Wolfgang Tillmans (at the Serralves Museum until April 25, 2016) is a man of limits, borders, open spaces and ambiguities: a man who balances his art, sometimes precariously, in between. Here, many photographs are ambiguous, in between day and night, in between sky and sea –or maybe it is the ground? Almost everything here is atmospheric, intangible, indefinable, oscillating between liquid and gas forms. There are few straight lines –save for the horizon–, everything is sinuous, fluid. Is this a cloud? a wave? a contrail from an aircraft? Or are those only illusions, fabricated in the darkroom (since the artist swears blind he does not use Photoshop)?
Everything is bathed in pure color, color in fusion, hues whose names still remain to be coined. And we find joy at the sight of a color diagram towards the end of the exhibition, on the wall as a bona fide artwork, thus glorifying a process tool, echoing the painter’s palette.
Sometimes, reality sticks out, and the referent arises in the image. We identify signs, often mysterious, barely explained by the label. For example, in front of one small-scale photograph (that we look at differently among large-scale ones) featuring a light piercing through the clouds, I recall how divine manifestations were represented in the illustrated catechisms of my childhood. Yet this glow is revealed to be, in fact, a light beam coming from an Italian Coastal Guard plane or helicopter looking for migrant boats near Lampedusa (its theatrical counterpart, the “follow spotlight” or “poursuite” in French, bears a quite relevant name here). For politics and refugees are also addressed in this exhibition, with a few signs here and there, including a ship graveyard in Lampedusa. But more often than not, the referent eludes us: what is this peninsula, seen from a plane, with no further commentary? And what about “the most beautiful place I have ever visited”? Where is it? With its trees, its terraces, its rocks, it will forever remain lost in the mist and fog of the mountains.
Similarly, where are we when we stand in front of those huge waves? Where are we in this giant painting showing only rough water and nothing else, except for a narrow grey part at the top, probably the sky, or maybe a remote strip of land? Only a single moment was captured, showing water drops in mid-air, foam and breakers: yet every squared centimeter of this supersized photograph stand as a unique artwork, for it dives successfully in this ebbing and flowing matter. Everywhere: soft shapes, clouds and waves, elusive, formless; sometimes, it is even impossible to distinguish the top from the bottom.
A large and undecipherable photograph constitutes yet another immersion in matter, an uncertain gathering of analog pixels pushed to the extreme, and an inquiry deep inside image. Then we read the label: Tillmans has photographed the screen of an old TV monitor in his hotel room in Saint Petersburg: from digital to analog, from the simple monitor to the artwork on the wall, from the Soviet relic to its Postmodern consecration.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ taste can defy limits, too, as he indulges in kitsch and poor taste without too much second-guessing. Indeed, I had trouble liking his exhibition of random photographs at the Rencontres d’Arles 2015. If his stripped down images are fascinating, the more realistic ones often disappoint. The beauty of his work is fragile, and the emergence of one simplistic or trite sign can unsettle it. The same feeling of doubt I had experienced in Arles returns when I face the sheer banality of snapshots from a plane’s window, the gaudy hues of an ordinary British breakfast clashing against the soft and muted grey of the exhibition as a whole, the forcefully clever hanging of a photograph of the moon near the ceiling, or the blatant plainness of this marine Moonrise (that might faintly evoke Edvard Munch…). It is as if Tillmans deliberately tried to break down all rules –like Paul Cézanne’s “ballsy” (“couillardes”) first paintings, or René Magritte’s “vache” [“cow”] period–, and, in doing so, revealed too much of his esthetics’ fragility.
By and large, Tillmans’ esthetics play with our perceptions, but remain within the standard framework of photography: there are no experimental uses of the camera or the processes here. With one exception: the photocopies he produced at the beginning of his career, trying to deplete the image through its reproduction-degradation. Of this actual Lacanau sunset, only a few grey lines on a paper sheet remain: its essence, maybe. And those photographs in between also stand as inquiries into the very essence of images.
Photographs by Lunettes rouges
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: February 29, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère