Born in Germany 1968 Wolfgang Tillmans moved to London in the 1980s and began his career photographing “street culture, Gay Pride and the rise of the clubbing generation” (Reynolds) for lifestyle magazines The Face and i-D. He came into prominence as a fine artist in 2000 when he won the prestigious Turner prize, and the Hamburger Bahnhof survey exhibition includes a reconstruction of his Turner prize installation.
This retrospective, cryptically entitled “Lighter” (something to do with painting with light, I guess) monumentalises Tillmans’ achievement. It is certainly interesting to see so much of Tillmans’ work assembled in a single place. This is an exhaustive, if not exhausting, exhibition which seems to show just about every facet of this artist’s oeuvre, and possibly everything he has ever produced. We were presented with the photograph in all its sizes from the extremely large to the postcard snapshot and everything in between. There is also a variety of presentational methods from the modernist frame to bulldog clips and sticky tape.
One of Tillman’s contributions to art photography is his focus on the physical fact of the photograph, moving away from the anodyne formula of the perfect photograph displayed in a frame—an antiquated tactic, especially when covered with protective glass like an old watercolour. It is highly liberating to see the photograph released from such constraints and able to be itself. And in terms of fine art, one can draw a comparison with the rejection of the pictorial frame by European and American painters in the 1950s. What this rejection did was to amplify the thingness of the painting in-itself making it more of an object in an environment that included the viewer rather than posing as something set apart from the real world.
However refreshing it is to see the photograph released from the constraints of the frame, as we proceed through this enormous exhibition one begins to suspect that Tillmans might have been following an aesthetic checklist: systematically transposing key developments in fine art in the 1950s and 60s into the medium of photography. This is evident when we shift from the rejection of the frame to Tillman’s seemingly endless aesthetic meditations on the ontological substrate of photography that is photographic paper. Personally, unlike the rejection of the frame which is liberating, I did not find the photographic paper narrative that gripping, although the photograph of folded photographic paper strategically framed by a doorway was certainly, from the point of view of installation, very effective as a play upon the frame within a frame.
The problem with Tillmans’ conceptual, self-reflexive play with photographic paper is that, at the turn of the millennium, it becomes fundamentally academic, referring back to nascent conceptual painting. One thinks, in particular, of Jasper Johns’ self-reflexive comments, in the 1950s and ’60s, upon the nature of the painterly medium via his presentation of paint brushes, paint cans, and canvas stretchers as works of art.
Tillman’s pushes his post-conceptualist point home relentlessly. The images above show another variation on the theme which is to shift from photographs of folded photographic paper to actual folded photographic paper, sealed up in perspex boxes to invoke the aesthetic magic of the art museum vitrine which can transform almost anything into a precious object.
One of the inherent problems of photography, from the point of view of a fine art medium, lies is its capacity to produce endless series. Unfortunately it is sometimes the case that curators of photographic exhibitions seem unable to edit an over-expansive oeuvre into something that is more about quality and quantity.
Another variation on the photographic paper theme came in the form of a corner arrangement of a shiny black grid. This work offered another genuflection to conceptualist art of the 1960s this time with specific reference to minimalism. And if one is dazzled by minimal-conceptual art to the extent that one can stand in front of this black glossy grid and admire its random reflections, then one can appreciate its reference to another classic of conceptualism, John Cages’ 4’33”, 1952, (artintelligence). 4’33” was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s first (frameless) white painting, 1951, (artintelligence) in which we are invited to meditate upon the play of changing light and shadows upon its Zen blankness.
Yet another conceptualist self-reflexive comment on the nature of photography is evident in a mercifully short video of the roller trough of an offset lithography press filled with thick, glistening, red printing ink (see video still above). One thinks immediately of the viral proliferation of photography in mass-produced print media (in which Tillmans began his photographic career) that occurred via the magic of photomechanical reproduction. Walter Benjamin was the first to point to the significance of this phenomenon for painting in his 1936 Work of Art essay; and Roy Lichtenstein presented a similar thesis via his dot-screen paintings of the 1960s.
Art theorists talk about the problematic nature of “illustrating theory” and I would say that Tillmans’ offset-lithography video is a classic case. Despite its luscious glossy redness, it is fundamentally academic and fossilised. It has none of the vivacity of Tillman’s Turner Prize installation.
But Tillmans is more successful when he sets out to emulate gestural abstract expressionist painting via the medium of photography. He does this very well either by manipulating a straight photograph with graffiti-like marks, or by mark-making alone. Again, true to his investigation of the inherent nature of the second generation colour photographic medium, Tillmans does not use digital manipulation (which is third generation): or at least that is the message that we receive about him from his commentators. Apparently it is all done in the darkroom. But the sheer scale of some of these abstract works, which so self-consciously compete with the scale of abstract expressionist paintings, makes one wonder how he does it. Does he work on the paper or film? If it is paper then the process would be even closer to painting. Either way, if he does all of this himself then we should pay our respect because there are many fine artists today who are so conceptually inclined that they do not bother to actually produce their own works of art.
Finally, there were a lot of vitrines in this exhibition, bursting at the seams with what appears to be Tillmans’ massive archive of images and texts from a variety of sources. There was also an “installation” that consisted entirely of such vitrines. The vitrines give the viewer some insight into the thought processes of the artist but, like the photographs, there were just too many of them to take in.