Wolfgang Tillmans knows how to work a room. At his new show at Tate Modern, his images don’t line up waiting diligently for our attention. This is a party in which we all have to circulate.
A German who spent his formative years in London, he was the first photographer and first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize. At Tate Modern, each room is loosely configured around his central themes: technology, the studio, social space, politics, abstraction, community and freedom. His range is vast – landscapes, portraits, abstracts and still life – and the shifts in scale are vast too. The eye swoops from images big as walls to small as snapshots. Every bit of the gallery is used, including corners and corridors. It’s a non-hierarchical style of display he has made his own, with shifts in scale and subject giving the work bounce and elasticity. It could quite easily be too much, too busy, too enthusiastic. Look at this…and this…and this…this too! But the sum does not work against the parts. The individual image still stops you in your tracks.
The showstoppers have very banal subjects. A pipe disgorges water into a drain in Buenos Aires. Water spurts out and stuff gets trapped in its eddy. A child playing in a drain is equally interested in everything – holes, snags, leaves and sticks – but there is nothing childish about the image. It is monumental and formally very tight. The colours are luminous, and the level of observation compelling. Many of the most striking images derive from incidental elements: bits of discarded Scotch tape make a stunning, near monochrome image, a weed is illuminated in the earthy green of a London garden, old laundry is thrown into Baroque shapes. The subjects can seem casual but Tillmans, who stages many of his images, is interested in how the illusion of intimacy is created. Photographic paper, scrolled onto itself like a teardrop, is shot in close-up and the light reflects in its glossy interior to make a glacial semi-abstract. Though he works with high resolution cameras, Tillmans doesn’t fetishise detail. Some images are taken in low light, and the focus pulls and shifts. He is particularly attentive to edges.
More than in previous shows, the surprise is quite how much colour powers the work. There’s a monster picture of the remains of a lobster dinner in peach, blush, cream, white and rose on which a black fly picks at its own meal. A series of abstract colour works made by exposing photosensitive paper directly to light – blue on white, brown on saffron, aubergine shot with pink – are voluptuous photographic records. At a scale of three metres and upwards, the eye has to work over their surfaces. There is nothing to see here but colour. You slow down. He is not afraid of the romantic.
All the works were made between 2003 and 2017. “2017” is the show’s title. 2003 was the year of the invasion of Iraq, a moment of new social and political engagement for Tillmans. “Truth study centre” is an ongoing archive of images, newspaper cuttings and commentaries on power and the manipulation of the media, collaged and overlapped on tables. Tillmans was a passionate campaigner for Remain in Britain’s EU referendum, evidenced by the posters he distributed that went up on the walls of universities and schools. His public causes are ever present. There are essay series on subjects close to his heart – gay rights groups in Russia, club nights in New York. Tillmans feels like a participant, yet his own appearances are fleeting. There’s a self-portrait in a fogged mirror at Reading Gaol, where his reconfigured face is the colour of mustard. He appears again in the only video work, dancing in his pants, skipping from foot to foot, unobserved. It is funny and odd. On a separate screen his shadow is also dancing, but not with him, taken in another place at another time.
It’s exhilarating, but for all that he is fuelled by social activism, his gaze is surest – and strangest – when examing the physicality of things, whether they are in his kitchen or seen from the window of a plane. The pale flank of a man’s neck looms beside a pure white image taken inside a cloud. He thinks like a sculptor, and gives his photos the status of objects. He is a great respecter of paper as material – its surface, weight and feel. Giant falls of paper are fixed with white clips. Smaller ones are taped discreetly to the wall.
At the exit is a collection of four images of apple trees, the kind tended on balconies by city dwellers, their fragile fruit, branches and blossoms held up with string. It brings us from global to local again, back to the precarious promise of the everyday.