Monday, August 2, 2010

Serpentine Gallery: Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition 7.7.10

Visiting an exhibition by Wolfgang Tilmans seemed to be de rigeur although when I heard through one review that there were a lot of photos of the artist's male partner, I was put off as self indulgent homeo-erotic work does not appeal to me. In fact, the reviewer seems to have been expressing homophobic views since the exhibition contains only about half a dozen images of male models and most of these are of different men not just one. A photograph that might be considered homeo-erotic actually made me laugh; it is a simple albeit crude view made from below a costume of  a pair of legs with a scrotum and penis at the top and centre of the image. It takes an instant or two to see this and for a moment I found myself thinking of a baby and outstretched arms.

What I liked about the exhibition was the simplicity of the work with ample space between photographs. One did not have to spend too much time trying to work out what it was all about and neither was it so big that one needed a lot of time to see it all. Of course, simplicity can be problematic if one is intent on finding meaning and Tillmans, in my view, is an artist who uses photography rather than a photographer whose work is considered art. For instance, many of the images such as the blocks of colour, appear to be prints in which no camera was used only photographic materials, the C - type print, with varying filtration.

Tillmans use or exploration of these coloured blocks that appear not only in the first room (black, white, blue, yellow and magenta) but also in two further rooms of the six roomed exhibition space, seem to become more complex with graduated colour spaces in the later work. Tillmans collected these images particularly for the Serpentine Gallery and there is a great sense of the artist using this space rather than merely exhibiting a collection of photographs.

There are a number of framed black and white images of poor technical photographic quality. No Ansel Adams concern here for detail in the shadows and in the photograph of a cow where solid blacks are much in evidence, the eyes for instance are swallowed up in blacks, one wonders what one is being asked to look at. Flies on the cow presumably.

Other black and white images, some of them photocopies, may inspire wonder and contemplation with the suggestion of "distinct yet overlapping emotional and psychological sensations"(Michael Bracewell). Images of trees are quite captivating although there is no depth of tone with the images relying on soft, hazy light with the play of sunlight and shadow.

The second room contains some huge images of what appear to be brush strokes. It was not easy to figure out what these were about but when I saw what looked like a penis in one of them, I decided to move on!

The third room contained a variety of images. Some exhibits were contained in museum-like presentations which one viewed flat on a table. Here, subjects like the Vatican's denial of abuse within the church were covered. The front cover of two Krsnamurti books were also to be found and I wondered at the connections between these images; Krsnamurti's book Freedon From the Known has long been a favourite work and I did not expect to see it here.

Some of the images were abstract and hence not easy to relate to. Were the coloured blocks with some design included on them meant to be examples of fungal decay on walls?

A series of images that did interest me as a photographer were of Venus passing over the sun. The images have been tinted purple and are enclosed within a circular black frame. More document than art is in evidence here.

There is satire in the exhibition. For instance, a view of an industrial landscape taken from the air is called "Desert".

Overall, there is a tackiness to much of the imagery yet one assumes that is a comment in itself. Technically perfect photographic images can be a little overpowering for the viewer while more amateurish looking work can be enticing. As Barthes writes in Camera Lucida ...

" ... in the field of photographic practice, it is the amateur, on the contrary, who is the assumption of the professional: for it is he who stands closer to the noeme of Photography." (from essay 40)

One photograph that stood out for me was of what appeared at first to be Hokusai's famous wave. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a photograph of a glacier from the air. Michael Bracewell comments that in this image there  is a " transformation of a tangible subject into an abstraction" and that it is "completely liberated from meaning". I wonder if he was aware of the Hokusai link!

Overall, I found this exhibition to be inspiring and left me feeling open minded about the nature of photography as a whole. Sometimes the imagination can be constricted by well ordered images and given free reign by those that at first glance seem chaotic.

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