Looking at the world for us, looking at the world with us
Fred Sandback's work makes Andrea Fraser cry. She is an institutional critic and he was a New York minimalist. Sandback used yarn to create fragile interventions in space which made visitors hyper aware of how they made their way around a room, encouraging them to tread carefully. German artist Wolfgang Tillmans has a similar effect on me. His work emotionally stirs me with its finely detailed, carefully crafted stories. Instead of thrusting his visionary ego at us, he slows our pace, saying "let's share this together".
From 15 February to 11 June 2017, Tate Modern presents a major exhibition of Tillmans' colour photography, printed material and music recordings across 14 gallery rooms. Each exists like a chapter in his optimistic, though increasingly worried story of the contemporary world. Echoing the title of his 2003 Tate show if one thing matters, everything matters and using a multi-sized format so familiar from his exhibitions at Maureen Paley, Tillmans' work ranges from abstract to figurative, exploratory to experimental. Every interaction with the world seems equally considered and, if every thing matters then every one matters.
Individual rooms are planned as one piece of work. Considering only colour in Room One for a moment, the purples of the Double Exposure (Fespa Digital / Fruit Logistica) bounce diagonally and across to the hues dominating young man, Jedda, a. Likewise, the oranges re-appear in cars humming their way down Sunset Boulevard. Green is asparagus, seedlings and plants. In this way, Tillmans swirls us about the room, recalling how Henri Mattisse's The Snail 1952-53 circles our eyes around his canvas.
Reams of images associate themselves with painting, sculpture and architecture while breaking from tradition with ambiguous interpretation. Take astro crusto which has a fly feasting on the bones of a crustacean. It could easily sit alongside the Flemish still life masters who depicted exquisitely detailed flowers, banquets, rotting fruit and dead bugs inside grandiose chambers. Yet Tillmans' white background replacing the usual black is less memento mori, more laboratory or open environment. The composition hints at investigation and exploration beyond the humdrum cycle of life while its props are creatures of metamorphosis, contrast and contradiction.
Tillmans approaches the physicality of body politics with similar rumination. 17 years supply is a box of medication bottles including antiretrovirals used to treat HIV/AIDS. It conveys a rattling container of suffering while being rooted in the practical aspects of illness - dealing with doctors, prescriptions and discards. The work recalls Felix Gonzales-Torres' Bloodworks which both tenderly and clinically chart the steady decline of a patient's immune system. As well as Jo Spence's hospital bed selfies which testify to her grappling to control the demise of her body while reliant on the medical system. Here, Tillmans explores personal experience contained within a regulated infrastructure.
Likewise, he extends his enquiries to political systems though never from the pulpit of expertise. Since 2005 Tillmans has exhibited a selection of printed material in custom made, glass covered tables. Topics include child abuse cover ups, suspicious WMD claims, hanging of homosexual teenagers, the UK's European Union referendum, and fiercely held, contradictory beliefs. There seems to be a subject of awfulness for all of us. Tillmans encourages a sense of public access by presenting these like museum displays which normally open to everyone.
Accompanying these articles are Tillmans' photographs. They are a diverse range including portraits, bodies, water and abstracts. Some create spaces, others amplify the subjects and they all accentuate an atmosphere of the artist's presence, implying he is entrusting us with this difficult information. One is Anders pulling splinter from his foot. Replicating the beautiful Spinario, Anders is utterly absorbed in a personal endeavour to extract a foreign object from his flesh. Its formal structure is echoed in the multi directions of the tables. And, within these, publications appear in both directions allowing several people to engage equally and together.
Togetherness as well as empathy, openness and a desire to understand seem to underpin Tillmans' practice. His work is underscored by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's claims that perceptual knowledge is derived in relation to the body's exposure to the world, including the physical environment as much as other people within it. This helps contain the breadth of Tillmans' enquiries. He dissects a photocopier machine and presents music tracks as close to their original recordings as possible, both ways of searching for the true nature of things. His partying and protesting crowds unite people together as one. A plethora of paper images are akin to our surrounding architecture, while borderless skies and seascapes extend our possibilities beyond.
In the final room Tillmans displays four images of apple trees nearest the exit. As well as circling back to the fauna of the first room, they recall Paul Cezanne's fixation with still life and his formal explorations of light, colour, shapes, perspectives and the edges of objects. Tillmans plants appear spindly and precarious. With a gentle smile, they offer us a departing, humble hope that nature will find a way to grow through the cracks of hardship. These seem like appropriate last words for the moment from a man who, in a 1995 interview with Neville Wakefield stated "The bottom line is that I genuinely love people". Well, I love you too Wolfgang.