Visual democracy underlines Wolfgang Tillmans' 'To look without fear'

German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans' first museum survey at MoMA, NY, encapsulates his practice at its best — a fine amalgamation of digital inventiveness and social sensitivity.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Nov 21, 2022

The visual artist Wolfgang Tillmans is having the first museum survey with To look without fear in the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Center for Special Exhibitions, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition is an overview of close to 350 of Tillmans' photographs, videos, and multimedia art installations, which follow a chronological order. The exhibition, organised by Roxana Marcoci, the newly-named David Dechman Senior Curator of Photography, with Caitlin Ryan, Curatorial Assistant, and Phil Taylor, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, is a result of the eight years of dialogue with the artist.

Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, 1992, Photograph, Wolfgang Tillmans | Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear | STIRworld
Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, 1992, Photograph Image: Courtesy of Wolfgang Tillmans, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

To give a brief about the interest pursued by Tillmans, which led him to follow photography as a profession, it was his childhood passion for astronomy. His intensive observation and engagement with new forms of technology could be traced to the earliest photographs from 1978 of celestial bodies made when he was 10-years-old. These were composed while holding his father’s camera up to the eyepiece of his first telescope. “Through these incipient trials with the telescope, and later the photocopier and video camera, he ultimately settled on photography. His route there took him through diverse modes of expression, from writing song lyrics to scientific studies and explorations,” informs Marcoci in an interview with STIR. In 2009 he began to work with a digital Canon 5D Mark II camera, the sensor of which can capture low-light subjects at a level never before seen. Abstract photographs such as Freischwimmers, Silvers and Lighters, known for dematerialisation of the image, focus on the material processes and pictorial possibilities.

Freischwimmer 230 (Free Swimmer 230), 2012, Photograph, Wolfgang Tillmans | Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear | STIRworld
Freischwimmer 230 (Free Swimmer 230), 2012, Photograph Image: Courtesy of Wolfgang Tillmans, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

The exhibition when underlines the use of the digital inventiveness acutely put into use by the artist, it does not lose sight of the creative and philosophical bent of the works. The social and political advocacy programmes Tillmans conduct rightfully inform the unmissable emotive sensibility of the photographs. The hyperbolic Venus of Venus transit or the spectrum of light of How likely is it that only I am right in this matter if at once has manipulated the conventional use of the photographs, they push the viewers to reimagine what has been obvious in everyday life. Moreover, the art of photography is commonly synonymous with representational beauty, which ought to be accentuated as part of the display also. To defy this convention, in an effort to complement the esoteric composition of the photographs, Tillmans’ photographs are displayed in unfound places such as a corner, above a door frame, on a free-standing column, or next to a fire extinguisher – a lead up to the activation of the photographs. The sculptural dimension of the works, at large, offers a visual translation of the phrase “visual democracy”, which Tillmans uses to define his practice.

Icestorm, 2001, Photograph, Wolfgang Tillmans | Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear | STIRworld
Icestorm, 2001, Photograph Image: Courtesy of Wolfgang Tillmans, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

When the genre of photography is largely touted as a democratic art, Marcoci expands on the term visual democracy, “In his practice, Tillmans offers an alternative, even inverse proposition: he links the image to a politics of equality and historical consciousness. Indeed, Tillmans has distributed his photographs and ideas across the pages of magazines and books, postcards and newspaper inserts, music videos and records, posters, billboards, night-clubs, architectural contexts, and the theatrical stage,” explains Marcoci.

As “an amplifier” of social awareness, the photographs call for solidarity. Even though photography has acted more as a democratic medium, it has often been used in service to the interests of colonialism, especially during the early stages of its conception. When Tillmans approaches his photographs with humanist ideas, he raises crucial questions such as, “What can pictures make visible? What can one know at all? Who deserves attention? How can one connect with other people? How might we foster solidarity? In what do art’s political potential and its ethical worth reside?”, says Marcoci. The photographs talking about the “survival and loss” during the times of the AIDS crisis and the LGBTQ+ communities across the globe have suggested the importance of capturing the presence of diversity. In the words of Tillmans, “For me, art was the area where I could oppose. Express the difference.”

How likely is it that only I am right in this matter? ,2018, Wolfgang Tillmans, | Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear | STIRworld
How likely is it that only I am right in this matter? ,2018 Image: Courtesy of Wolfgang Tillmans, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

To mention, the intersection of image making and sculptural installation is best exemplified by the going series Truth Study Center. It introduced a new type of display architecture of specifically designed wooden tables on which he presented, under glass, a mix of photographs, newspaper clippings and photocopies in a polyphonic montage of competing realities that engage systems of knowledge. Additionally, Tillmans has also collaborated with artist Isa Genzken on science fiction - Hier und jetzt zufrieden sein (To be content in the here and now) - a multimedia installation from 2001 that is an exploration of the relationship between sculpture and photography.

Still life, New York, 2001, Wolfgang Tillmans  | Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear | STIRworld
Still life, New York, 2001 Image: Courtesy of Wolfgang Tillmans, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

“I see my installations as a reflection of the way I see, the way I perceive or want to perceive my environment,” the artist has proposed. The exhibition opens a multitude of propositions not only on the way of making the photographs but also envisions the many possibilities of belonging and building solidarity.

Venus transit, 2004, Wolfgang Tillmans | Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear | STIRworld
Venus transit, 2004 Image: Courtesy of Wolfgang Tillmans, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London
Roxana Marcoci | Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear | STIRworld
Roxana Marcoci Image: Peter Ross

The art exhibition Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear runs at The Museum of Modern Art in New York until January 1, 2023.

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