and the consensual, asses, blue skies, horizon lines and pubic hair. This meeting between the imposing reductive system and each image’s resistance to being subsumed by the whole, to becoming anything other than singular within a larger framework of other similarly singular images, speaks to the heart of Tillmans project then as now, and most likely, to the core of my own mixed feelings towards it. 

The State We’re In, A 2015, © Wolfgang Tillmans

John Berger wrote that photographs, as opposed to paintings or drawings for instance, ‘quote from appearance’. The exposure of the light-sensitive material happens all at once and as such leaves us with a non-hierarchical space; if one thing matters, everything matters. This democratic ideal is fundamental to the photographic process. A decade ago, when I first read Tillmans’ title, I sensed its importance to photography and to my own burgeoning understanding of the medium, but perhaps its implications in relation to a broader range of issues eluded me. If one thing matters, everything matters. This statement reaches far beyond photographic theory, far beyond simple or complex logic, far beyond being yet another clever remark about photography and meaning. If one thing matters, everything matters is a way of being in the world, of how to be in the world and engage, and it is here that 2017 invites us in and leaves me treading water. 

2017 is no retrospective we’re told. And yet, it does feel that way, mostly in the sense that it recalibrates my view of Tillmans’ work. It is a retrospective not so much as a survey, but as an exhibition that brings to the forefront how we are to read his mode of working, how the present – as he notes – is always the history of tomorrow. Or was it John Berger who said that?

I have often thought that at its most basic, art attempts to see how things “really are”. Underlying most artistic endeavours there is a desire to see the world anew, a distrust of the way in which we’re accustomed to seeing it. And Tillmans is no exception. How is the world made manifest to us through pictures, and even, what do pictures in fact really look like? This last questions seems almost tautological, but it occurs to me upon writing this that part of what interests Tillmans is not only how pictures function or what they point to, but what they look like – a strangely compelling and simple idea that speaks volumes about how natural photographic representation has become for us. 

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse,2014 © Wolfgang Tillmans

In 2017, there is a sound-piece, the playback room – a space designed for listening to a studio recording of three tracks by a British band from the 1980s. In this tailored room, sparsely designed with advanced audio playback equipment, we are given the opportunity to hear a studio recording at optimal quality rather than the low-grade ‘jpeg’ version that our mobile devices play back for us. Here, Tillmans’ immense curiosity leads him to ask salient questions about the limits of technology and consequently what we could learn, understand, see and hear if only we were given all the information, so to speak. If technology is the main lens through which the world reaches us, then do we not need a sufficiently sharp, clear and undistorted lens in order to make fully informed choices about our collective futures?

2017 is a set of responses and reflections upon the present, and in keeping with this thought, my writing here can be nothing more than responses and reflections. To wander the rooms created by Tillmans is to confront numerous issues that face us each and every day, particularly those relating to the abundance of pictures and information, and our subsequent ability (or inability) to generate any sort of meaning from this cacophony of visual information. By handing us room upon room of information, Tillmans has gathered, either by photographing it or collecting it from various media outlets, images relating to how technology and capitalism shape our view of the world and subsequently our sense of identity, of subjectivity, of exclusion and inclusion. Tillmans is handing us a re-presentation of the world and sufficiently distancing himself as a curator to relieve us of the sense that we are being force fed. And it is here, in this state of beneficial uncertainty, to borrow a phrase from psychiatry, that my defences come creeping up.  

CLC 800, dismantled, 2011, © Wolfgang Tillmans

To confront the open-ended structure of Tillmans work, with its anything and everything (its polysemy), is to confront the very conditions upon which my sense of self rests; ultimately I come face to face with the overwhelming question of freedom. My first impulse is to get as far away as possible. Many destructive behaviours are misconstrued articulations and responses to the prospect of freedom, because it requires of us that we act without thought for the ‘correct’ or accepted response. We desperately want to hand over control and let go of the wheel, to be told what to think, do, or feel. Interestingly, freedom in this scenario is no longer a given; it becomes an on-going, necessary struggle bound up with one’s identity – freedom ‘from’ something or someone, rather than just freedom. When everything matters, my initial reaction (read: defence-mechanism) is to infer that inversely nothing at all really matters. Seeing, in order to be effective requires a certain kind of judgment, I hear myself thinking (validating my own plea, freeing myself from the artist), to make sense of the world visually. Whether in the forest avoiding predators or in the relative safety of the museum, apprehension requires that we create hierarchies: this and that, here and there, you and I. No more being a drop of water returning to the sea as I sometimes sense is the ideal of Tillmans’ procedure.

Responding to Tillmans work, I am reminded of what I face every day, of how incredibly self-conscious I am in any given situation. I am reminded of how nice it would be to be free of the little voice at the back of my head telling me time and again to rethink everything I do or say; the little voice that orders me to be someone, something – someone and something more than who I am, than what I am; the little voice that commands me to be an object, a something that can be acted upon and in turn act upon others; the little voice that tells me not to trust others, that instils in me a sense of others’ ill-will towards me; the little voice that demands I compete and the next moment makes me shy away in shame at this competitive edge, since in this profession of ours, the guiding light should be unity and cooperation. And still, the prospect of that little voice of duality fading away terrifies me! I am deathly afraid that without it, I won’t even notice I’m alive. Walking through 2017 I am reminded how devastatingly fraught with obstacles the whole notion of personal freedom is to me as a subject of the early twenty-first century, where we are overwhelmed by vindictiveness and power struggles, of endless competition and limited resources, of misinformation and extreme inequality. And my position within this framework is problematic, untenable even, and I wonder, having left the Tate behind and stepped out into the pouring rain, whether this work of Tillmans is almost tailor-made for someone like me or if this is just another one of my delusions of grandeur.

Standing outside as the rain pours down over my broken umbrella, it occurs to me that for the first time in forever, an exhibition has called into question the edifice of my being. And yet, as the clouds lift and I draw away from the museum, my prejudices and survival mechanisms in slight disarray, I remember that it is the first day of my 38th year on this planet – middle-aged nearly, no longer a child. A barely audible whisper from the nape of my neck reminds me that I should take another look at the mixed feelings that crept up at intervals throughout the exhibition, and as the sun peers through the clouds I make a note to ask what seems the most pressing question I am left with, namely what is it the artist himself, in 2017, if anything, is risking?

Dusty vehicle,  2012, © Wolfgang Tillmans

Dusty vehicle, 2012, © Wolfgang Tillmans