Wolfgang Tillmans poignantly explores the significance of photography today

He was born in Remscheid, Germany, in 1968; Tillmans moved to the UK in 1990 to attend classes at the present Arts University Bournemouth. Through the years that have since he’s created a variety of work in photography and not just for magazines like BUTT and i-D, however, but also for a variety of activist publications as well as sexual health campaigns and galleries. This made him the first photographer and artist from outside the UK to be awarded the Turner Prize in 2000.

This diverse career is showcased in the Tate’s exhibition. When one enters, you are confronted with a bizarre array of images. There is an assortment of photos made since 2003, affixed directly to the walls using magic tape or suspended from them, often unframed, made with the help of clamps made from white paper.

The scenes that are photographed vary according to the size of the prints, starting with the Sendeschluss/End Of Broadcast, the largest digital photo of analog TV static, and like praying, A small, faded photocopied by fax of a naked man sitting in the ground. The photographs bear nothing in common, and their arrangement at various levels seems to be a bit random.

The camera with a voyeuristic lens

However, as one travels through the different rooms, a specific reason or even a preoccupation becomes evident. Tillmans is a visual artist who explores the significance and limits of photography, the medium of documentation, as well as an agent in the ever-growing visual overload. This mission is all the more pertinent with the advent of “fake news.”

In Tillmans’s art, the voyeuristic character of photography creates no distinction between private space and public, the personal as well as the collective. The camera is constantly moving, even obsessively, tween these two spheres by capturing the events and lives that surround them, with a keen eye on the political. In one space, the gallery, for example, photos of the artist’s studio as well as equipment used in his work are displayed along with 17 Years Supply (2014) 17 Years’ Supply (2014), a close-up view of a cardboard box containing the bottles that have HIV medication. In the next room, Munuwata Sky, which is a large-scale image of a landscape at night in Papua New Guinea, is displayed in front of Headlight, which is a cropped image of a headlight in a car.

The artist’s work is exhibited from room space; in constant contrast, it is a real-time sense of how the camera is moving in the hands of Tillmans: bouncing from intimately close, nearly pornographic details of people and objects to larger photographs of the outdoor and indoor areas of modern life. The prints that are on display in the various spaces vary in size and are put up by the artist in multiple groups and at different heights. Viewers are also required to move closer or farther away to view them clearly. As a result, they re-create the motions of the camera used by the artist.

Political and personal

Tillmans’s curiosity about the relationship between the documentary quality of photography and reality is evident in the space housing his project from the 2005 Truth Study Center. The collection includes newspaper clippings, photographs, printed web pages, and scientific papers, all arranged within wooden cases. The exhibition draws the viewer’s focus on the way truth is presented in different media and languages, often with conflicting political aims.

In addition to those exhibits, the artist chose to display images from the ongoing abstraction series, the Silver series. The works are created by exposing photographic paper to sunlight and then running it through a filthy photo-developing machine to gather the traces of dirt along with silver salts. The images show the image as a relic of reality alternately and more tangibly.

However, the juxtaposition of personal and political scenes, public and private, is more powerful than in the space most evidently devoted to the queer community and its activism. In the film Arms and Legs (2014), A intimate, sexually explicit close-up of a male hand buried beneath a male’s red sports shorts is shown alongside photographs of queer street protests, pages of an interview in a magazine concerning LGBTQ+ rights in Russia as well as a photo of two girls lovingly kissing, scenes from nightclubs, close-ups of genitalia and bodies and even more innocent but equally tender pictures such as Juan Pablo & Karl Chingaza 2012.

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