Wolfgang Tillmans: How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?"
By Claudia Shaldervan
In his latest show at David Zwirner Gallery, Wolfgang Tillmans’ considers the role of photography in a “post truth” world, and explores issues intrinsic to the medium by creating seemingly careless art that does not present any conclusions or “truths”. “I love that art is useless and that it has no purpose,” Tillmans said in a New York Times interview. “That makes art so incredibly powerful. And so, I don’t think one should turn to artists instantly and ask, ‘What are they saying?’”
Photography is a lie: a still image shows one moment from a single perspective, and yet it can also create individual responses that surface from visual analysis. It is therefore crucial to understand what is being photographed and why, and understand the implications of images rather than carelessly produce ‘purposeless art for art’s sake,’ propagating trendy but shallow information in a world chock full of meaninglessness.
In the past five years, Wolfgang Tillmans has produced work about the global resurgence of right wing politics by collaging appropriated Facebook posts of extremist groups and various nationalist slogans. His work comments on contemporary politics in the era of fake news, in which “people are not ashamed to openly lie for their own ends.” His show at David Zwirner presents different ideas. The viewer is confronted by an oddly spaced display of prints varying in size, mounted on walls by pins or clear tape. The haphazard visual arrangement could be interpreted as a response to oppressive conventions of galleries that restrict bodies of work to easily palatable, sterile displays, or just a unique way of presentation. A large image of sea foam on damp sand hangs centerpiece, flanked by a psychedelic aerial view of the Sahara desert. The words “How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?” is impressed upon several prints. Yet after sifting through the exhibition, the matter which Wolfgang Tillmans references remains obscure.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ early career was saturated with the nightlife culture of Hamburg. He followed the lives of friends and young artists, and was able to express their ephemeral youth and sexual vigor through photographs. His latest work presents a modge-podge of portraits, still lifes and video work; much of it doesn’t suggest anything beyond attractive aesthetics.
The most impactful sections of Wolfgang’s exhibition are those with cohesive subject matter: ones including less ambiguous symbolism. Though a single photograph can speak for itself, when images exist in a series they should share a unifying idea, or at least be curated in a way that each reinforces the other. Placing conceptually discordant images together makes for a cryptic and pretentious artistic statement from which extracting information is impossible. The notion that art must present a cathartic, moral lesson is somewhat outdated, but art must educate rather than perplex.
Since Wolfgang Tillmans’ work is very divisive among the artistic community, it is best to visit the exhibition in person to interpret the work for oneself.
Images courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery