Re­build­ing the fu­ture

The artis­tic pre­ci­sion of Wolf­gang Till­mans

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY CHARLES SHAFAIEH

In 2016, Wolf­gang Till­mans launched a pro-EU cam­paign that in­cluded a col­lec­tion of posters and print-at-home T-shirt de­signs em­bla­zoned with pointed state­ments: “It’s a ques­tion of where you feel you be­long. We are the Eu­ro­pean fam­ily”; “What is lost is lost for­ever”; “Say you’re in if you’re in”. For an artist who never dic­tates how you should view his pho­to­graphs, such ex­plicit di­rec­tives might have seemed un­char­ac­ter­is­tic. They were, how­ever, just an­other ex­pres­sion of his long­stand­ing op­po­si­tion to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, both in pol­i­tics and in art.

From the early days of his ca­reer in the 1990s con­tribut­ing pho­to­graphs to i-D, the fash­ion magazine that epit­o­mised Lon­don street style whose ev­ery page he “de­voured” while a teenager, to be­com­ing both the first non-Brit and the first pho­tog­ra­pher to win the UK’s Turner Prize, Till­mans has grounded his pho­tog­ra­phy with sim­ple, al­beit rig­or­ously de­fined, meth­ods – to democratis­ing ends.

Whether he is cap­tur­ing a queue out­side Ber­lin’s Snax Club in the man­ner of a more ethe­real Ed­ward Hop­per night scene or the baroque still lifes of a torn-apart crab and the de­tri­tus held within a freezer, he es­chews com­pli­cated equip­ment in favour of com­mer­cial cam­eras and means of pro­duc­tion. He also makes no al­ter­ations or re­touch­ing in the de­vel­op­ment process.

The re­sults cre­ate just one of many para­dox­i­cal ten­sions that fill his ex­hi­bi­tions: pho­to­graphs which in­vite oth­ers to see the world as he does, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously, even humbly, sug­gest­ing that any­one could have taken them. That they re­sist the im­po­si­tion of the artist’s in­ten­tions is a con­sid­er­able feat, con­sid­er­ing pho­tog­ra­phy, ar­guably more than any other art form, is an as­ser­tion of a sin­gu­lar view­point through which a spec­ta­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ence is me­di­ated.

“I ob­served early on that, when some­thing looks sim­ple, it comes across as more im­me­di­ate,” he ex­plains when we meet at the open­ing of his new show at New York City’s David Zwirner gallery, How likely is it that only I am right in this mat­ter? “When you see an ex­tremely highly pro­duced pic­ture, you’re not think­ing about what’s ac­tu­ally [there]. I don’t want to point at me as much as at the view­ers’ abil­ity to recog­nise them­selves in the pic­tures. I’m more in­ter­ested in con­vey­ing a sense that the eyes are free. [They] can sub­vert and in­vert any­thing.”

Till­mans, who speaks with great care and fre­quent se­ri­ous­ness, though rarely without at least the shadow of his boy­ish smile, seems more pre­oc­cu­pied by pon­der­ing ques­tions than mak­ing – or even en­ter­tain­ing – clear-cut as­ser­tions. His pho­to­graphs do not ar­gue a claim so much as sug­gest sub­jects that should be dis­cussed and an­a­lysed.

“Where do things come from? Where does change come from? What’s the thresh­old when some­thing be­comes an ob­ject of af­fec­tion or care, or when and why was it over­looked be­fore?” he pon­ders, de­tail­ing some of his long-term pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. “All man-made things look the way they [do] for a rea­son; there isn’t any­thing in­no­cent or ca­sual about any de­sign. Road lay­outs, car and cloth­ing de­sign – it’s al­ways in­ter­twined with pol­i­tics, gen­der, so­ci­ety, econ­omy.”

His up­com­ing show at IMMA, open­ing on Oc­to­ber 26th and en­ti­tled Re­build­ing the Fu­ture, will probe these cross-dis­ci­plinary in­ter­sec­tions in his char­ac­ter­is­tic hy­brid and non-ax­iomatic man­ner, ex­em­pli­fied most in his un­con­ven­tional hang­ing prac­tices. A per­for­mance in its own right, his hang­ings could be con­sid­ered vis­ual and spa­tial tone po­ems: new works hang along­side archival im­ages and even magazine clip­pings, from post­card size to four me­tres tall; some are nearly out of view, oth­ers press into cor­ners; large walls may fea­ture only a few pho­to­graphs while dozens of im­ages might hang on the room’s small­est; a naked male torso could ex­ist next to an eerie desert land­scape, with a gi­gan­tic shot of sea foam or a group of non­fig­u­ra­tive works in the pe­riph­ery (which is to say noth­ing of the likely fu­sion of dif­fer­ent me­dia, in­clud­ing field and spo­ken-word record­ings, video works, and Till­mans’s own elec­tronic mu­sic com­po­si­tions).

