Study Visit: ‘Wolfgang Tillmans 2017’ exhibition

I attended the exhibition ‘Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017’ at Tate Modern as part of an OCA Study Group led by Jayne Taylor.

Each entrant to the exhibition is handed a small Booklet of commentary on the exhibit. Included on the inside cover is a map showing the floor layout: fourteen rooms, entering at room number 1 and exiting at room 14. The rooms do not comply with the usual gallery layout, something not unexpected from Tillmans who is recognised as an ‘artist who uses photography’ rather than a fine art photographer. The works included are from 2003 to the present.

The Booklet provided a single page of descriptive text was given to each of the rooms. However, as usual when visiting exhibitions I first began by walking through the exhibition to attempt an overview before retracing my steps for a considered look. In this first pass I would normally ignore any explanatory text that might be attached to the wall beside a picture. I followed this course until Room 4 of this exhibition which contained the ‘truth study center’ – on a number of tables are laid out photographs, drawings, newspaper clippings, magazine pages, pages from scientific journals. These table required to be ‘read’ in all the senses of that word; in this room I realised that the exhibition itself could be considered as an installation and that each Room had its own characteristics or mood.

Speaking in January 2017 as he prepared for this exhibition ‘Tillmans said:

There is not one correct way in reading my work I sometimes say that if you have an encounter with five percent of my work in an exhibition, where you get a sense of “umm, I know how that smells, or I know how that sounds, or I’ve seen this before, I understand this, I can feel like this” that is really what I would say is success in my work (Tillmans, 2017).

Here then is my ‘five percent’ (above), my encounter on the day with the exhibition. The ‘truth study center’ collection of copies of scientific papers (with reports on brain imaging) placed alongside for example reports on a symposium on conspiracy theories were intriguing. My first fleeting thought was that perhaps this was some trickster post-modernism and that the reports were fake facsimiles (all the more to make the point about fake news and the elusiveness of truth today). But on reading I found all the material, including some newspaper headlines that I recognised, to be authentic. This to me created a stark contrast within the exhibition, that between scientific truth and its analytical search for laws, and the pursuance of Art with its interpretative search for meaning.

On one of the table displays was a document which declared “We’d rather feel more and think less”; with this in mind I looked again at the photograph ‘CLC 800, dismantled, a’ (see fig. 1.). Here Tillmans recorded an obsolete colour photocopier after he had dismantled it by ‘unfastening every single screw’. The result is not beautiful. The original machine could possibly have had aesthetic merit, a property of machines that Tillmans is conscious of – for example Room three’s image of the car headlight (see fig. 2.). However, looking at the photograph of the photocopier I was reminded that the process of dismantling had stopped before any new aesthetic could emerge – for example that of each separate precision engineered piece laid out and ordered.

Also in Room three was a wall-covering photograph ‘Market I’ (see fig. 3.) which had wonderful colours along with play of light and shade; overall a beautiful image. The Booklet’s commentary was that ‘now using a high resolution digital camera, Tillmans captured images in a depth of detail that is immediately compelling, but also suggests the excess of information that is often described as a condition of contemporary life.’ Reading this while standing in the warmth of the picture itself brought the cold shiver of analytical thought, here better to feel than think.

At one point while viewing a photograph a small image above caught my eye. Looking up I saw an image of a koala bear (I think) clinging to a tree branch, placed exactly where such it should be, high up in a tree. This non-typical placement of art works (here it was playful) was typical of the exhibition overall, inviting (forcing) the visitor to move about in order to place themselves correctly in relation to the differently sized images.

Also among my ‘five per cent’ (above) were Tillmans’s perhaps now iconic images ‘astro crusto’ and ‘Tucan’ (see fig. 4. and fig. 5.) which were absorbing to look at, visually stunning and interesting – is ‘astro crusto’ depicting a stage in the life cycle (of both lobster and fly)? Its conventional ugly aspect (a fly on food) connected in my mind to Tillmans’s photograph ‘Weed’ (2014), something conventionally ugly but nevertheless living in the cycle.

The exhibition was difficult to absorb in one visit because it was extensive in itself, but it also reflected fourteen years of a prolific artist’s output. In addition full appreciation probably required a broad, perhaps detailed knowledge of Tillmans’ work from his early snapshot documentary of the 1990s to the present.

Writing now about my visit I’m reminded of the critic Geoff Dyer’s words:

When writing about difficult pictures or music or poetry, it’s important not to forget, deny, or disguise one’s initial (or enduring) confusion or perplexity. The purpose of criticism is not to explain away one’s reaction but to articulate, record, and preserve them – in the hope that doing so expresses a truth inherent in the work (Dyer, 2011: 187 – 193).

Certainly I will not ‘forget, deny, or disguise’ my initial (and enduring) ‘confusion or perplexity’ at some of what I saw. On the journey home I read in the exhibition catalogue the question: ‘What context would account for this linkage in Tillman’s worldview between photographic materiality and the twinned concepts of vulnerability and openness?’ (Godfrey, 2017:16). Later the answer: ‘Tillmans’s linkage of materiality, vulnerability and openness has to be understood in connection to his experience of the AIDS crisis’ (Godfrey, 2017:20).

Still much to see and think about.


Note: uncredited quotations are from the Tate Modern Booklet given to attendees on entry.

Dyer, Geoff (2011) ‘Afterword’ In: Alex Webb: The Suffering of Light. Thirty Years of Photographs. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 187 – 193

Godfrey, Mark (2017) ‘Worldview’. In: Wolfgang Tillmans 2017. London: Tate Publishing

Tillmans, Wolfgang (2017) Wolfgang Tillmans – ‘What Art Does in Me is Beyond Words’ Tate (2017) 6 minutes At: (Accessed on 11.05.17)


Fgure 1. Tillmans, Wolfgang (2011) CLC 800, dismantled, a. At: (Accessed on 13-05.17)

Figure 2. Tillmans, Wolfgang (2012) Headlight (f),. At: (Accessed on 13-05.17)

Figure 3. Tillmans, Wolfgang (2012) Market 1. At: (Accessed on 13-05.17)

Figure 4. Tillmans, Wolfgang (2012) astro crusto. At: (Accessed on 13-05.17)

Figure 5. Tillmans, Wolfgang (2010) Tukan. At: (Accessed on 13-05.17)


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