Though reviewers speak blithely of its beauty and the curators wax lyrical over the artist’s sense of the social and the communal, none of these qualities appear to the fore in Wolfgang Tillmans’s 2017 exhibition at Tate Modern. It’s not a retrospective but a series of installations, each room curated by the German-born photographer who in his teens named his creative alter ego ‘Fragile’. The curators tell us that’s also what we see in the work. Certainly the artist’s own anxieties do most of the speaking. Homosexuality is a large theme that would prefer to go by no name, but then advertises itself crudely in some of the images on show, while other images call for clubs where people can feel secure in their sexual identity. It’s not that any of this is objectionable, but that it isn’t to my mind artistic. It’s a personal crusade, expressed with a large degree of torment.
Thus not pleasure, not beauty, but deep unease emanated from these images. Room one, with a photograph juxtaposing a few remaining packets of asparagus in an industrial display unit with a display of printer ink in different-coloured plastic bottles, immediately assailed its viewers, wanting to drag them as fellow sufferers. It did its best to undo any comfort at being in the world that you or I might have managed to achieve. It was pure techno-misery. From there, for me, in room after room, none of the images gave any sense of home, or society, or community. A photograph of an anonymous group of men playing draughts on a hot Shanghai evening neither staked a claim for the artist’s belonging to them, nor to their belonging to each other. The proudly robed owner of some car or other, somewhere, was nothing more than photography’s equivalent of literature’s exotic cardboard cut-out. Tillmans’s outsiderdom was remorseless.
I would empathize with him, if only he could transfer some displaced human emotion into his work to help me get there. Instead he leads an ‘inner life’ that consists of introspecting the photographic process. He uses his body to intervene in the technical process. Or he takes apart a broken colour photocopier and displays it as if just like that it, this neutered pile of junk, has to mean something or interest us. The equivalent introspection of his own body is hinted at: at buttocks and testicles photographed close-up and as if on a slab. There’s also a photograph of male genitals after a sex change: a vagina-equivalent constructed on an operating table. Photography seems to be performing here not so much as art but as unkind witness. What it sees, and relays, might be the view of a doctor performing such an operation, if he or she were a robot. The extreme adherence to what is physically and functionally the case, German Sachlichkeit, may or may not be linked to Fragile’s fear of getting hurt.
There was one image, one alone, that stopped me in my tracks. It was a small photograph of the artist’s studio, what looked like a desk, with a couple of coloured canvasses leaning against it. The light was shaded in a friendly, atmospheric, inviting way. The room was orderly without being uptight. And what I felt immediately was the artist at peace with his art, at peace because of his art, a feeling many of us know, even if what we produce, to try to keep our inner life in balance, and express our desires in some outgoing, creative form, is something less. It’s a lovely image, worthy of more than the banal and misjudged curatorial comment that it’s quite different from other artists’ studios in history. Really? Anyway, it’s worth all the rest of this show combined.
Most critics won’t agree with me, though Michael Glover in the Independent got it right, perhaps a tad unkindly, when he said that Tillmans wasn’t half as good as he thought he was. The fact is that many of the ideas surrounding this show, ideas that it wants to speak, are facile: sixth-form protests against this or that imagined status quo; invitations to exercise imagination which fall flat, because many of us ordinary mortals have already had such thoughts for ourselves.
Also it seems to me there’s a crucial dimension missing from commentary on this show, namely and that is Tillmans’ German heritage. He came to Britain in 1990, aged, 22, to study at the St Martins School of Art, but even so, we surely have to see him as part of that long line of German artists, from Josef Beuys through Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer still deeply scarred by the German past and, particularly in the case of Beuys, by the petty bourgeois normality of the first twenty-five to thirty years of post-war West German society that tried to forget all about it. Unlike Beuys Tillmans has no humour; unlike Richter he does not love his medium; unlike Kiefer he lacks all trace of the Romantic heritage, and has no sense of the mystical. Kiefer, reader of Heidegger, student of van Gogh, would have made so much more of that dismantled photocopier over which so much artistic use had passed before it shorted itself into a heap of junk. No, what binds Tillmans to the terrible German past seems to me to be the received memory of what the Nazis did to homosexuals and what they forebade in art. Those two painful historical facts justify the world Tillmans creates in his own art today, of gay loneliness and carnal isolation and techno-misery. As viewers he defies us to dislike his art, because that might seem to link us with the monsters that went before. I have to say I felt almost menaced by the ugliness and the pain Tillmans put on show, and I could have done with a braver, more distanced commentary than what Tate Modern’s accompanying booklet gave me to read.