By Zain Masud and Steve Pulimood
Tangents of Wolfgang Tillmans' thought traverse the Galerie Chantal Crousel and map a constellation of brilliance in 'Strings', his first solo-show in Paris since 2002. Tillmans' mediation in every manifestation of his work, from publications to exhibitions, forces his audience to question conventional presuppositions about the nature of photography. Its effusive consciousness offers the viewer a disparate body of work to be consumed as a whole or as individual morsels to be savored.
'Strings' gamut of many pleasures reminds us that in Tillmans' hands the potential of photography is restless and relentlessly playful. Upon entering this venerable Marais gallery one's eyes—those 'subversive tools' that Tillmans strives to activate—are arrested by Lighter blue/black I 2008, a two-tone, folded plane of azure and black. Progressing from his 'paper drop' photos in which flipped or rolled photographic paper are made the subject of the composition, Lighter blue/black I is one of a group of new works in Tillmans photographic output: abstraction made sculptural.
For these, the artist exposes folded photographs to different colour light sources in the darkroom or manipulates them to suggest a crease. In this case, the fold is so profound that it is supported like a terrace with a small armature to uphold it. Encased in perspex vitrines the Lighter series extend the boundaries of an otherwise two-dimensional medium limited to flatness. Compare Lighter blue/black I to Haircut 2007, a photograph of the back of a man's head, the black clippings of his hair rest on the curve of his ear and blue chequered shirt, and both images seem colour oriented,compounded by the same two hues. The two different colour fields, the black stubble on the blue ground of the shirt, and the pure black of the abstraction paired with its azure blue, are graphically bold tone poems written in light on photosensitive paper. Neither image's subject is more significant than the other, and yet their primary concern for colour—whether artificial or natural—makes for essential, refreshingly modern photography.
It is through such dialogue and juxtaposition that Tillmans' works, old and new, are best questioned and the exhibition enriched beyond the sum of its parts. The fleshy hues of Urgency XXII 2006 both alleviate and emphasise the sombre monochrome and dense figurativeness of its neighbour Army 2006 in which soldiers in Moscow rehearse a march to commemorate a World War II anniversary. Slackened string links each soldier to another to guide their spacing in formation.
In contrast to the explosive vibrancy of Urgency, the grey pallor and puppet-like assembly seem as farcical as it is meaningless. Tillmans's relish for the multiplicity of his medium is evident in this pantheonic display. It's range and scope is staggering: a deceptively banal 'snap-shot' of a barber-shop, a photocopied print of a sleeping man in a park, a monochrome photograph of a glacier which whispers of colour to an attentive audience, found objects arranged in a montage with newspaper clippings and Tillmans's own modest 4x6 photographs on trestle tables, more traditional still-life work, and the 'paper drop' images equivalent to a photographic vortex of shadow and light, complete with a compressed, soft-focus light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel gravitas. These manipulations of light resist and transcend facile categorisation of abstraction.
Together they seem to democratise subject and presentation and reflect how Tillmans envisages the world, “in a non-linear order but as a multitude of parallel experiences...a multitude of singularities, simultaneously accessible as they share the same space” (from Tillmans’ interview in Frieze, October 2008). Moreover in Tillmans’ work a photo is not a silent domain. A constant ambient sound permeates the gallery space from Peas 2006 (3 mins), the one video installation in the exhibition.
It is the fervent preaching of a priest and the cries of his evangelical congregation worshipping at the church opposite Tillmans' Bethnal Green studio. Peas 2006 is as typical of Tillmans in its vivaciousness of colour and quotidian subject as video installations are unusual in his oeuvre. He uses the still video camera only to do what he cannot with his photographic camera, capture motion. Here Tillmans gives us all the stuff of drama in action. The protagonists are the peas, their antagonist is the water. As the water comes to a roiling boil a foam of discontent surfaces drowning the population of peas and evoking a palpable horror in sync with the shrill cries of 'organised religion'. Eventually as the heat of the boilerplate decreases the peas drop gently into the amniotic fluid of the pot. The vulnerability that was so acute moments ago has dissipated into calm.
Without Tillmans’ contributions to contemporary photography, the world would surely be a duller place. He is an artist who has expanded the photographic medium to include the blissful and the banal, the everyday with everything, not unlike the rex of randomness the late Robert Rauschenberg. Walking through the exhibition, the boundaries of figuration and abstraction are blurred at every step.
The appropriateness of photography as an art that is inherently a mechanically reproducible medium is celebrated, not ceded to any other. His photographs are made in virtually every conceivable scale, format, and framing and if one can see beyond an occasional obtuseness, they enter into dialogue with each other, gain currency and even resonance. If ever photography was captured, held hostage by its normative limitations, Tillmans was and continues to be its liberator.
‘Strings’ by Wolfgang Tillmans run until 25th October 2008,
at Galerie Chantal Crousel, 10 rue Charlot, 75003 Paris
view all articles from this author
Zain Masud is a pan- Eastern Londoner and recent Art History post-graduate of the University of Oxford. She currently lives in Paris.