Perhaps one would not accredit Tillmans with the title of ‘political activist’ 2 years ago. However, 2017 highlights his overt political stance in the EU referendum appears, and in turn adds a new meaning to his entire oeuvre. In Tillmans’ innately poetic manner I couldn’t help but feel his presentation of the world, in all its beauty, and in all its difficulties, is inherently political.
Despite Tillmans’ characteristic exhibition format now being almost 20 years old, it feels ever more relevant in 2017. Photographs of various sizes hang from chunky metal clips, nailed to the walls, or sometimes attached only with clear tape. Some of the larger pieces are placed on the smaller walls, engulfing you unexpectedly in rich detail as you turn a corner, whilst other pieces, no larger than a postcard, are left looking deliberately lost in the vast expanses of the white cube. It is worth noting that Tillmans moved temporarily into the space at Tate Modern to install this exhibition. Every inch of space has been curated by the artist specifically to the suit the needs of the individual works.
What makes Tillman’s curatorial decisions striking today, is that now, in a time of social media and online news platforms, in which most the images we see are through a screen, Tillman’s makes us explicitly aware of the materiality of the photograph. He does not simply present us with an image, he reintroduces us to the photograph as a physical object.
This idea of reintroduction is one that stuck with me as I moved through the space. 2017 is an exhibition of current work, not a retrospective. The oldest work dating back to 2003. It displays intimate portraits, sensitive still lives, colourful abstract pieces, and of course, one of the artists infamous, ‘Truth Study Centres’ in which print-outs from various media outlets are displayed in glass vitrines. Truths and untruths are left to be discovered, laying on top of one another, almost as collages, leaving some vital pieces of (mis)information lost, for now.
This impartial tone then shifts as one moves into the following room. Tillmans took an active Remain stance in the 2016 EU referendum campaign, and 2017 presents this in the display of several of the artist’s campaign posters. On each poster reads emotive statements such as, ‘No man is an island, no country by itself’. In a dismal post-Brexit world, the artist’s poetic approach to the referendum is extremely refreshing. The year 2016 saw two campaigns of hatred win over a majority. Right now, emotion appears to preside over reason. Can art have an impact on politics? In an era in which we ‘have had enough of experts’, perhaps the future of liberal politics lies within activating the heart, and perhaps it is art that has the power to do so.
In this exhibition, political or non-political, the artist explores vulnerability, truth and humanity. As I left the Tate Modern, a J.F Kennedy quote came to mind, ‘if more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better’. I think 2017 convinced me of this too.
Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017
15 February – 11 June 2017
By Aoife Fannin