Wolfgang Tillmans’s apparently artless and old-fashioned approach to photography conveys a very modern sense of dislocationby Ben Lewis / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Wolfgang Tillmans at the Serpentine Gallery: a valiant last stand?
Prospect readers will be familiar with the notion, widespread since the 1970s, that “painting is dead.” Less well known is the recent perception that a similar fate has befallen photography, in the basic sense of taking pictures of the world. Few art photographers today feel there is much material left to photograph or, indeed, ways to photograph it. The digitally manipulated photograph, and the photo that records a scene created specifically for it, reign supreme. At the top end of the scale, the German artist Andreas Gursky has produced a marvellous new series of “Oceans” based on Photoshopped satellite images. Meanwhile the promising Lithuanian photographer Indre Serpytyte, like so many others, creates things to be photographed in her studio: bureaucratic communist objects that remind her of her late father, or models of secret-police headquarters carved in wood.
Except there’s Wolfgang Tillmans—born in Germany in 1968 and winner of the 2000 Turner prize—whose new exhibition is at the Serpentine Gallery until 19th September. You won’t find many clues about the old-fashioned nature of Tillmans’s photos in the catalogue essay by Michael Bracewell—who writes, in the kind of prose that seems to justify all the suspicions one has about the contemporary art world, “For Tillmans, one feels, the potentiality of the photographic image is intimately related, at a profound level of empathetic understanding and philosophical awareness, to the messy but complicated business of being alive.” Er, so his photographs are about life, right? No, the clue to Tillmans’s project lies in its apparent incoherence.
This exhibition looks at first like a smash-and-grab raid on pre-existing photographic styles. The classically composed hangs next to the anti-aesthetic of the nondescript; the great nestles next to the mediocre. But Tillmans’s images are impressively precise. Some are very “sign of the times.” In Heptathlon (2009) female athletes in revealing swimwear stand amid a sea of numerals, flags and brand logos—a telling image of the fragility of individual identity in a corporatised world. Other pictures are exercises in formal beauty. In Growth (2006), a boy in a striped brown top walks in front of a brown-brick council estate. It’s autumn, and a tree with russet leaves rises against the block of flats. This is a brilliantly observed essay in one colour, based on a fortuitous conjunction of elements. Tillmans elevates the everyday here, sometimes conveying…