Solo Exhibition— Wolfgang Tillmans.
Exhibition Review.

Maureen Paley, Bethnal Green.

Written July 2019.



Greifbar 74, 2018— Image courtesy of Maureen Paley ©

As ubiquitous as the name Tillmans is, precisely pinpointing his most important works by title alone isn’t an easy task, due in part to the sheer volume of his artistic archive. Yet his distinct aesthetic, steadfast in the psyche of audiences by way of images such as Paper drop (2014), Concorde L-433-11 (1997) and his Greifbar images (2014 onwards) transcends words and (in most cases) requires little introduction. It is these very same Greifbar images that dominate his latest exhibition: the ninth no less of a visual artist who has at least, penetrated, and at most, dominated the contemporary photographic world for the past three decades. Fast approaching twenty years since being the first photographer to have been awarded the Turner Prize, he returns with a closely curated collection of works that show the scale, scope and dynamism of his creative practice within photography, and beyond.
The large, abstract and imposing images, famed for their creation in the dark-room without the use of a photographic negative nor camera, are rooted inherently within the organic. When translated from German, greifbar means tangible— possibly titled as such in metaphoric reference to the manipulation of light, made physical. The purity of using just paper and light is undoubtedly an organic one, but even visually, with the tones, colours, marks and forms created— without knowing exactly what one is looking at, there still remains an ineffable air of natural beauty. The images seem alive: none of the textures— the marks, forms or colours within any of the frames seem random, unplanned or synthetic. By removing the camera within this process, the maker, Tillmans could not be more present in creating images that essentially represent both nothing in particular and yet, everything.


Image courtesy of Maureen Paley ©

Amongst them, on the ground floor, are images from his series Old Street (parralax, 2019)— images that detail an orbiting journey around Old Street station roundabout. With the essence of the images, approach and subtitle (parralax) having roots in astronomy and the Greifbar images themselves almost passing for some transcendental, other-worldly depiction, the relationship between the two disparate styles of photographs are not as unwelcome as it might seem at first. However, the very stripped-back, repetitive-almost-obsessive, unedited and simplistic aesthetic of the Old Street images proves difficult to interpret soundly either as artistic complacency or genius subtlety. Though presented on it’s own, the soundscape in the yard of the gallery (Sound of Central, 2018) seems deliberately or not, to accompany the images with elements of synchronicity: the drone of motor cars, the melodic signing of a Japanese woman and the mechanical clicks of a camera, linking to the urban backdrop of Old Street; the metallic-sounding gongs and taps, with the otherworldy Greifbar images, painting an altogether experimental backdrop. It would have been nice if the soundscape was in with the images, but the use of the yard gives a non-visual respite to the show.


Image courtesy of Maureen Paley ©

The first floor of the gallery is host to a number of earlier works— namely photocopied images, created during the beginning of the artists’ career. By way of the textured, the intimate and the mundane: frayed clothing, candid shots of acquaintances and other passing minute details, one is shown a familiar side of Tillmans’s work that we know all too well, before expanding upon this approach and style as he did within the mid and late 90’s. The covered crotch of a giant male statue dominates the frame of not yet titled, 1993. Imperfect, streaks of ink line black and white images such as InterRail, 1987 and Reims, 1988. Presented simply, many without frames, and showing shadowy, almost glitchy large scenes lacking colour detail or context, here lies the beginnings of an artist primed and ready to challenge and ultimately dismantle the status quo of image creation— as radically and curiously as ever, whilst having fun along the way.