What may seem ran­dom is, how­ever, a care­fully chore­ographed act that be­gins, for­mally, in Till­mans’s Ber­lin stu­dio, where he and his team work for months with three-di­men­sional minia­ture mod­els of fu­ture gallery spa­ces. The con­nec­tions be­tween pho­to­graphs as they ex­ist in a gallery are never pre­scribed, though.

Bor­ders are among the is­sues Till­mans will in­ter­ro­gate at IMMA. As with other top­ics that linger in his un­con­scious, “when I see [bor­ders], they trig­ger me. I recog­nise some­thing or un­der­stand some­thing, and it adds to this on­go­ing train of thought.” This hap­pened for him in Ti­juana in 2005, and, in 2008, while trav­el­ling through Is­rael and Tu­nisia. “When does some­thing turn into an­other? When does Ger­many be­come East Ger­many or West Ger­many?” he asks. “It’s all the same earth.”

Hos­pi­tals – a con­cep­tual bor­der, at once within and se­questered from so­ci­ety at large as well as a lim­i­nal space where the liv­ing and the dead co­ex­ist – play a sim­i­lar re­cur­ring role through­out Till­mans’s life and work.

“Over 25 years, I’ve been present at three op­er­a­tions, so there’s a sci­en­tific and a med­i­cal in­ter­est on the one hand, and, on the other, I had a tragic pe­riod in in­ten­sive care where my part­ner died in 1997,” he says.

IMMA’s orig­i­nal iden­tity as the Royal Hospi­tal Kil­main­ham gives him novel rea­son to con­sider the re­la­tion­ship be­tween these oth­er­wise dis­parate works.

But, as with any con­ven­tion­ally clear-cut group­ing, he is­sues a dis­claimer.

“I [would] never nor­mally show [these pho­to­graphs] to­gether be­cause I don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to con­dense them into a sub­ject mat­ter in a typ­i­cal, mono-the­matic way.”

Such a suite of im­ages would be­tray each photo’s un­con­scious and sin­gu­lar gen­e­sis. It would also coax spec­ta­tors to read them in a sim­plis­tic, pre­scribed way.


One such in­ter­pre­ta­tive mis­take would be to con­sider these hospi­tal pho­to­graphs as rep­re­sent­ing the height of Till­mans’s aware­ness of and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the phys­i­cal body. Yes, the im­age of an empty bed en­closed with crisp white sheets ei­ther beck­on­ing for a sick body or hav­ing just re­leased one, or a cheekier pho­to­graph of a pa­tient hold­ing in one hand not the lunch placed on his lap but in­stead his ex­posed, semi-erect pe­nis, point to the body’s ma­te­ri­al­ity – but so too does ev­ery pho­to­graph Till­mans hangs. To him, the pa­per is a phys­i­cal body, too, whose fragility should be cared for and re­spected.

“Peo­ple in gen­eral see pho­to­graphs as only im­age in­for­ma­tion, not as ob­jects,” he laments. “They ei­ther treat their car­rier with so lit­tle at­ten­tion or re­spect that it’s neg­li­gi­ble, or they see them mat­ted or cov­ered by the frame so the pa­per doesn’t have body or vol­ume. The pho­to­graph isn’t, by na­ture, on that pa­per, [though]. When we go to the chemist and pick up our pho­tos, the im­age is on it. [But] the mo­ment you start to print, you re­alise that you put the pic­ture onto the pa­per.”

This aware­ness that pho­to­graphs do not ap­pear ex ni­hilo, as if sim­ply called into be­ing, and the vul­ner­a­ble na­ture of the pa­per that holds them brings us back to Till­mans’s metic­u­lous hang­ing pro­ce­dures.

The ma­jor­ity of smaller prints are af­fixed to the wall us­ing spe­cial tape which doesn’t touch the emul­sion and that pre­vents tear­ing upon re­moval from the wall; the larger prints al­most hover as they are gripped at the cor­ners by bull­dog clips that hang from fine, al­most un­no­tice­able nails. These meth­ods some­times cause the pa­per to bend or pull away slightly from the wall, mak­ing ev­i­dent its ex­is­tence as pa­per – a phys­i­cal prod­uct at risk of de­struc­tion.

