Wolfgang Tillmans is a very lucky man. I happened to revisit his show at the Tate on the day Sotheby’s announced a record price for one of his photographs at the grand Evening Sale of the night before. As reported by the Art Newspaper, this represented more than just good business :
“The contemporary art market has proved itself immune to the perceived threats of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump, judging by Sotheby’s performance last night. The auction house made £100.7m (£118m with fees), comfortably falling within its pre-sale estimate of £80.9m-£112.6m. The result is 70% up on last year’s sale.
German artists led the way, with more than a quarter of lots by artists hailing from the country. In his first appearance in an evening sale at Sotheby’s, Wolfgang Tillmans smashed his record set by Christie’s only the night before. At least seven bidders propelled the 2005 photographic work, Freischwimmer 119 (free swimmer 119), to £380,000 (£464,750 with fees), tripling its upper estimate.
Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner gallery, … says there is a concerted effort to link artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immendorff and Albert Oehlen. “They are a formidable group of the like not seen since the Abstract Expressionists,” he says.
The strategy is paying off for Sotheby’s. The 15 works on the block by German artists sold for a combined £48.1m (with fees) against a low estimate of £26.7m, accounting for 35% of the overall sale total. Richter’s 1982 Eisberg contributed £15.6m (£17.7m with fees), selling to a phone bidder from Asia.”
German Artists Capture Zeitgeist at Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale
By Anny Shaw for The Art Newspaper, 9 March 2017
I sulkily admire this attempt by Sotheby’s press department to make a coherent phenomenon out of the chaotic competition of the various dealers whose products are really in play here. I like the suggestion that art-Germans are collectively leading the way against Brexit and Donald Trump in a European cultured resistance against anti-European economic action. I even like that a dealer can be found to drop the strongly market-magic (and wholly un-German) label of Abstract Expressionist on the goods he’s trying to sell.
This German-branded subsector has been doing very well for quite a while. At Sotheby’s itself, much of the credit for the long harvest from the contemporary art markets has to be ascribed to two formidable Germans (both now both moved elsewhere), Cheyenne Westphal and Tobias Meyer. It’s been obvious for many years that Germany is the leading economy of the European Union. It was only a matter of time before its creative industries were seen to take their share of that lead.
How nice for Tillmans – a photographer – to be included among all this art-gold. How nice that the Tate and Sotheby’s work so conveniently hand in hand promoting each other’s stuff. The sums are big by any reasonable standard – although generating £460,000 of £48m raised by 15 names is not really carrying one’s share of the financial load. It’s more like hitching a ride. It’s been a long time that a record price below £500,000 has not been all that impressive in the scales of the contemporary art market, even at the lower levels available for an artist using photography. As usual, photographers are still the junior partners in these equations.
However the money works, and whether it’s in the background or in the foreground, here we have an artist granted his second large show at the Tate in less than fifteen years. I did notice that the Tate put out this phrase: “This is Wolfgang Tillmans’ first ever exhibition at Tate Modern ..” on its website — which is true enough if one chooses not to count the Turner Prize as an exhibition — but which also veils the fact that he had a “mid-career retrospective” at Tate Britain just a couple of miles up the river in 2003. Tillmans is Wolfgang Tillmans, RA, too: a Royal Academician. For a combination of reasons, the Tate — like the Royal Academy before it, and a lot of other fancy names in the art world and the magazine world — is banking on Tillmans. He may still just about carry off his vaguely down-with-the-kids camouflage; but Britain is surprisingly good at making apparently unlikely people fully Established and this is membership of the Establishment on the grand scale.
I find The Tate show more than troubling. I think it’s vitiated in some quite serious ways.
