Arles – 2 – Wolfgang Tillmans – New World

O’Hagan writes of Tillmans  ” the colour tones are often dramatic and the world they reflect sometimes seems to have emerged, glossy, metallic and unreal …” while the large sized prints have “incredible sharpness … making the image look hyper-real and yet painterly.” For him it seems, this is THE exhibition at Arles this year.

The website states that Tillmans ” asks himself whether the world can be seen ‘anew’ in an era characterised by a deluge of media images, and whether a sense of the whole can be formed.

view of Tilmans exhibition space

view of Tilmans exhibition space

I order the catalogue of this exhibition beforehand! On the inside of the cover is a layout of thumbnails of the photos in the book which not only contains Tillmans photos yet is also arranged by him.  This collection of photos at the beginning give the idea that this book is about some kind of journey and the images are from around the world. Although there are no page numbers, these thumbnail photos allow one to refer to the images.

What is this body of work about other than a general view of the contemporary world? Fortunately, there is an interview with Tillmans at the beginning that helps to clarify one’s understanding. It is unoriginal to quote yet Tillmans is very good at explaining his work … he references a previous photo book from 1928 by Renger-Patzsch called “The World is Beautiful” yet Tilmans book does not seem so beautiful as it mirrors much of the banality of contemporary life although Renger-Patzsch was also being realist rather than romantic but in a modernist rather than a postmodernist way; the parallels between the two bodies of work are interesting. Another book that influenced Tilmans was Visible World which was also presented as an installation. It is good to know some context for Tillmans work.

Tillmans talks of a fragmented view of the world but that it is “all a matter of the gaze, of an open, anxiety-free gaze.” This work is more objective than previous introspective work and less concerned “with art-immanent questions“. Talking about the need for good quality but super quality equipment, he says “It is important to me that my medium delivers high-quality results without it settling into a world of “special effects”. Speaking of digital photography he discusses the way it presents the world in high definition, higher than film did although film corresponded more with the detail one actually sees. Tillmans comments “I find it extremely difficult to generate photographs in an already over depicted world using precisely these new technologies.” Nice to know I am not the only one that feels this way and that greater minds are similarly flummoxed.

Tillmans does not retouch his photographs; he says, “I believe in the magic of the picture’s creation process at the moment the photograph is taken.”

Of his travels he writes …”This was no touristy round-trip that forces the so-called foreign into familiar interpretative patterns, but rather the attempt to have a genuinely new experience.” The term “new” here relates to the title of the exhibition, New World.

Tillmans comes out with significant remarks such as … “Pictures are always the transcription of an experiencing of the world. Ideally, they pose the question of there possibly being another way to experience the world. It’s not the world contained in the picture; the picture is a translationA representational picture does no more and no less than form reality before our eyes. Even if this is fundamentally a platitude, it should always be kept in mind.”

another view of the Tilmans exhibition

another view of the Tilmans exhibition

Tilmans approach to astronomy is not merely philosophical, he is aware of the scientific advances being made. This is reflected in his photographs of night skies (one feels many must be from aircraft windows) about which he is characteristically precise, discussing the difficulties of photographing night skies in which stars move and exposures are necessarily long; there is also the problem of noise that can be indecipherable from stars.

The interviewer asks, “What exactly does it mean to produce pictures in this over-depicted and over-represented world, and to make physical and mental journeys?” Tillmans still has “faith in the picture” and is ready to put himself “in situations”; “Everything is predefined on the internet. On the other hand, in the real world the possibility of a surprise is always immanent.”

When something interests me, or when I have thought about it long enough, I always find the right moment to photograph it … “ another insightful remark into the nature of photographic practice by Tillmans.

car headlights in Arles

car headlights in Arles

He describes his fascination with car headlights; images of these also appear in the book. They are seen as light sculptures and shark-eyes, aggressively designed beyond their functional needs. Tillmans likes to photograph technology, the ever changing contemporary world.

A representational picture does no more and no less than form reality before our eyes. Even if this is fundamentally a platitude, it should always be kept in mind.”

display from the Tilmans exhibition

display from the Tilmans exhibition

However, as Tillmans gets going with his idea that “Life is astronomical”, the title of this interview, I am less willing to fall in line with his thinking. He still comes out with nuggets of insight “ … ”Save the Planet!” just isn’t so because we are the planet … “ Tillmans seems to be grasping for some sense of reality and yet it is the very grasping that prevents him.

I”m aware that one can easily succumb to ethnological temptations and glorify the exotic as such. But these photographs are also reactions to my own experiences.” This strikes me as an interesting comment on travel photography. Here is another valid comment … “ … observing people and sometimes photographing them without their knowledge is acceptable when done with the kind of emphatic gaze just mentioned. Of course, each person has to decide this for himself.”

Tillmans is opposed to “an ideological understanding of knowledge and truth.” Not surprisingly therefore, he has left religion out of this body of work.

Tillmans approach to astronomy is not merely philosophical, he is aware of the scientific advances being made. This is reflected in his photographs of night skies (one feels many must be from aircraft windows) about which he is characteristically precise, discussing the difficulties of photographing night skies in which stars move and exposures are necessarily long; there is also the problem of noise that can be indecipherable from stars.

more discussion among visitors - the Toucan image can be seen top left

more discussion among visitors – the Toucan image can be seen top left

When I finally get to see the exhibition on the second day of my visit to Arles, it is a bit of an anti-climax though the prints are impressively large except for some smaller prints. There are just photographs on the walls with captions to one side that inform one of the place and date the photograph was made; they are not framed and held onto the walls by small clips. Although this work does not seem as seminal as that I saw a few years ago at the Serpentine Gallery in London, it is a good mirror of the contemporary world, at least one that I can relate to. Tilmans comes from an art background and took the art world by storm when he won The Turner Prize in the 1990’s.

There are a number of his “claddings” in the show; these are large prints of colour with some texture and marks; on entry to the exhibition, one sees a light blue to grey image of this kind. There is also a car headlight while in another photograph, a young man is seen working in a shop in Jeddah, surrounded by an array of commonplace objects such as Lipton Tea.

The large size of the prints has immediate impact, conveying their meaning more easily than those seen in the catalogue. The photographs are seldom attractive yet imply narratives.

Subjects include astronomy (a number of photographs show the stars at night), a busy Indian street with the many goings on it includes, a view down someone’s mouth showing saliva dripping off the tonsils, close-ups of food, views of urban areas, interiors, an abandoned looking captive Toucan and Ethiopia, a country I have visited a couple of times and am intrigued by.

visitors in front of an Ethiopian market scene

visitors in front of an Ethiopian market scene

This exhibition is a reminder of the way the world looks different when photographed and placed in an exhibition space; there seems to be a certain appeal in looking at it in this way as there is in seeing photographs in a book yet in a book, images are forced to fit into the page while in an exhibition, the space is less limited and images can be more freely juxtaposed.

This is not a very demanding exhibition to look at; the images speak to one without need of explanation. Yet their meanings are not always obvious and benefit from some consideration; the car headlights come in different manifestations of both colour and black and white with only an indication of colour.

Called new work, it is new in the sense that it is new work by Wolfgang Tillmans that has not been seen before yet more importantly, it also seeks to discover the new.

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4 thoughts on “Arles – 2 – Wolfgang Tillmans – New World

  1. You make this exhibition sound really fascinating. I am sad now that I missed it – will certainly take the next opportunity that presents itself to see a Tilmans exhibition.

  2. FYI there a few duplications of phrases in your text. Not sure if that’s deliberate or a WordPress glitch but it is distracting.

  3. Pingback: Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 | Amano photographic studies

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