Wolfgang Tillmans: Societal Discourse

As far as timely exhibitions go, Wolfgang Tillmans’ (b. 1968) current exhibition at Tate Modern, London, is charged with the heartbeat of today’s news and societal hot topics. 2017 features work from Tillmans’ portfolio since 2003. If not a retrospective, the prominent subjects his work explored from over a decade ago are still the issues of discourse and the media today.

Matters of war, gender politics and gay rights, immigration and the refugee crisis are embedded throughout his photographs and in the mixed materials of the vitrines filled with the artist’s own images and media clippings. Specific themes are not followed, and the visual and supplementary stimuli on show is like scrolling through news-driven social media feeds. The presentation is not all serious, more sprightly challenging, and emphasises the biased perspectives on what is seen as truth – which is now the ubiquitous “fake news” raising controversy at present. The work is evocative in an enticingly captivated form and it has an underlying sense of urgency that encourages its audiences to pay attention to what is happening in the world around them.

Whilst politics are a part of Tillmans’ career and personal life, his main focus is making art. The variety of images on display is vast, as is the way that they are presented. Mostly unframed, clipped or taped to the walls, some are high, some are low, some are in the corners of the galleries. The photographs are small and large-scale, and of portraits, landscapes, film abstractions, cities, deserts, TV static, car headlights, bedrooms, drains, plates of food, tropical birds, airport customs – all are individual vignettes of deeper stories or commonplace scenes carefully cropped.

Each individual piece channels a reflection of our world, and together represents its chaos, contents, and beauty. These snapshots resonate beyond their surfaces on many levels. His work is given further accreditation from the aforementioned political references to art historical associations, such as the photo of a meal of lobsters alluding to Dutch still life paintings. Its pink, yellow, orange, white and red palette is offset by a black fly, a symbol with negative connotations. There is no doubt in the talent Tillmans holds in producing striking imagery.

The show follows its own energised beat, including a room where audiences can listen to the recorded music by the band Colourbox. This space was curated by the German-born photographer, with his reasoning that studio recorded music does not receive the same acknowledgement as live music. It is unexpected, as is discovering a video of Tillmans dancing in his underwear. Although, nowadays in our constant flux of change, it is the dynamism that keeps it interesting. And, if there is also the playfulness and beauty as in the works produced through the lens, now could be the time to take advantage of the moment.

Ashton Chandler Guyatt

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 runs until 11 June at Tate Modern, London. For more information: www.tate.org.uk

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1. Wolfgang Tillmans La Palma (2014) © Wolfgang Tillmans.