Wolfgang Tillmans (From top:) Your Dogs (2008), Exhibition view of Lighter I-V (2006), paper drop (star) (2006). All images courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
Maureen Paley, 28th May-13 July 2008
Combining an installation of photographs with three rooms of video works, Wolfgang Tillmans’ new show emerges as a specific examination of the relationship between the two mediums. Downstairs at Maureen Paley the photos are arranged in an installation familiar to fans of his work, as a range of techniques, styles and forms of printing and presentation combine to create a powerful constellation that impacts as a whole, but creates space for the individual image; showcasing a variety of styles that could be could designated abstract, snapshot, or conceptual based but which ultimately rely on each other to move beyond these categories to participate in a broader project:
I always saw photography as an object. I never thought of a picture as being bodyless, but rather as existing within a process of transformation from three dimensions to two – a conceptual activity. (Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Conversations Series, Vol.6, 114)
Climb upstairs, however, and the question immediately arises: how does such a powerful practice – connecting the image and its display – apply to the moving image? My first thought was that Tillmans could include a whole range of work – 16mm, super 8, video, slide – but this would be far too heavy, with the presence and noise of projectors too much, even if all these media were transferred to silent digital projection (something of the delicacy of Tillmans’ relationship to different media is in his observation - also in the conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist- that he wants to take black and white photographs in a way that means people don’t realise they are black and white). Consider two seeming paradoxes:
1.His work is suffused by the cinematic – or perhaps more accurately a world and self-hood partly constituted by mass media representations – yet finds both its immersion and detachment from this via the still image.
2.He conceptualises an image that “wanders” between contexts of exhibitions, books, and multiple magazines as opposed to an image that itself moves and acquires duration.
Perhaps it is useful to start by noting the continuities rather than the differences. Like the photographic installation, Tillmans’ work with the loft space is a careful choreographing and balancing dialogue between the individual work, its combination with others, and the circumstances – the phenomenology – of its viewing. So there are three spaces. In the first Snail (2005) and Farbwerk (2006) offer short focussed studies of moments and objects, alongside 14th Street (1995), a 28 minute 16 second study of a New York street, filmed through an upper storey window. The second and most humorous room juxtaposes Peas (2003) – a study of peas boiling in a saucepan, slowing to still once the heat is turned off – and Heartbeat/Armpit (2003), which offers a close up of the armpit of a man lying on a carpet.
All these works combine spontaneity and event: Snail, for example, documents a family in its backyard, whilst in the immediate foreground a snail crawls over the hand of the cameraman. Tillmans’ creates images that balance observation and prompting – both in the way he touches the snail to prompt its movements, and in the general pretext of his presence in the yard and its influence.
Wolfgang Tillmans, photo copy (Barnaby) (1994). Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
A third room contains Wind of Change (2003), the experience of which depends on what point in the video you enter. Come in at the middle and a pre-dusk sky is filled with a rotating, illuminated moon of a Mercedes logo. The camera observes its movements before panning down, revealing it as the rooftop sign of the Europacentre building in Berlin, whose surface is adorned with a host of other corporate logos. Finally, we see the source of the films panpipe-based muzak in a group of performing street musicians amidst the crowds of the plaza. Here the video aperture is clumsily adjusted to bring the musicians back into visibility, their music reflecting the spaces own “entanglement” – Tillmans’ own word - of enthnicity and corporate globalism. The film emerges again as an act of direct observation that becomes an argument about relationships of individuals, cultures, and institutions as they are expressed in urban space.
Tillmans use of video to bear the conceptual weight of his intellectual project is a remarkable – and perhaps somewhat old fashioned - faith in it as a medium, and one that made me think of Martha Rosler’s description of the utopian nature of early video art. I also wondered how such video work related to the concept of “freedom” that often appears in Tillman’s own discussions of his work:
It seems that everybody uses that word [freedom] today – inparticular the government – and they get to define what freedom is… Freedom is really the freedom from the known, from what some people tell you what to think… What I like to encourage people to do through my work is to use their eyes and to reclaim their freedom, to attribute values to things on their own terms. (Bob Nickas, Theft is Vision, 192)
14th Street is the one work here whose chosen environment has a diversity with the potential to move it beyond the original conception of the film maker. Over its near half hour in length, the film documents the events in the street below an upper storey window in Manhattan. The dominant technique is a zoom in on scenes of interest, held for a duration that establishes them as a scene in their own right, and then a pull back, revealing once again the broader environment of which they are part. This consciousness about framing, seeing an object both on its own terms and as part of a broader environment, is also evidenced by the presence of the glass pane of the window itself, sometimes invisible but sometimes an obvious filter or lens.
So Tillmans zooms in on and briefly follows individuals or groups in the street. At night in a rain storm he is fascinated by puddles become pools of reflected light. He focuses on smoke from a chimney against a background of blue sky, and then pulls away to reveal once again the street below. Sometimes he plays music in his apartment, creating a soundtrack for the world seen through the video camera; other times there is the ambient sound from the street. The end effect is of an attempt at a politically engaged CCTV that copies the removal and position of surveillance, but hopes to attain some efficacy through the camera’s movements and zooms, seeking to attain a sense of interest and engagement. The accumulative effect is that sometimes a focus on objects or events is replaced by a broader attention to the street as a place sculpted by light and movement. The camera zooms in on a truck moving in shadow, but we are also attentive to a patch of sunlight on the pavement behind.
Compared to the photographs, Tillmans videos are far more tentative and exploratory, uncertain about the visual world, much more crude in their methods of finding or trying to understand how attention and engagement might work. Curiously the introduction of duration increases rather than reduces mystery. It also requires a separation from the aesthetic. Whilst in Tillmans' photography casualness is a quality always accompanied by high qualities of composition and printing, here there is a genuine roughness to the image, an uneven competency with the equipment, that marks out its different place within Tillmans’ engaged, ever transforming and revelatory practice.