Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
08.07 – 30.09.2018
As arts writers are wont to complain – although we tend to do it privately rather than in print – very few artists can elucidate the strange alchemy that occurs when their lived experience merges with ideas and aesthetics, and this combination is expressed through praxis.
Some artists are excellent conversationalists and entertaining raconteurs when it comes to autobiography. Others will discuss the ideological and intellectual terrain in which their work is situated (at their best, they will do so without recourse to the vague jargon so often encountered in artist’s statements). Others can, with a vivid turn of phrase, give you a flash of insight into how they ‘see’ the world: the acute and unorthodox vision that is the starting point of all great art. Others, if pushed – and if they are confident that you genuinely care – will talk about technique, about the nuances and practicalities of their chosen medium (in my experience, this is usually the most interesting aspect of an artist’s self-reflection).
It is rare, however, to encounter an artist who is able to do all of these things.
This was my experience during the press preview of Wolfgang Tillmans’s ‘Fragile’, a wide-ranging retrospective of the German photographer’s oeuvre at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. An artist of Tillmans’s standing is no doubt used to dealing with journalists; he has spent decades travelling the global arts circuit, and inevitably over that period he has refined his ability to convey something of himself and his work in a way that is accessible without falling back on trite formulations.
Yet, walking through JAG with the artist as guide, our posse of journos was treated to the opposite of a well-worn shtick. Tillmans is earnest, humble, self-deprecating without any suggestion of false modesty. The pride he takes in his work and his deep investment in it (a practice that is embedded in his lifestyle, his identity and his political convictions no less than it is in his commitment to the beauty and the innate significance of material – that is, to the notion that “matter matters”) does not betray any sense of self-importance. “All I do every day is work with pieces of paper,” he says; “I shape colours and dyes on paper, creating objects that carry more meaning than just the content of the image on their surface.”
The fact that an artist is personable is not in itself reason to recommend his or her work. But in Tillmans’s case the artist’s winsome aptitude for self-explication seems more like a verbal extension of the images displayed in ‘Fragile’ than it does a discrete set of observations about those images. There is a risk, then, that what I have written below is closer to a transcription of an insightful gallery walkabout than it is a review. But if this exhibition asks of us to embrace and to celebrate fragility – our vulnerability, our flaws, our dependence on others’ care and tolerance – then it may not be entirely inappropriate to dispense with the guise of the all-knowing sage that we arts writers like to adopt.
For starters, Tillmans reminds us in the first room that visitors to the exhibition enter, we should pursue “exact observation”: the more patiently and attentively we look, the more we will learn when to distrust our first impressions (because “the eyes are not impartial instruments”) and when our instinctive responses to sense data are useful affective and cognitive guides. Monochrome static on a clapped-out television in a St Petersburg hotel, when captured by a digital camera lens and enlarged to an oversized scale, reveals unexpected colours, patterns and movement. This intersection of old and new technology, in which the obsolete is revivified, also has geopolitical undertones: it is because of Vladimir Putin’s return to Soviet-style censorship that a twenty-first century TV screen can still display a muffled broadcast signal.
The combination of old and new also speaks to Tillmans’s development as an artist and his experiments with different machinery and media. His “visual initiation” occurred through a teenage obsession with astronomy. Studying distant stars is “looking at the edge of visibility” – a point where the human observer is in fact no longer just looking but interpreting other data, like sound waves. Astronomers hear
potential objects, and must ask: is this something or nothing? A cosmic noise or a star?
Tillmans’s next love was the opposite of celestial – a terribly mundane photocopier. Yet the hours spent discovering the artistic potential of this “static camera”, reveling in its reassuringly rhythmic flashes of light and clunky sounds, informed his photographic practice for years to come. A looped video installation in ‘Fragile’ pays tribute to the unexpected lyricism of this unloved office machine.
