Information Processing

Information Processing


To look now at the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans is to see a ghost. The ubiquity of his style has become such that his images recall their descendants, everything after him a echo and 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 the still life and the abstract, the cinematic and the auditory. MoMA’s retrospective Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear comprises over 300 of his works, laid out across the museum’s sixth floor. The exhibition includes several photographs that have made their way into pop culture—album cover shots for Frank Ocean and John Maus––but much of his oeuvre is recognizable simply in its stylistic influence, shimmering around the edges with what is soon to come. Looking at his photographs now, little about Tillmans seems new.

That is, in many ways, the point. With many of the photos affixed to the walls by strips of Scotch Tape, the exhibit is often more akin to the DIY spirit of an adolescent bedroom than the seamless poise of the white cube. Glossy images arranged in a charming disarray find their way onto the emergency exit doors; peeling corners and stray flecks of dust dot the edges of Tillmans’ portraits. The subjects of these images, balanced between haphazard and composed, are often in the midst of something else: kissing, dancing, protesting, 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 one feel and 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 ephemeral stills. These are images that invite an acute and transfixing way of looking, a gaze of intimacy and poise. There are the 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 deceptively plain, ecstatic photographs 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 dwell outside the nightclub at daybreak. “It was never my intention to be seen as diaristic or autobiographical,” he said to the Guardian in 2017. The images are documents without the label’s connotation of semantic closure, representation preceding before exactitude. 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 entangled in effervescence. 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 appearance. This is not to say that these are contradictory motives —European wartime photographs and quotidian snapshots find their unsettling and unbearable harmony in his visual language. The traces of his historical, or historiographical, edge are concerned less with particularity than with the interfacing of subject with temporal situation.

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. The installation, an ongoing project since 2005, displays a printed selection of articles, headlines, research, photographs, and ephemera that address misinformation and representation across a varied array of historical events. 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, mediatization and obfuscated 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 the many, 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; recalling Dada and its descendants, Tillmans’ work indicates 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, in truth study center Tillmans is curating documentary material: as records of events, but also as records of representations. 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, which turn intimacy into an invitation for immediacy. 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. 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 work rarely takes them beyond pattern recognition.

Even when placed in dialogue with the photographic works, it is the exhibit on display, not the works; his gallerist, Maureen Paley, even said 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 kind of glitch of mediation. 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 leaves one unsure where to land. 

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