A visual information society, always susceptible to the mistrust of mediation, always fraught with anxiety about photography and the news, with their privileged relationship to the real, always worrying about the “truth”––these are observations already metabolized, and the exhibit does not take them in new directions, nor does it find new forms for its expressions.
To look now at the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans is to see a ghost: his style, as the ethos behind what he shoots and how he shoots it, has become so ubiquitous that his photos recall their descendants, everything after him a reference. Emerging as a photographer in Germany during the early 1990s, Tillmans is often associated with his shots of youth, nightlife, and queer culture, but his breadth of work spans almost everything —the still life and the abstract, the cinematic and the auditory. Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, an enormous and ambitious retrospective at MoMA, comprises over 300 of Tillmans’ works, inviting viewers to make their way across an entire floor of the museum. The exhibition includes several individual photographs that viewers have most likely seen before —the cover shot for Frank Ocean’s Blonde, for instance— but much of his oeuvre is familiar in its formal influence on contemporary photography, shimmering around the edges with echoes of what is soon to come. Looking at his photos now, nothing about Tillmans seems new.
And that is, in many ways, the point. With many of the photos affixed by strips of Scotch Tape to the white walls of the building, much of the exhibit is more akin to the DIY spirit of an adolescent bedroom than the seamless poise of an esteemed art institution. In many of the rooms, glossy images arranged in a charming disarray find their way beyond the edges of the white cube and onto the emergency exit doors. One can spot peeling corners and stray flecks of dust at the edges of Tillmans’ seemingly haphazard —though clearly quite carefully conceived— portraits of youth, who are often in the midst of something else: kissing, dancing, protesting, waiting, embracing. And without object labels beside the works, the space is affective rather than didactic, one of witness and emotion. The names of the photographs are quite irrelevant, in fact: what matters to the ethos of the exhibition are not the historical or material details of each shot but how they make you feel, how they make you see. Sensation is the principle here: in the quiet, introspective stills of cigarettes on a bedside table, tomatoes on a windowsill, or a water glass just as it catches the light, a poignancy crystallizes in the mundane expressions of movement and ephemerality. These are images that invite an acute and transfixing way of looking, a gaze of intimacy, poise, and appreciation. Then there are the dozens and dozens of photographs of young people in groups, in clubs, in parks, drenched in orange light in their home. Many of these images, like the figuration of bodies in The Spectrum/Dagger (2014) obscured in part by the glow and the shadows of a basement, are not particularly complicated portraits, but are ecstatic photographs, always bursting and reaching, always filled with movement. They are not of appreciation but of complete surrender.
In many of his photographs, their essence is often their content—who or what is represented is at times not any less important than how. A materialist photography, he seems to offer, demarcating history as a representation at the affective margins. And there is always a kind of history contained in or under the surface of these kinds of images, always something outside the photograph that is needed, always a studium of meaning. In 17 year supply (2014), a box is filled with antiviral medication; 17 years prior to the photograph being taken, Tillmans’ partner passed away from AIDS. In outside Planet, view (1992), a group of people sits, well, outside the nightclub Planet. These are documentary images, deeply meaningful in something that they represent more than their formal qualities as photographs. “It was never my intention to be seen as diaristic or autobiographical,” he said to the Guardian in 2017 —even though many of the photos that have that signature everyday quality are staged, the photographs themselves often emerge as arbiters of representation-as-truth. But even when it seems that the affective qualities of his images are taking a secondary role in his more journalistic endeavors, it’s not always so easy to distinguish between history and emotion. Particularly in his photographs of youth in protest —of war, of racism, of same-sex marriage bans— the representation is of history but also the effervescence of protest, the energy that he has captured. There are radically different approaches to photography contained in his work: on one hand a subjective way of being with a photograph, a punctum of overwhelming sublimity, and on the other a commitment to witness and truth as it appears in the world. This is not to say that these are contradictory motives —European wartime photographs and quotidian snapshots actually find harmony, to a somewhat unsettling extent, in his visual language. There are so many traces of his historical, or historiographical, edge in the ethos of the exhibition, concerned rarely with a specific meaning but rather with how that meaning becomes constructed. And on the tables that constitute his truth study center, Tillmans extends this exploration beyond the photograph and into the world of information and mass media.
truth study center, an ongoing project since 2005 in both installation and book form, displays a printed selections of articles, headlines, research, photographs, and ephemera that address misinformation and representation across a varied array of historical instances. Half of the tables contain material from Tillmans’ early iterations of the project, while the other half are collected for this exhibition. His display of the materials attempts a critical response to the role of media in the AIDS epidemic, in global narratives of Al Qaeda or the size of Africa, in Texas execution politics. Next to printouts of emails and book covers and articles on MDMA therapy are various pieces of academic and popular study of truth and post-truth, of media and reality. The assemblage coaxes out of its viewers a recognition and a familiar anxiety, of a mass blindness to truth even amidst the absence of its universality. In an economy predicated on data, information and misinformation are central components of culture; here, the epistemological transience is expressed not in a single instance of media but in the presentation of several pieces of media, an attempt at resolution not in expression through art but in expression through curation. The proposition of the tables is that placement and displacement is a way to construct and deconstruct meaning; that collection, like montage, creates a meaning more than the sum of its materials; and that relocation can be a retraining of the eye.