The in­tense pre­ci­sion of these hangs might seem like fetishis­tic be­hav­iour – and it may be in part – but it helps con­vey a sim­i­lar­ity be­tween pho­to­graphs and hu­mans: pho­tos might not scream out in pain upon tear­ing or be­ing pierced, but they should be treated with care, just like those peo­ple de­picted in Till­mans’s por­traits.

“While [pho­to­graphs] are vis­ually so pow­er­ful, con­vinc­ing, and im­me­di­ate, there is a lot of sym­bolic mean­ing in [their] ma­te­rial fragility,” he ar­gues. “There is a very po­tent con­tra­dic­tion in the very power and pres­ence of a pho­to­graph, its vivid­ness and ul­ti­mate in­sta­bil­ity. These very large un­framed works came from an in­ter­est in be­ing strong, frag­ile and vul­ner­a­ble at the same time, which cer­tainly goes for hu­mans. We are in­cred­i­bly re­silient, strong, in­ven­tive, and, at the same time, in­cred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble.”

His stance is a con­scious and de­ter­mined op­po­si­tion to the anti-fragility ethos that is so per­va­sive to­day, and not only con­cern­ing the pop­u­lar­ity of strong­man lead­ers. From the tyranny of fit­ness cul­ture to the cap­i­tal­is­tic ob­ses­sion with wealth ac­cu­mu­la­tion and pro­duc­tion in which a weak body is a use­less body, there ex­ists at once an ex­plicit and un­con­scious sense across cul­tures that vul­ner­a­bil­ity should be not only ma­ligned but elim­i­nated.

“I’ve al­ways un­der­stood that my own fragility is in­evitable, and I bet­ter make peace with that rather than spend en­ergy on pre­ten­sions of strength,” he states. “I al­ways found peo­ple who were in touch with their own vul­ner­a­bil­ity more in­ter­est­ing than [those] who be­lieve in their own strength. Doubt­ing and ques­tion­ing are not coun­ter­pro­duc­tive but re­ally pos­i­tive.”

As the United King­dom slouches to­ward Brexit and hints of fas­cism emerge around the world, Till­mans’s stance be­comes more ur­gent. His oeu­vre has long been as­so­ci­ated with the so­cial, par­tic­u­larly his doc­u­men­ta­tion of youth cul­ture in the 1990s and what he con­sid­ers a kind of pan-Eu­ro­pean bliss that took place in dance clubs re­ver­ber­at­ing with techno. But now, the lib­eral-demo­cratic ideals that he cher­ishes and which con­di­tioned the very pos­si­bil­ity of those utopic pho­to­graphic sub­jects that have long been his fo­cus are at the great­est risk of dis­ap­pear­ing in his life­time.

“I’ve not taken the things that hap­pen around me for granted and [un­der­stand] that all the free­doms that I en­joyed and en­joy came from some­where, hav­ing been fought for by oth­ers,” he says. “I chose art as my sort of lan­guage over di­rect pol­i­tics or words be­cause I felt that’s how I func­tion most nat­u­rally.”

His pro-EU ac­tivism, he says, is “a de­par­ture” but, like all of his work, not one that re­quires strict cat­e­gori­sa­tion. Its hy­bridised na­ture gives it strength pre­cisely be­cause it de­fies sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion, as does the en­tirety of his mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary work.

The 2016 cam­paign “came about from a sense of ur­gency, see­ing that all I ben­e­fit from and have en­joyed is un­der at­tack,” he re­flects. “I have achieved a lot in my ca­reer as an artist, and now is not the time to say that to­mor­row, or some­day, I will get more in­volved. I’m 50 now. I see ex­actly what’s go­ing on in the world. It’s not so much that I think these things are or are not art – it’s sort of be­yond that.”

Re­build­ing The Fu­ture isattheIr­ishMu­se­u­mof ModernArt­fromOc­to­ber26thtoF­e­bru­ary17th. Wolf­gang Till­mans will de­liver a key­note talk at 3pm next Satur­day , Oc­to­ber 20th, in the Ru­pert Guin­nessTheatr­e,


Far left: An in­stal­la­tion view of work by Wolf­gang Till­mans (right) hang­ing in the David Zwirner gallery in Hong Kong ear­lier this year. Left: (top to bot­tom) red lake (2002), Ele­phant Man (2002), Fal­tenwurf (sky­light) (2009).

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