Study Visit – Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

I had no prior experience of Tillmans, so went into this exhibition with very few pre-conceptions, and came out of it somewhat baffled. Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe the work on show – portraits, snapshots, still lifes, abstracts, sound and video installations, articles displayed on tables alongside lottery tickets, images hung too high or low to view properly, some taped to walls, others formally framed. Some that I liked, some that I didn’t. By the end my brain hurt; there was no coherent theme, no style that was recognisably “Tillmans”, no logical progression through the exhibition.

The discussion with tutor Jayne Taylor and other students afterwards helped a lot to decipher some of the intentions behind the work, though its very indecipherability is it seems part of its message and part of its charm. What follows is my attempt to unpick and then rebuild the exhibition into something that makes sense to me – I suspect it will not relate to anothers’ experience of the exhibition, and those reviews I have already read pull out entirely different strands to those that I engaged with.

As soon as I entered the exhibition I lingered over a couple of images: one of a man in Indian dress in front of a bright purple dated (but not antique) car, the other of an airport corridor in a state of rennovation, with the phrase “Rest of the World” at the end of it.


We spent some time mulling over the significance of these images, and the fact that they didn’t have any obvious relationship to each other. The former provoked a conversation about cultural representations; about portrayal of the “other”, and how cliched this sort of image can be. That cliche was indeed reflected in the image, in which a man in Western dress on a mobile phone can be seen in the background, undermining any sense of “traditional” culture. The airport image seemed to be more about the rennovation works in its composition, highlighting the very bland nature of this corridor – yet the reference to “Rest of the World” again picks up on the sense of “otherness” and the unappealing nature of this transit between our world and another adds its own connotations. These themes continued throughout the exhibition – in particular sections relating to Brexit and the sense of a break between “them” and “us”. Yet they were not gathered together in one place as one might expect, but dotted around in various places.

Another thread on display in the very first room was the conflict between nature and the digital age; a large scale image of the “static” on a tv screen, images of machinery collaged with food, a pot with wilting sprouts in it. None of these images related to each other, beyond the very vague relevance to man v nature, but this was another thread that continued in various forms throughout. One variation of it which I enjoyed looking at mistakes in manmade processes – printing errors, images created solely by light and dust etc. Some of these were simply abstract colours and patterns, others (such as the misprinted photo books) retained much of the original intention.

These two threads do not interrelate, other than by their physical proximity in the gallery space. Yet I realised afterwards that they can influence one another – they are both musings on modern life and the issues that we have to face. If one sees Tillmans as a philosopher, then his exhibition is his philosophy of life. It flits about by necessity, just as our minds flit between one issue and another, but we can see through the exhibition the messages that underly the way he tries to view and interpret the world around him. He gives us an insight into his uncertainty and thought process in extracts from online articles about psychology and human behaviour – alongside for example lottery tickets indicating the lottery that is life. In a sense the whole exhibition is one big collage, a sketchbook on a giant scale, bringing together thought processes and ideas without fully resolving them into a coherent sentiment.

Looked at in this way explains why my brain was struggling to process the information; we are not supposed to find answers, more to provoke thoughts and ideas. I can see myself as the curator of my own exhibition – the seemingly haphazard display forced me to look around for what grabbed my attention, rather than allowing me to slide easily from one eye-level image to the next. I couldn’t take in everything, instead I plotted my own course through the images. There is a physicality to the exhibition experience which mirrors Tillman’s interest in the physicality of the image – reflected both in the way he displays his work with bulldog clips or sticky tape, and in some of the works themselves. I particularly enjoyed his folded coloured glossy paper installations, which became almost structural due to the play of light on the glass boxes, and in which one couldn’t help but see one’s own reflection. The surface had a photographic appearance, such that the reflection became like viewing a self-portrait.


Initially the odd framing and hanging of images troubled me by its randomness. Why was one image printed life size and hung on bulldog clips, while another was printed at 6×4 and stuck to the wall, and yet another was in a crisp white frame with uneven borders to left and right? I cannot resolve these questions, but what is clear is that Tillmans is seeking to disrupt conventions, presumably to make us uncomfortable, perhaps to make us feel the way he feels about life, or to force us to recognise how we are tied to social conventions in life. I can’t ascertain whether these choices are random, or whether there are specific reasons why particular images deserve a particular treatment – this troubles me as a student because I can’t discern a method from which I can learn or which I could replicate if I wanted to. I sometimes feel that there are instances of being different for the sake of it, and that thought crept to mind several times during the Tillmans exhibition. Part of me still feels that the exhibition was just a brain dump with no real thought as to its execution, and that I am giving it more weight than it deserves. Yet the image of Tillmans in his Lilliputian gallery, and the interviews I have seen with him, deny this interpretation.


One question that occurred to me is whether the exhibition can be viewed as a self-portrait. If it is Tillmans own musings on life, it reflects his interests and issues, and as such is a representation of the self. Yet I didn’t find myself wondering about his life, I found myself wondering about my take on life. I have recently been reading the “Choose your own adventure” books with my son, and this exhibition felt in many ways like that experience – choosing my own path to enlightenment through the images presented. It has been a slow path – I can’t say it happened whilst I was in the gallery – it crept up on me as we discussed the work and even as I write about it now.

Jayne suggested at the end of our discussion that there is only room in the world for one Wolfgang Tillmans, and I think that is true! There was a sense of over-stimulation after visiting the exhibition, one which I would not want to repeat too often. If I were to submit such a random selection of images for an assignment I would fall foul of the “coherent” element of the brief – this exhibition could only be coherent on its own terms and not in response to any brief.

That said, there are some lessons I can take away from the exhibition, primarily centered around the means of presentation. I mentioned earlier that the exhibition was like one giant sketchbook, and the scattergun approach is one that I could make better use of in narrowing down (whilst simultaneously broadening) my ideas for assignment. At the other end of the process, I need to give more thought to how I would present my work if it were to be displayed. On the whole I think in terms of either big images in a row on a wall, or a photobook approach, but I love the idea of crafting a mini-gallery and playing with ways to display the work. Adding other items, choosing where and how text should be displayed etc are all elements which I have never considered as part of my work, in the main because they don’t form part of the assessment submission and I am not lucky enough to have my work displayed, but I realise now that I can and should incorporate them into my thinking.


  • all images are my own photographs of the “Wolfgang Tillmans 2017” exhibition at Tate Modern, visited on 6th May 2017

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