Wolfgang Tillmans’s oeuvre has the rare ability to move across genres, mediums, and styles while still remaining indisputably singular. His exhibition of 175 recent works at David Zwirner, entitled PCR, is no exception. With photos tacked, taped, framed, laid out on tables, and encased behind vitrines, Tillmans’s ever-wandering eye seems enamored with the world. And although his subject matter might border on the banal, the sense of sincerity found in his work manages to transmute each photograph into a reflection of its maker.
Nowhere was this made more clear than at The Kitchen’s survey of Tillmans’s time-based works last month. While many of the pieces felt comparable to his better-known practice — such as Heartbeat / Armpit (2003), in which he records the slightest registration of a lover’s pulse through the movement of his armpit hair in a single, static shot — Tillmans’s short films and videos reveal his process in a way that was previously unseen. For example, the only dialogue in the 18 works shown is a brief moment in which a friend mutters off-camera: “So what’d you do all week?” Tillmans’s response: “Ummmm…”
It’s not that his work is unstudied or devoid of content — quite the opposite. It’s more that his practice leaves space for an unassuming kind of spontaneity and play. The aforementioned dialogue came toward the end of a video titled “14th Street” (1994–95), a sprawling montage of clips that finds Tillmans gazing out of his New York apartment window, recording moments of interaction between strangers.
Scored by whatever record he had playing at the time, “14th St” demonstrates Tillmans’s ability to craft humorous pairings of sight and sound. In one shot he tracks a flamboyantly dressed woman as she walks across the block, her step perfectly in time with a house track playing from his stereo; in another, gamblers hustle below his window to the bravado of organ music.
Zooming in to tightly frame his subjects, Tillmans isolates each interaction from its surroundings, granting every random moment a level of both sensitivity and autonomy. This fleeting intimacy is complicated, however, by his eager, if not antsy, attention span. Jumping from character to character, song to song, Tillmans’s seemingly incidental juxtapositions and fragmented narratives weave a nuanced web of affective associations that hold the micro- and macrocosmic in perfect tension.
His show at David Zwirner similarly creates a feeling of human connectivity. Moving between portraits of friends and snapshots of protests from around the world, he manages to create narrative structures out of the slightest glimpses of a situation. In one photo he captures the blurred ghosts of people dancing at one of the two remaining gay bars in St. Petersburg; in another, an image of London’s changing landscape titled “shit buildings going up left, right and centre” (2014), he captures the flux of the city as its old neighborhoods gentrify.
It is perhaps his images of architecture — which have an exhibition all to themselves, open concurrently at The Met — that speak best to the tension in Tillmans’s work between the timely and the timeless. Arranged as a two-channel projection, titled Book for Architects, the Uptown installation loops digitally collaged images of buildings from close to 40 countries. Instead of seeing buildings purely for their beauty, Tillmans recognizes architecture as the “expression of desires, hopes, and ambitions as well as myriad practical needs and limitations.” The collection of images thus speaks less to an eternal human need than to its resolution’s infinite manifestations, inflected by landscape, economic disparity, technology, culture, and the mere whim of fashion.
Tillmans’s interest in architecture extends even further: In both exhibitions his attention to the works’ size and placement within the gallery feels wonderfully phenomenological. He flirts with the viewer, placing an intimate print of a lover’s torso just slightly out of view in one or, in another, enlarges an image of an unplucked weed to a monumental scale.
At the Chelsea gallery’s preview TIllmans claimed that his “editing process is about getting rid of the images of [his] own desire.” Assuming he wasn’t being facetious, I’ll be the first to say that he’s a pretty bad editor. If anything, the install — which was done in the gallery by Tillmans himself — reveals as much about the artist’s relationship to each image as about the images themselves.
The show’s title, PCR, is explained in the press release as standing for “polymerase chain reaction,” a molecular biology technique used to replicate a DNA molecule “in order to determine the overall genetic identity of an individual from a trace amount of starting material.” It is suggested in the release that the title refers to the universe of images that exist beyond each photograph’s frame, a sort of meditation on what makes a picture a picture. While this certainly elicits various themes present throughout the exhibition, I was drawn in particular to something else TIllmans said, in reference to his portraiture: “Photography always lies about what is in front of the camera, but never about what is behind [it].” With this in mind, I appreciate Tillmans’s willingness to delve inward.
“Wolfgang Tillmans: Sound on Camera” took place at The Kitchen (512 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on September 14. Wolfgang Tillmans: PCR continues at David Zwirner gallery (525 & 533 W 19th Street, New York) until October 25.