Tillmans’ work throughout the exhibit is curatorial practice, democratized: it is a testament to his conceptual accessibility that the contents and display of To look without fear are meant to be unlabeled and meant to engage the thematic pulses of popular culture. Just as much of his photographic collection contains a documentary style, here Tillmans is curating documentary materials, constructing them as a kind of cultural art in the language of representation and history. The materials are documentary in the first instance as records of events, but also as records of representations of events. A BBC article about climate skepticism points to a real example of truth and misinformation, but it also attempts to reveal an instance of media itself in the way that our understanding of events is predicated on their mediation. Though the project has existed for almost twenty years, its resonance is perhaps more recognized, or at least more immediately valuable, in what has been named the “post-truth” era.
“All subject matter has the potential to be important,” he said in a 2005 interview with Slavoj Zizek. “We attribute value through interpretation.” A utopian interpretation of a culture immersed in media emerges, a humanization of and access to the subjects he portrays. The exhibition is rife with celebrity portraits, from the enormity of his more iconic Frank, in the shower (2015) to a spirited and ironic full body shot of Chloë Sevigny on guitar to a small black-and-white portrait of Aphex Twin; Nan Goldin, Kate Moss, and Patti Smith all make appearances. Hypermediation seems at times to be completely disintegrated in his portraits, as if one is physically present within his captured spaces. But despite the interpretive potential of mass media as a cultural text, the truth study center tables take mass media as a collection of items that, once removed from the stream of the infinite scroll, can then be appropriately interpreted. truth study center brings cultural studies out of the academy and into the world, to be sure, but, insofar as the installation is concerned with ways of seeing, it implies a mere association with the other photographic works in the exhibit. A visual information society, always susceptible to the mistrust of mediation, always fraught with anxiety about photography and the news, with their privileged relationship to the real, always worrying about the “truth”—these are observations already metabolized, and the exhibit does not take them in new directions, nor does it find new forms for its expressions.
Even when placed in dialogue with the photographic works, the truth study center project is one of pattern recognition, not creation. The exhibit is on display, not the works; his gallerist, Maureen Paley, even said proudly to the New York Times that “his work is the installation of the work.” Although the expansion of the curatorial concept is not specific to Tillmans, installation-as-essence imbues the tables with the mundanity of a gimmick as viewers are shown pieces of journalism and academia that, on the tables, perform a supposed deeper meaning. Collection as a kind of creative process in itself, albeit a very real and serious sentiment in the curatorial process, doesn’t quite translate to the eclectic array of media on the tables in truth study center. Collection does not resolve the contradictions between various truths and ways of seeing, nor does it necessarily accomplish much beyond recognition. The “staggering agglomeration of material is not so much the sublimity of information, but the sublimity of its ability to thicken and heap up,” writes Sianne Ngai of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (1997), an installation of 643 sheets displaying more than 7,000 items —snapshots, newspaper cuttings, sketches, color fields— arranged on white rectangular panels. truth study center operates in much the same way, with the “ordinary fatigue” that Ngai describes —an overwhelming array of media, comprised by the “finite and small, the bits and scraps floating in the ‘common muck’ of language,” exhaust the possibility of transcendence. It is not the printed out screenshot of a NASA Instagram post that reminds us of the infinitude of interpretation in contemporary media, but the repetitive infinitude of instances like the NASA Instagram post that subjects us to the infinitude of media itself.
The exhibit is, purposefully, staggering, vast, rambling, sprawling, epic —the sheer number of units becoming its primary quality, quickly becoming a visual equivalent to Ngai’s linguistic stuplimity, the postmodern anti-sublime of the mass. The rapid expansion of what curation means, accelerated by archival functions of digital media and the widespread accessibility of media organizational tools, has endowed mass media with this quality of latent meaning, waiting to be exhumed by a careful eye. And while he is a master of the staged everydayness, it seems Tillmans never meant to choose carefully, with an attention turned toward the muck itself. Though the exhibit begins as a joyous, warm, wondrous thing, the scale that once made it ecstatic quickly becomes self-reflexive, a utopia of multiplicity that devolves into endlessness.