Wolfgang Tillman’s exhibition at Tate Modern

I was keen to visit this exhibition because I had not seen Tillman’s work displayed in a gallery space, only occasional images within magazines. What was interesting about this exhibition, was the way in which it was hung, as Alistair Sooke said in the Telegraph (1) "he is, known, for instance, for his unusual approach to showing work, and here he does not disappoint” he goes on "The presentation is crucial, because it broadcasts an important message: Tillmans’s art is anything but stuffy or pompous. Rather, it’s all informality and casual flair".

I was also interested to see the influences upon Tillman’s work . Something which Sooke noticed In his Telegraph review "He is no stranger to art history, either", comparing Anders pulling splinter from his foot’ 2004 with the Spinario statue in the British Museum as well as the influence of Courbet and others.

But it was mainly the landscapes that I was interested in and which I will concentrate on in this review.   Munuwata Sky was a huge, long-exposure portrayal of an island and the sky above.The horizon is very low in the scene, and slightly off centre one can discern the outline of a small island. A good two thirds of the photograph are of the stars in the night sky, the long exposure giving them a blurred outline. But the whole image spoke to me of the vastness of space and nature, I think the island represents the tiny place that our civilisation plays within it all. 

Another night-time photograph was Sunset Night Drive. Set in a North American city at night showing mainly the lights of cars and advertising hoardings. Reds predominate In the darkness, adding to a sense of danger, which is reinforced perhaps with the large central advertising sign for Into the Woods and the somewhat scary face of the person staring out from it.The whole scene is buzzing with activity and excitement, yet to me it also speaks of the dangers of the night as well as the way we have constructed our cities to provide entertainment.. 

In Lampedusa, Tillmans captures the wreckage of boats used by refugees seeking to make the crossing to southern Italy. The centre of the image is of smashed up pieces of wood from the wreckage of such boats used by the migrants. WithIn the background are the discernible outlines of almost complete boats, one of which has painted on its prow what seems to be a pair of eyes. These seem to stare, almost accusingly, at the viewer. The near foreground consists of the sand or stone beach on which the piles of rubbish are stacked. The predominant colour here is of blue, the colour of the water and symbolic of coldness, but with the occasional splash of red from abandoned lifejackets.The image talks to me of the wreckage of lives, of risks taken to make a new beginning.

The State We’re In 2015 is a single image of the ocean occupying a vast space on the wall. With an extremely high horizon, the vast majority of the space is taken up with the patterns of waves and swirling motion of the sea.In its steel grey colours, the image is almost monochrome, but the cropping and composition talk of the vastness of the ocean and the dangers that lurk within. 

Tillman’s image put me very much in mind of the work of  Vija CelminsOcean Surface Woodcut from1992, which was displayed in an exhibition at the British Museum  The American Dream: pop to the present. Celmins displays what the Exhibition Catalogue (Coppel et al 2017 p206) describes as "the hypnotic, rhythmic heave of the ocean surface extending over a limitless expanse "

I think it is interesting to contrast the approach of two artists working in very different media and the end product of their works, but also what the artists interpret in their own works. Coppel et al (2017 p206) quote Celmins as saying that she seeks to hold together in her work "Stillness and movement, flatness and depth … In a delicate balance ".

Whereas Tillmans talks of “seeing the full might of the big wave movements, but then there are also lots of smaller and smaller waves, and they’re all battling with each other, clashing with each other, and you can sense that the surface is about to erupt at any spot, at any place and any time”. (3)

I was left wondering how much Tillmans’ image owed to the huge scale on which it was printed (2730 x 4100mm) whereas Celmins’ work was much smaller (225 x 305mm). I think that the main difference that this produced was that I needed to step back from the Tillman’s work to take it all in whereas Celmins’ print drew me in to look at the detail of the image.

I took a number of ideas from this exhibition and I think that one of the first things to try out will be a trip to the seaside to try to capture an image in the style of The State We’re In.

(1)  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/politics-lobsters-wolfgang-tillmans-2017-tate-modern-review/

(2)  COPPEL, S., DAUNT, C., TALLMAN, S., SELIGMAN, I., RAMKALAWON, J. and BRITISH MUSEUM, 2017. The American dream: pop to the present. London: Thames & Hudson, in collaboration with the British Museum.

(3)  http://canadianart.ca/features/wolfgang-tillmans/