Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

The Photography of Immediacy – Wolfgang Tillmans in Düsseldorf

Wolfgang Tillmans, Paper drop (space), 2006, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Köln/Berlin; Foto: © Wolfgang TillmansInstallation view, K21 Ständehaus, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Foto: Achim Kukulies; © Kunstsammlung NRW

Wolfgang Tillmans uses Düsseldorf’s old Ständehaus (former parliament building, now art gallery) as an extension of his studio. Right up to the opening of his show the renowned photographer worked on the set-up and design of this wide-ranging exhibition of his oeuvre, repeatedly re-arranging his material and again and again creating new groupings.

Even now Wolfgang Tillmans’ Düsseldorf exhibition can still be experienced as an unfinished process; despite all the precision, it still manages to retain its open, experimental character. This surprising vigour of impression stems primarily from the unaccustomed heterogeneity of the material he is exhibiting.

Wolfgang Tillmans  with  Marion  Ackermann,  leader of the Kunstsammlung; © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/S. Tenta Without any form of hierarchy framed photos are hung on the walls next to unframed ones, c-prints next to photocopies; ink-jet and laser prints in all kinds of formats are mounted directly on the walls and arranged in complex, albeit strictly linear, installations. This method sets new standards as it demands a new approach to photography and the way it is presented – an approach that does not focus on originality and value, but more on a piece’s significance as a direct reflection of individual experience.

It is all things round that count

Equally as diverse as the material and techniques used in the photos is their spectrum of content: the subjects embrace quite personal experiences as well as political events – not just portraits, interiors, landscapes, astronomical images and still lifes, but also those abstract images that are produced without using a camera lens in the dark room. There also some video pieces and his so-called Truth Study Centre Tables – table-top installations that use photographs, photocopies, newspaper articles and other materials to comment on socio-political and scientific topics.

In the first room of the exhibition, for example, he uses the background material to enhance the large-scale photos that depict that rare event that took place in the heavens in 2004 – when Venus appeared as a tiny black dot in front of the sun. A clear reflection of Tillmans’ earlier enthusiasm for astronomical phenomena. At the side of the large-scale photo-format of the solar sphere he has mounted a small. black and white photo of a pile of eggs – it is all things round that count.

Installation view, K21 Ständehaus, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Foto: Achim Kukulies; © Kunstsammlung NRW

Reinforcing ideas

In the same room there also photos of dead insects that reinforce the deliberate discrepancy between near and far, tiny and immeasurably large, fullness and emptiness. The hangings, however, also illustrate one thing in particular and that is that, according to Tillmans’ way of thinking, all phenomena and events deserve a comparable amount of attention. It is not Tillmans’ aim to inform, let alone lecture people. He wants much more to create images that help “recognise the world”. It is the brain and not the eye that creates an image and the photograph, as Tillmans says, performs a reinforcement function for ideas.

For the photographer this involves the difficulty of transferring the reality of the three-dimensional into a two-dimensional one in such a way that its meaning remains visible and thus comprehensible. When walking round the exhibition, visitors experience again and again the way Tillmans does this – because he is personally moved by the great subjects on display in the rooms, for example, portraits of famous and unknown people, the life of soldiers or by “sexuality as a pansexual utopia”.

This is only possible because in every one of his works one feels that it is not just the work of a photographer, but also of a responsible author. An author who is present throughout. Surprisingly this also applies to Tillmans’ almost non-representational photos for it is in these photos that the whole of his personal urge to experiment comes through.

Fluctuation of dissipation and concentration

On the whole in Düsseldorf there seems to be no linear, let alone chronologically logical, narrative inherent in the exhibition, on the contrary – a cosmos of interwoven subjects and questions has simultaneously spread out. This, too, seems to have ignored any systematic structuring, but is more of an organic fluctuation of dissipation and concentration.

The observer, for example, experiences various club scenes the photographer has been to, an underground station where a right-wing extremist murder took place in 1992 as a place of commemoration or campaigns on gender equality issues; he sees fungi cultures on trees, self-portraits, flower arrangements, the photo of a copying machine along with that of a historical painting, the hustle and bustle of a market and views of studios – the large and small-format photos having been united in densely packed blocks, then once again calmingly drawn apart from each other. 

Installation view, K21 Ständehaus, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Foto: Achim Kukulies; © Kunstsammlung NRW

The importance of immediacy

Another remarkable aspect of the exhibition in Düsseldorf is the fact that Tillmans even today is still using analogue technology. Even the latest digital colour photos have been integrated in the exhibition in analogue form, in his never-ending quest to find the authentic image. It is not so much the motifs, but more the immediacy with which he captures a certain eventful quality that separates him from the photographers of the Becher school like Thomas Ruff or Andreas Gurski.

In this context one is surprised that Tillmans again and again tackles the challenge of abstraction. His wonderful paper-drops – side views of rolled up photo paper, early photocopies of newspaper images from the 1980s and the ornamental Silver series are works in which the individual photo becomes the object. In Düsseldorf a whole room has been devoted to these minimalist papers that have been folded into relief form – it goes by the name Lighter.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 220 (Free Floats), 2013, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Köln/Berlin; © Wolfgang Tillmans

The photographer as a researcher

Tillmans goes to the other extreme with his Freischwimmer (Free Floats) – colourful fantasy works displaying atmospherically translucent swirls that were created in the dark room without a camera lens. The actual act of photographing always goes hand in hand with reflection on the medium of photography itself – Tillmans is also a researcher. This has enabled Tillmans, born in Remscheid in 1968, to take photography to new heights. It is no coincidence therefore that Tillmans, who today lives in both London and Berlin, was awarded the renowned Turner Prize in 2000 – the first non-British visual artist ever to have this honour bestowed on him.

Fully in line with Tillmans attitude to social issues and his shrewd approach to photography and the new media, it is typical that every visitor to his show is given an exhibition catalogue free of charge. The catalogue has been designed as a “book about the artist” and therefore part of the exhibition. It exclusively contains photos whose title and date of origin have been listed on the front cover. On the back cover the interested visitor will find internet links to the texts relating to the images.

Wolfgang Tillmans
K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf
2nd March till 8th September 2013 (extended)
Renate Puvogel
works as an art critic in Aachen.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
June 2013

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