LONDON — Like many other Europeans living in the UK, I am not eligible to vote in Thursday’s referendum that will decide whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. According to the opinion polls, the British public are fairly evenly split. About half of the Conservative Members of the British Parliament, including five cabinet ministers, are in favor of leaving, with the former mayor of London Boris Johnson, among others, strenuously backing the leave campaign. The discussion over Brexit (a shorthand for the UK exiting the EU) comes at a difficult time for Europe. The economic and migrant crises, together with the recent terrorist attacks linked to ISIS, have fueled an alarming surge in regressive nationalism in many European countries. For my part — and for a variety of economic, cultural, and ethical reasons — I believe the UK should stay in the EU. So does Wolfgang Tillmans.
In the past months, the German photographer, who splits his time between Berlin and London, has designed a series of pro-EU images that have been turned into posters and social media posts, and made free to download and share. These images combine some of Tillmans’s elegant and almost abstract pictures with statements encouraging the public to vote to stay in the EU. One of these adapts a poem by John Donne: “No man is an island. No country by itself.” Another asks: “If people like Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Nick Griffin, and Marine Le Pen want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?”
In a statement on his website, dated May 26, Tillmans comments:
The EU protects your rights against these enemies of freedom. To leave the EU now, in these dangerous political times, is not patriotic, it’s simply foolish and it would send the wrong message to the enemies of European values. The EU is not perfect and it never was designed to be that way. The very way of it being a negotiating chamber of 28 nations, is the key to its success. It is not in the security interests of the UK to weaken the EU at this point in time. Whatever your feelings towards the EU, be aware that voting for Brexit has catastrophic repercussions for the whole of Europe and the world.
His current exhibition at Maureen Paley seems directly inspired by the present political situation. Visitors are welcomed at the entrance by pro-EU posters designed by fellow artists including Antony Gormley, Bob and Roberta Smith, and Martin Creed, while a selection of Tillmans’s posters are shown in the gallery’s backyard.
The main galleries highlight a selection of new works focusing on the concept of visible and invisible borders. Central to the theme is the large “The State We’re In, A” (2015), an unframed print of the open water of the Atlantic Ocean, where international lines and borders intersect. The photograph, which has some humor to it despite the weighty subject, shows nothing but rippling waves.
The exhibition features Tillmans’s typical set-up, with photographs of different sizes put together, presented in clusters, or paired in the distinctive way that has become his trademark. In a corner, a group of small pictures taken at airports shows the daily activity of such places — immigration desks at the UK border, billboards, and warnings giving instructions to passengers of specific nationalities; very mundane examples of how political decisions influence people’s lives. On the opposite wall, a photograph of human blood flowing through a plastic tube during surgery, shot with a clarity that reminds of the New Objectivity, implies that the body is yet another place where boundaries are at play and porous.
The gallery’s upper floor is occupied by a new grouping of tables from the truth study center series Tillmans started in 2005, with color-photocopied pages from found newspapers and magazines laid out on tables. He often uses pieces from truth study center to address current events, engaging with the relationship between images and texts in printing. The new installation breaks with the former purpose of the series, displaying in an extremely refined pages of blank office paper from Europe and North America in various sizes. Here, Tillmans emphasizes the material support over the images and text usually printed on paper, stressing similarities and differences in nationalized forms of printed communication.
Although not directly visually related to each other, the works in the exhibition feel like a whole, coherent body. Tillmans’s images are kept together not only by the show’s main theme of borders, but also by his clever display strategies. The pace created by juxtaposing different variations of big prints and small ones, framed images and unframed ones, creates an inviting flow that captures the visitor and directs them throughout the gallery space. This show at Maureen Paley precedes a major Tillmans survey at Tate Modern, planned to open in February next year. While there is already excitement for that show, it could prove to be Tillmans’s first exhibition in a post-Brexit Britain. I strongly hope it won’t be the case.