Print, politics and recording the modern world: Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

Photo 24-06-2017, 08 45 40
Wolfgang Tillmans astro crusto, a 2012 © Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition at the Tate Modern in London was an unflinching look at the state of the present world. It has a global reach, encompassing shots in his part-time home in London, to the Middle-East, to the streets of New Delhi. Utilising the full potential of not just photography, but print as a medium, he portrays news articles, research papers and collections of magazines alongside his photographic works. Thus, Tillmans succeeds at creating a synthetic snapshot of the world; encompassing not just the visual, but the defining political aspects of the current era.

Despite the fact this exhibition was not a retrospective, the variety of style, subject matter, and mediums means that the exhibition should have felt disjointed and overwhelming. However, this was avoided in actuality, largely because the constant juxtapositions of one room to another is a constant theme not only in this exhibition, but a trait of Tillmans throughout his career. For instance, a room filled with news articles and images covering the 2016 American presidential election is immediately followed by a room of abstract prints: looking at the formal, artistic qualities of print as a medium, instead of as a mere method of producing images. Wanting to avoid any visual representation, Tillmans produced these works without a camera by tracing light directly onto paper. What results from this technique are large, sweeping gradients of colour on the canvas.

Later on, there is a another room of abstractions. These are further explorations of the printing process created by playing around with ink and the printer itself to create random, yet dynamic patterns and forms. There are interplays of gradients of light, layered, overprinted images, and sweeping textures. It is in these works that Tillmans expands the limits of photography and print as mediums, asking us to see his art form as more than just receptacles for the images that are contained within. Instead, these ink-jet prints emphasise the grains and other imperfections—causing us to examine the unique, physical qualities of print itself.

Proceeding abstracted prints, we entered a room full of old, feathered magazines featuring Tillmans’ work: fashion shoots in the 90s, to his earliest photographic experiments in 80s. The embrace of magazines as a valid medium for photography keeps in line with Tillman’s embrace of mass print media, and the important part it plays in recording the cultural zeitgeist. We saw the ability of print to be politicised in one of his rooms titled the Truth Study Centre: a room recording the American election; exploring how the media distorting the truth emboldened the populist political rhetoric.

Wolfgang Tillmans Lampedusa 2008 © Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans Lampedusa 2008 © Wolfgang Tillmans

Leading on from that room, we see a return to traditional photography: large prints capturing people in social spaces from around the world. There is a theme that links all these seemingly disparate subject matters, namely that Tillmans is interested in using art mediums to record the world as it is: not attempting to rise above it.

This need to be ‘amongst’ the subject matter is visually evident in his photographs of people; they capture various subjects in various countries, often capturing social spaces that show people existing in a matter-of-fact manner. There is a gorgeous image of people gathered in a quiet Shanghai street, a well-dressed man learning proudly in front of a car, an aerial shot of a Middle-Eastern townscape. Sometimes, these photos become a comment on the themes of Western exceptionalism explored in the Truth Study Centre: a shot of an immigration sign at an airport stating ‘rest of the world, this way.’

Wolfgang Tillmans is a master of his medium, and this exhibition can be seen as an ode to the social and artistic potential of print. For instance, his Truth Study Centre explores how print can be politicised, while his arresting abstract works demonstrate how the same technology can be used to create the formal qualities of art.

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