Tillmans has made it his badge to be un-precious about what he photographs: he is one of those artists who photograph to understand, not to inform. But that doesn’t work on the huge scale that the Tate has awarded him. For this is a truly enormous show. Fourteen rooms, hung with Tillmans’ habitual elaborate mock-casualness (which ironises the hundreds of thousands of pounds the biggest of the pieces are now worth). As usual with him, some of the prints are simply stuck to the walls; many of the larger are hung unframed from bulldog clips pinned by nails to the wall. Hundreds of artefacts, including vitrine after vitrine crammed with printed stuff, his own and other people’s. High ceilings, and a handful of prints on a truly monumental scale. He shows us – and it is one of the genuine wonders in the show – a little weed in a badly tended garden which must be 12-foot tall at least. A very great deal of careful thought has gone into the arrangement of these things – it’s an installation as much as a traditional ‘exhibition’. The show reverts to many of Tillmans’ long-established enquiries; but he has lost control in the airy vastness of the Tate of the process of addressing a viewer. It’s not at all clear that the installation adds to our experience of the exhibition beyond the very coarse shock-and-awe of number and scale. The installation is in fact, in spite of a good deal of pretension, deeply meh.
As is well known, his subject matter is catholic. That previous show at the Tate was called “If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters”, which just about sums it up. He photographs with a kind of disorientating prolixity: people as portraits, people as fashion, people as economic data. Flying in to Port au Prince, he takes a picture. Landscape, still-life. Personal, professional. Finding a bloke in pink robes leaning on a purple car with Saudi number plates, he takes a picture. A hairy arse presents itself to him, straining upwards, the balls crushing down on the lino…he takes a picture and blows it up to 6 feet tall. He looks up; he looks down. The infinite sky; a drain in Buenos Aires. Camera-less photography, abstract prints, pixellated patterns… That enormous photograph of a weed, with drying dead hellebore leaves on the ground next to it, is very appealing. The little corner of a yard in which it has taken root is damp. Yet the thing itself is kissed by an ever-so-gentle London sunlight. What it means is up to you. What any of it means is up to you.
This is my trouble. The generosity of this vision is untroubled by any attempt to digest. We are in, effect, not seeing a show by Wolfgang Tillmans. We’re seeing an almost unmediated collection of sights, as we would do if we made the pictures ourselves, a click every so often, all day, every day. The editing part of the process has not been left out – of course not. But as Tillmans’ viewers, we are given no clue as to what he edits in or cuts. We don’t know what he’s editing for. Everything he sees interests him – and that’s fair enough. Everything I see interests me, I suppose, until I try to order my thoughts.
Tillmans has always been omnivorous; he used to be brilliant at it, too. Years ago, reviewing the 2003 show, the always-interesting photography critic of the Village Voice, Vince Aletti, found that “there’s nothing indiscriminate about this inclusiveness. Tillmans has mastered the tossed-off beauty of the snapshot and married it to a generous, optimistic, and politically engaged we-are-the-world sensibility”. He had, indeed. But this is not that any more. This is incontinence.
Before breaking the auction record for one of his pictures, and before starring in this overblown show, Tillman’s most recent high visibility had been in his campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. By designing and distributing posters and T-shirts, by pressing his friends to get involved, by enlisting urgent active support, Tillmans committed himself once again exactly as Aletti had said : generous, optimistic, politically-engaged. That was only a few weeks ago. But none of it is traceable in the Tate show except as loose threads. If you read the endless vitrines full (among heaps of other stuff) of political screeds, you can indeed track something of his interest in Europe. It’s vague; it’s shapeless. It’s more of a sense of belonging than any sense of understanding. As soon as you read the first line about him, you know as much about his European politics as he really reveals in this rambling, uncritical, vaguely shocked collection of snippets that have caught his eye. He’s a German artist of a certain generation (he was born in 1968, was about 20 when the Wall came down) who’s made his home in England. One can see that he’s concerned; active in defence of the various liberties he prizes. He’s photographed the gay scene in Russia, where that is under frightening threat. He’s vaguely environmentalist (although he seems to take an awful lot of planes). He values the liberties of his friends.
