Wolfgang Tillmans may be best known for his photography but he is, in fact, a man of many talents (at Tate Modern until Jun 17) .
Not only has he walked the runway for Shayne Oliver’s cult label Hood by Air, Tillmans has featured on Frank Ocean’s Endless album and more recently released a slew of experimental techno under his own name.
The consistent thread that links these varied projects is a desire to subvert, deconstruct and twist perceptions; an intention laid bare throughout the impressive eponymous exhibition currently on show.
The first subtle disruption to the established gallery format comes in the form of a small booklet filled with concise, engaging descriptions of each themed room.
Not only is the guide itself a handy take-away for those reluctant to buy an expensive book in the museum gift shop, it’s a deterrent which stops people crowding around individual photos to read the descriptions usually presented as small-print on the walls.
Emphasis isn’t on any one photograph in particular. Instead, the intention is to foster a visceral reaction to the work without first considering its themes or production process.
Early TIllmans’ WOrk Was Centred on Youth culture
Nightlife and youth subculture are the themes that anchored Tillmans’ work for club bible, i-D.
The depiction of sweaty, hedonistic teens on the pages of a fashion magazine redefined editorial as we know it and opened up the secretive fashion industry to a new generation of subversive clubbers worldwide.
The pictures presented in this specific exhibition come from all corners of Europe, but the emphasis on euphoria, ritual and – most importantly – personality are exactly what sets Tillmans apart.
Frank Ocean’s Blond album art is a reminder of the photographer’s high profile and impressive client list, but there are prevailing sentiments of vulnerability and intimacy that permeate each photograph regardless of subject matter.
There is, of course, a sense of provocation. Art history shows countless naked bodies, but today’s culture of strict censorship means that the graphic nudes on display are enough to get any Instagram account slapped with a ban – which is, in a sense, hilarious given the amount of publicity and expectations surrounding Tillmans’ exhibition.
WOlfgang Tillmans is both Accessible and Controversial
His work is simultaneously accessible yet controversial and, in one room in particular, extremely timely.
It was over a decade ago that the artist first developed the ‘truth study centre’, a series of work which interspersed portraits of politicians with excerpts from psychological studies and diagrams of the Solar System.
Given today’s dominant discussion topics of ‘post-truth’ politics and ‘fake news’, the work seems to have gained even more resonance and has been updated accordingly to incorporate theories of self-deception and to critique the mindsets of voters.
There are excerpts from newspapers which tell readers how to discuss the most recent election without fuelling anger or hatred; tales of government conspiracies and far-away planets which align to suggest that nothing we see or hear is the truth.
Wolfgang tillmans is also a musician
On the one hand, there are exhibits like this – designed to provoke, challenge and ultimately question what we ultimately know.
On the other, there are rooms filled with headphones allowing visitors to escape from the museum’s chaos and one section dedicated to the scores of books published about Tillmans throughout his career. It’s art, but interactive.
It’s fitting that a fascination with youth is what sets this photographer apart, especially when considered within the context of art galleries which can often feel stuffy, academic and exclusive.
Tillmans bridges the gap between these institutions and his audience brilliantly; by encouraging engagement, removing explanation and creating an exhibition which truly caters to everyone. ML