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Review: Wolfgang Tillmans at the Serpentine Gallery

Review by Elisa Caldarola

Until 19 September the Serpentine Gallery will be showing a large collection of photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans. With some pictures dating back to the 1980s and the bulk of them from the last decade, it’s a rather kaleidoscopic exhibition, where Tillmans seems to be making a point of demonstrating that almost everything can be done with photographs.

There are some small, touristy pictures, simply sticking to a wall: an LED screen in Times Square with a creative advert for a sports brand, a group of bikers in Heidelberg, all covered up in high-tech suits, looking like characters from a sci-fi movie beamed out of thin air onto a street corner. It felt a bit like paying a visit to a student friend with the gift of photography, who had hung on his bedroom walls the recent results of his excellent explorations with the camera. But on the contrary, Tillmans has so much control of his medium that he’s not afraid to put on display pictures that do not bear any particular signature trademark, but simply cast a fresh gaze on their subject, which is probably why he won the Turner Prize in 2000.

He is a master of the photographic medium, and this is evident from his pictures of everyday objects, which come to look quite extraordinary in a 2.5 x 1.8 m format: egg boxes piled on a supermarket shelf, the close-up on a sports jacket, the somehow anguishing picture of the glass surface of a photocopy machine. The stunning abstracts Urgency XXI, XXII XXIV (2006) and Ostgut Freischwimmer (2004) are very big, emotional, beautiful C-type prints of photographs of (almost) unidentifiable objects that appear like delicate ink designs on pale monochrome surfaces. It feels like looking –– from the perspective of an ant –– at the traces of pollen from a flower vase may have left on a table. Or, in the case of the Freischwimmer, at wisps just cut, blowing in the wind. Among other abstracts there are some sculptural photographs, where glossy monochromatic surfaces, folded or crumpled, acquire three-dimensionality and a group of flat monochromes completely adhering to the wall, which enhances their bi-dimensionality. Rome (2007), the luminous oversized image of a simple white, gently curved, sheet of paper, reveals the virtuoso nature of Tillmans’ work: two white flat surfaces, light, and shadow make all the magic.

I especially liked the big black and white pictures set in Germany (Wald Reinshagen, Wald, An der Isar II, 2008). The first two depict just trees, while the third is a man lying on the grass. However, what really matters is composition, texture, and the interplay between light and shadow. The large-grained texture might be reminiscent of Sigmar Polke’s deliberately rough photo-painting in black and white, with the difference that here Tillmans is giving to photographs the character of paintings (by means of stressing surface qualities and conferring to photographs of rather banal objects the size of traditional history paintings), while Polke was going the other way around, making paintings bearing some of the distinctive features of photographs.

Not to be missed are also the political pictures in the last room: an image of the great iron gates on the borders between the USA and Mexico, one of the wall dividing communities in Jerusalem, and a third, apparently more innocent, of remains of picturesque wooden boats on the seashore of Lampedusa, a small Italian island between Sicily and Africa. If we think that Lampedusa is the place migrants from the African continent desperately try to reach in order to enter Europe, and that many of them die in water before they can reach the island, the picturesque character of the picture vanishes.

There are plenty of images in the exhibition and I can by no means give an exhaustive account here. This is a show that brings together many –– maybe too many –– themes. There is a very small photograph stick on a wall that can easily remain unnoticed, but I like it to think that it could be a metaphor for the whole exhibition. It is the picture of many colourful minerals on a multi-shelved glass cabinet, possibly in a Natural History Museum. Once I discovered the picture the beautiful colours and variety of configurations of the minerals as well as the glasses and mirrors of the cabinet attracted my attention for long. It occurred to me that I was looking at a micro-Wunderkammer within the macro-Wunderkammer of the exhibition itself.

Wolfgang Tillmans is at the Serpentine Gallery in London until 19 September.

To read more on contemporary photographers, read our feature on Sean Raggett in the June/July issue of Aesthetica.

Images (c) the artist:

Wolfgang Tillmans
Installation view Serpentine Gallery, London
(26 June – 19 September 2010)
Photograph: Gautier de Blonde

Wolfgang Tillmans
Eierstapel 2009
C-type print
61 x 50.8 cm
Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London

Ostgut Freischwimmer, right 2004
Inkjet print
231.1 × 607.8 cm
Collection of Kunstmuseum Basel
Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London

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