Compare all of that to the evolving but never imprecise enquiries of Paul Graham, say, and you are left scratching your head. The comparison is not at all unfair: Tillmans called a book Neue Welt in obvious expansion of Graham’s New Europe of a few years earlier. Graham has moved closer to the nebulousness of Tillmans in recent years; but in a long sequence before that which included hard accurate work on what it meant it to be poor under Thatcher, on the complex crises of Northern Ireland, and that brilliant scrutiny of the way the weight of history gets in the way of a shared European present, Graham shifted through the gears: documentary; post-documentary; post-modern….Local, national, international… Just as Tillmans does, he threw the labels in our faces. It was hard to know what to call Graham’s pictures : it still is. Yet each time he committed to his viewers, committed himself to getting difficult messages across, even when those messages were doubtful, non-linear, complex, and sometimes even contradictory. Sure, Graham has – as Tillmans has –taken on the role of ‘a concerned photographer’ (the ancient phrase that used to be reserved for a certain kind of documentary in Britain that had not been commissioned by journals). But Graham has tried to know what he thinks. Tillmans has simply enjoyed wondering what the questions might be.
He is, by the way, absolutely ruthless at purloining the style of photographers he notices to be successful elsewhere: here is the sea à la Roni Horn. Here some abstractions à la Adam Fuss… That refusal to commit to a style of his own has been interesting in the past, a telling element in Tillmans’ view of the democratic equality of images. But on this enormous scale and within the wild visual incontinence of the hang, it becomes something else. It becomes just the artist’s brand. The vitrines within the show have a separate incontinence, a verbal one of the obiter dicta and press cuttings and internet detours he cuts out and keeps.
Yet none of this incontinence is accidental. Many of the pictures have been seen already. There are many fractions here of more numerous series he has shown in different ways before (a number of them already published as books). The vitrines have appeared in previous of his shows under the ponderous name of the truth study centre. There is, for example, one single example of his very striking series on car headlights, angular hostile little evolutions from the cheerful goggle-eyed round lamps we used to like on earlier cars. When he showed at Arles a few years ago, these things punctuated the show like a sour chorus, a plangent commentary upon the aggression of late capitalism. But to leave a single one in the new show? It’s just another picture (although admittedly a wonderful one). The actual design of the vitrines themselves is a re-make from a show he had at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012. He revisits, reworks, reconsiders, recombines. In the past he has done all of that with taut vigour. But at the Tate? Excess replaces tautness, and discord vigour.
Although he’s a prolific artist, I rather regret that other interesting art has been forced further down the queue at the Tate to make room for this stuff. It’s circumstantial. It’s trivial. It’s completely self-centred, but seemingly with desire neither for self-understanding nor for real self-revelation. Tillmans has been, like lots of other photographers (Juergen Teller; Corinne Day ; Nan Goldin, for example – with all of whom he bears close comparison, by the way) open about his own life for a very long time. His work is often formally autobiographical, and even when it isn’t, he is clear about his own closeness to each picture. His titles often refer to his friends by their first names alone. But if you were known as an autobiographical artist years ago, isn’t it incumbent upon you to have discovered something new about yourself by the time your next huge outing comes around at the Cathedral of Culture?
Tillmans made his name as a prodigious enquirer. He has been an excellent and brave curator himself, promoting art at his Between the Bridges project first in London and then in Berlin, that he thought needed more attention. His watchwords have always been equality and curiosity. Nothing that he turned his camera to had any ‘worthier’ or ‘higher’ interest than anything he might turn it to next. He seemed non-snobbish, driven, voracious, genuinely unchanged from environment to environment. He was against the mistakes of the past, optimistic about the future. He developed, in other words, the art of the teenager in a phenomenally more articulate form than most teenagers can. He worked for magazines, made music, made films.
The Tate show is credited in part to Chris Dercon, the recently departed Director of the Tate Modern. Short of asking Nicholas Serota to curate, there can be no higher accolade. Because Tillmans is a familiar of the Tate, he has been granted the right to turn almost a whole floor of one of the great art institutions in the world into his own pin-board or crazy-board. Truly like a teenager’s, it spills from portentousness to sex to music to good-times-with-friends to travel and back to sex. You could find just such a grouping on many phones of young people who hold no idea of calling themselves ‘artists’. One of the photographs, indeed, is of his own desk, a cluttered mess full of potential but with nothing complete upon it.
