Review: Wolfgang Tillmans, Tate Modern ‘Cracking Artist, OK Show’

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Argh, I was really rooting for this show; I really was. Wolfgang Tillmans is a cracking artist, one of the most exciting working today but this show… it just doesn’t quite come together, for me. The way it is laid out, I feel, draws a lot of the verve and energy out of his works. Frustrating, and a little bit embarrassing to admit as, well, this show was curated by the artist himself.

For those who love Tillmans, you’ll find enough to enjoy but for those who are more unfamiliar with his work, I’ve a feeling they may come out of this show a bit confused and thinking his work lacks focus.

So, the good bits…

The people. Tillmans is amazing with people, from his intimate exploration of gay men and sexuality in photography, to the celebration and platforming of LGBTQ communities in his magazine articles and interviews. There’s the beautiful Collum, 2011 where the seductive exposure of just the nape of the man’s neck reminds me of Vuillard. And this works beautifully with the more explicit close-up of a man’s testicles and bottom (not that Insta liked the image, mind).

Then there’s Grace Jones in full diva mode at Afropunk, and there’s Abdu Ali, the black queer rapper, with fierce eyebrows and untouched armpit hair. There’s Black Lives Matter marches and portraits of Morrissey. Patti Smith and party-goers.

And these blend effortlessly with the politics, Tillmans’s emphasis on inclusion. His images of immigration desks at airports are pointed and well-observed, as are his shots of advertising billboards. But it’s his EU referendum and 2016 US presidential election posters that are most unambiguous. Completed in the run-up to these elections, the big advertising slogans and the promo posters implored voters to celebrate togetherness and reject fascism. How painful it is to look at these pieces now, only a year later. The world can turn a dime, and it seems it has.

But these works are spread out across the fourteen galleries, intermingled with the other works. Tillmans is at his best when he’s exploring the human condition, shining a light on the marginalised and overlooked in our society so, for me, I wasn’t crazy about the works in-between.

In one room, the focus is solely on recorded music. No photographs on the wall, no magazines on tables. Instead, chairs are scattered around a stereo, which is playing recorded music on loop. Music from Colourbox, to be specific – an English band from the 1980s. The purpose is to platform studio recordings, to give it the space and the attention it deserves. Tillmans is aware that our iPhones aren’t the optimal way to listen to studio music, which is engineered on state of the art equipment. So, he’s wired up this room so the music can be listened to in the way it was optimally designed.

I get it, to a point. But, here’s the thing – this music is quite dull. And I’ve always felt with studio recordings that the effort needs to be the other way around – to record music so that it is at its best when listened through our iPhones as, surely, that’s how we are consuming it?

But anyway.

As well as the music, there’s also Tillmans’s abstract work, where images of rolls of paper and rumpled clothes are manipulated to give us another way of examining the world around us. The images are beautiful – but I can’t say they’re the strongest on show.

As you wander through the galleries, it’s easy to feel that the show lacks focus – you pass from magazine articles to 6×4 portraits, from sound systems to blown-up images of street markets that cover an entire wall. The show doesn’t seem to flow. And I felt this came into really sharp focus by having the strongest work towards the end.

The State We’re In is a tremendously powerful artwork. A huge photograph of the choppy waves in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the grey skies above almost as dark as the water underneath. It’s an image about borders. It’s the point in the ocean where time zones and national frontiers supposedly meet – or should that be, collide? But yet it’s still the ocean. Timeless, permanent. A reminder of the artifice of what we put up to divide ourselves when the world, and all of us on it, are interdependent and a single community.

I fell in love with this photograph when I saw it at Maureen Paley last year. It should have opened this show at the Tate – a marker in the first gallery of what this show encapsulates, what brings all the subsequent works together. Yet, here, it is put on a back wall in the last gallery where it’s not so hard to miss it completely. And that really sums it up for me – terrific works, but just not sure the show presents them in a way which will draw the viewer in.

Tate Modern, London, to June 11, 2017
Admission: £12.50 (with donation). Concessions available.

See more exhibition images on my Facebook page.

Image Credits:
1. Wolfgang Tillmans Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza 2012 © Wolfgang Tillmans
2. Wolfgang Tillmans Collum 2011 © Wolfgang Tillmans
3. Wolfgang Tillmans paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse 2014 © Wolfgang Tillmans
4. Wolfgang Tillmans Shit buildings going up left, right and centre 2014 © Wolfgang Tillmans

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