Art Criticism

Wolfgang Tillmans
If one thing matters, everything matters
Tate Britain

In the second half of the 19th century the great American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote his huge poem Leaves of Grass. People never before associated with poetry made their debut into literature: drovers, peddlers, brides, opium-eaters, prostitutes were all jumbled up pell-mell. It was as if this inclusiveness echoed something of the structure of the idealised democratic society, released from the hierarchies and restraints of the Old World, which Whitman dreamt of for the new America. The poem is an anthem-song of early Modernism; value-laden, forward-looking, Utopian.

Wolfgang Tillmans Wake 2001
Wake, 2001

Fast forward a century and a half to Tate Britain to the exhibition of the young German artist, Wolfgans Tillmans, born in 1968 in Remscheid, Germany, educated and living in England and a former Turner prize winner. His first one person show in Britain, if one thing matters, everything matters, is also a highly inclusive affair. Shot to fame in the late eighties and early nineties at an early age by his photographs for magazines, such as i-D and The Face, of gay pride activists, eco-warriors and clubbers, Tillmans was dubbed, by some, a chronicler of his generation. Seven rooms of the Tate are filled with his photographs, many of them reflecting his relationship to London. None have labels (there is a map for those who insist on titles) and they are grouped together in no apparent thematic order. His friends Alex and Lutz sitting naked, except for raincoats, in the branches of a tree, jostle for space with a classic still-life shot of a vase of pink roses or a mess of roadworks in some undisclosed location. There are lots of friends, lots of parties, a lot of erect penises and masturbation. All the works are pinned to the wall, none are framed. The effect is that of a student bedroom collaged with posters, photos of friends and reminders of nights on the razzle. A beautiful Rothko-like sunset – a brooding black sea beneath an orange horizon-line and navy sky – is placed next to a photograph of a pile of black rubbish sacks being investigated by a rat. An overhead source of light illuminates the surfaces of the sacks so that they appear as luminous as the sunset. There is no hierarchy to these images. All are presented as having equal value. But unlike Whitman in the 19th century there is no Utopian vision here, no sense of democratic inclusivity. This is a postmodern matrix. If one thing matters, everything matters. Or alternatively nothing really matters very much so why select, why choose? And anyway on what basis could any rational choice be made? What belief system could be employed in such an editing process? As in the newly published book of Tillmans’ work, the exhibition comprises a personal choice, containing most of the images that he has released to date and many others which he feels “are or were at some point in the past of relevance to me.”

Wolfgang Tillmans Rachel Auburn & son 1995
Rachel Auburn & Son, 1995

Tillmans claims he wanted to avoid being seen as overly art historical, of relying on ‘worthy’ categories such as ‘portraiture’ and ‘still life’. For they are, he claims, not part of the way we live our lives. “When we see a person, we don’t think ‘portrait’; when I look at my window-sill I see fruit in a bowl and light and respond to them, I don’t first see ‘still life’. That’s how I want to convey my subject matter to the viewer, not through the recognition of predetermined art historical/image categories but through enabling them to see with the immediacy that I felt in that situation.”

It has been argued that he subverts our ideas of conventional beauty, and who is to say that his painterly colour-field photographs of the Arctic or of blush-like ‘skin’ are any more beautiful than the semi-erect cock held in the hand of one young breakfaster, which seems to be intruding into the fast-food tray on his lap like a pink German sausage? Is it only outdated Kantian notions of the Sublime that lead us to believe that one is a more beautiful, more uplifting image than the other? In a world where we have been told ad nauseam that history is dead, that ideology crumbled along with the Berlin wall and the collapse of that last belief system, Marxism; where all is now fracture and surface, is not Tillmans’ anarchic view of beauty as valid as any other? And if we don’t like it, if we regret the passing of art that uplifts and vivifies, should we perhaps be careful not to shoot the messenger for delivering, what to some of us may seem like, an unpalatable message?

Wolfgang Tillmans

Although some of the photographs such as the gnarled trunk of Shaker Tree, 1995 or the Conquistador sunsets have a slick, crafted quality and are obviously the work of a professional photographer, many of the smaller images are not any different to the snaps you and I might take on holiday or at a friend’s birthday party. So why then are they art? Because Tillmans has decided they are, because they are in the Tate, because they are grouped together for public display. Because they are of as much value as anything else we might term art in a society that no longer wishes its artists to edify and instruct, even to anger or deconstruct but rather to entertain, to shock on the ersatz level of Big Brother. Why bother to make choices, to spoil the fun, the night out clubbing with the gang when it’s easier to shrug nonchalantly when asked for an opinion, and answer: whatever. This is a world of single issue politics – gay-pride marches and eco-conflicts – where spectacle is as important as vision. Being seen is the new caring.

Wolfgang Tillmans Arctic 6, 2002
Arctic 6, 2002

Yet the fact that this work is photography means that by its very nature it is about the passing of time, about nostalgia and memory. In ten or twenty years time we may look back on these images and say of the computerised base-line amplifier lying in the grass, how funny, how old fashioned, did we really use such stone-age equipment? Or: my god, did people really dress like that? By photographing everything – the down-and-out lying on the pavement that has special bumps to prevent him sleeping on the hot air ducts, the concrete pylons of Macau Bridge that have not yet been joined together, an ashtray of fag ends, or a supermarket shelf rowed with soap powder – Tillmans, consciously or otherwise, does become a chronicler of contemporary life. These images, whether we like it or not, reflect something of our 21st century world. In 1995 Tillmans took a photograph of a young man approaching a deer on a beach. It is impossible to tell whether this deer, which looks so out of place, has been imported especially for the photograph, whether it is actually alive or stuffed. How are we meant to read this image and does it matter anyway if it succeeds in perplexing us or making us smile? Who cares about messages and truths?

Image 35 shows his studio after a party. All that can be seen are two big mirrors leaning against the wall like a diptych. They reflect back the studio, empty now except for the detritus of beer cans, fag ends, paper cups and bottles. These fragments are all that are left when everyone has packed up and gone home. The overriding feeling is one of satiated despondency and emptiness. But there is also another photograph of his studio. A close up of the window and sill. On it are a carefully arranged collection of postcards, paintings by Caravaggio. Perhaps as in Animal Farm when all the animals were declared equal but some were actually rather more equal than others, Tillmans is (unconsciously?) acknowledging that even in a culture where image appears to be the great homogeniser and equaliser and surface is all ; if one thing matters, there will always another thing that matter just that bit more.

Wolfgang Tillmans If one thing matters, everything matters is at Tate Britain from 6 June to 14 September 2003

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Wolfgang Tillmans 1995-2002

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