I think we are entitled to expect that an artist granted that second huge retrospective should have come to some conclusions, or at least that the curators working with him have identified a progression sufficiently capital to invite their public to consider it. With Tillmans there are still no conclusions. He’s still collecting material, still a giant teenager, still unable or unwilling to commit to anything other than his own enquiries, still convinced that whatever interests him is … interesting. This is the constant flow of pictures of Instagram, scarcely ordered, rarely revisited, with no step in value between deeply moving and shallow swill. Social media has often been compared to a river. Pictures flow past us, never to be thought about again once the next thousand or hundred or even ten of them have gone by. You can never step in the same river twice, if you remember your Heraclitus. I can see why the Tate’s people want to show art of the Instagram generation in this way. I can see that Tillmans is a careful, concerned and still skilful exponent of it. As a talker or a writer, I’m sure he has a lot to say. But he hasn’t marshalled his thoughts for the biggest exhibition of his life so far, and that’s a huge let down to those of us who hoped that he might.
Solipsism is not necessarily a great vice in an artist. But lack of discrimination is, and this is a show absolutely jam-crammed to its elegant rafters with evidence of that.
Tillmans once pronounced orotundly to the Art Newspaper that he found no trouble in being contemporary. “I think that the biggest achievement, in a way, is to be of your time, because you cannot program timelessness. I was never afraid of being contemporary.” Which is a teenage sentiment if ever I heard one.
One of the last sections in the show is a series of musings about time. These are of quite mind-bending banality – the sorts of perceptions we all have from time to time, but that stoned kids think are somehow profound. “The end of the Cold War is now as long ago as the end of World War II was in 1970.” Somebody – preferably the artist, but a curator, a friend, an electrician fixing the lights in the gallery before the opening – somebody should have taken Tillmans aside and just checked whether he was sure he wanted all of this stuff in there, whether he didn’t think that the littlest teensiest editing might be a good thing.
There is something about the incontinence of his show at the Tate which diminishes Tillmans. Here he is, completely co-opted into the twin Establishments of the art market and the art museum, jetting all over the world having trivial thoughts, and being taken completely seriously.
It’s a shame, because in all of this eructation of undifferentiated hot air there are a number of really important themes that Tillmans touches upon, and there are also, as there always have been with him, occasional pictures of true brilliance.
He has a very rich interest in the production of images. In among his more identifiable studies, he makes blank images of various kinds. He’s interested in light-sensitive paper itself, in blur and movement, in ‘mistakes’ and illegible details. He’s interested in the distribution of pictures, the degradation of imagery through successive reproductions. There is a pleasing picture of a dismantled colour printer, the very one, we learn, that he acquired with the money from his Turner Prize in 2000. This thing doesn’t look like those studies of pots of brushes that painters have always included by their elbows in self-portraits: but it has the same function. It shows how much the business of making images relies on hard practical material effects. It reminds us to think of pictures as made objects, and not just the temporary visions it’s so easy to think they are. Coming from Wolfgang Tillmans, that’s interesting.
At the very beginning of the show, a carpeted downslope in an airport undergoing refurbishment leads to “Rest of the World Passports.” It’s a modernised version of those signs that make us giggle on motorways in Britain, which simply say The North. In these times, of Trump and Brexit, and all the forced movements of people, there’s no doubting Tillmans’ concerns at the effects of globalisation.
These are vast and various themes. To have explored either one of them (or others of several like them that he touches) with precision and feeling and detail and skill would have been a great exhibition in the hands of a photographer like Tillmans. But he doesn’t do such a thing. Instead, he’s content to be vague. He invites us to the Tate, in effect, to scroll through his phone. Vaguely interested, vaguely troubled: and that’s disappointingly little substance in this explosion of imagery.