Part of the appeal for a young Tillmans was, of course, the way in which a photocopier treats paper. His work attests to a fascination with the materiality of photography – that is, with its (pre-digital) end product, a stained square of photographic paper. This spurred his photographs of photographs, as well as the iconic ‘drop’ illusion: the horizontal plane view of a piece of paper folded onto itself, resembling a drop of water. It also produced a then-uncommon display method: in his early exhibitions, Tillmans simply clipped or taped images to the gallery wall, wanting to remove all barriers to viewers’ encounters with the photographs as art objects (he would subsequently combine framed and unframed works, a “coexistence” that “activates an awareness of the materiality of the images”).
While the image-as-object may be more tangible than the image-as-signifier, however, both must come to terms with the relationship between art and time. That the mortal subject or the fleeting moment can be captured in a work of art might lure us into celebrating how art achieves permanence. Yet with the printed photograph, colours fade, lines blur and edges curl; Tillmans affirms that we must make peace with this fragility. He quotes Eva Hesse’s phlegmatic words: “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter.” And yet, he adds, significantly amending Hesse’s dismissal and switching to German for emphasis: “Of course, it also matters total.”
If art matters for Tillmans, this is at least in part precisely because of its ambiguous response to ephemerality. He sees it as his duty as a photographer to document, for instance, expressions of freedom – because all too easily these disappear. This concern is central to Tillmans’s many images taken in nightclubs. From New York to St Petersburg, he shows, nightlife is about more than hedonism; it is about basic freedom, especially for LGBTQ communities. “The fear of one’s own body is a huge inhibitor of oneself and society,” Tillmans observes. “It’s a great way to control people. To look at the world without fear enables change; the openness of the gaze is intrinsically political.”
Although Tillmans sees his work as “an amplifier of ideas”, he resists the label of activist artist. Whether he is in a nightclub or attending a protest rally, he attempts fluidity: “I must be part of the scene. I don’t ‘see the world through my camera’. I see the world through my own eyes, and get the camera to capture what I see.” The result is that each photograph (even those that appear abstracted from reality) has a connection to “real life”: from Haiti after the earthquake to a street scene in Thailand, from a refugee rescue operation off the coast of Lampadusa to the interior of a Masai hut.
The attempt to minimise the intrusiveness of the camera applies especially to Tillmans’s portraits: what he seeks in his subjects is “a certain stillness, not acting up for the camera, a sense of peace with oneself combined with an awareness of one’s struggle, one’s lack of resolution.” Portraiture, a dialogue between photographer and subject, thus becomes “an exercise in unwinding what the presence of the camera does to the sitter. The act of portraiture is something I can never master – if I felt I had, there would be some power dynamic involved. There may be desire, but I must avoid trying to ‘possess’ the subject. Photographs can lie about what is in front of the camera, but not what is behind the camera!”
‘Fragile’ places Tillmans’s work of twenty or thirty years ago in conversation with his more recent pieces. This formal conversation is echoed by a geopolitical one, spanning Germany in the early years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the naïve optimism of the 1990s, and a global shift in sentiment shaped by the successive administrations of US presidents from Bush to Obama and now Trump. There is evidence in Tillmans’s work that the apparent rise of xenophobic, isolationist nationalism is really just a new inflection of impulses that have been discernible throughout the past three decades (and one need only look at the “Truth Study Centre” tables that Tillmans began in 2005 to recognise that ‘post-truth’ is not a new phenomenon). Nonetheless, there remains something profoundly hopeful about ‘Fragile’. Perhaps, when we are forced to confront precarity in all its forms – ecological, socio-economic, interpersonal, biological – we are in the best position to begin to see (and speak) clearly.
Despite Tillmans’s eloquence on the subject of his own work, then, the power of this exhibition lies not in what the artist has to say but in other verbal or textual responses to the photographs displayed: dialogue and debate in the halls of JAG (and, one hopes, far beyond) about what this body of images, these images of bodies, might mean in South Africa today. The photographs don’t matter – but they also matter total. Because, finally, it is the argument with oneself that is the origin and end point of all encounters with art.
‘Fragile’ is presented by Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) in collaboration with Wolfgang Tillmans and the Goethe-Institut