Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans Tackles Music, HIV, and "Fake News" at Tate Modern
All images courtesy Tate Modern.


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Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans Tackles Music, HIV, and "Fake News" at Tate Modern

The German artist's latest exhibition sprawls 14 galleries and includes hundreds of pieces.

It's quite unlikely visitors will see every piece at Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 at Tate Modern; there are hundreds. Sprawled across tables, squirreled into corners, collaged, raised above entryways, and held in place by everything from tape to Bulldog Clips, the show is an exploration of the space it inhabits. And while it's not a retrospective of the German photographer's work, it's quite a nuanced commentary on the state of affairs in the world today.


"What distinguishes [Tillmans] is the way he impeaches installing," Emma Lewis, an assistant curator at Tate Modern tells Creators. "He treats each room as a whole room installation; every part of the building is space to him. That means he hangs prints at all different sizes, and that changes how the room feels as a whole, and how the exhibition feels as a whole, and that is always surprising." The final exhibition emerged after weeks of hanging and rehanging, experimenting with the installation. That process of iteration is evident, as in Gallery 11—of the 14 galleries that comprise the exhibition—where one work has been taped over another torn image.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy of Tate Modern.

In a sense, the exhibition is a series of studies. Gallery Two is a study of the artist's studio, featuring images like "studio, still life, c" that depict his computer work station, laden with sticky notes. That work is accompanied by other personal portraits, like a photo of a box filled with 17 years-worth of antiretroviral medication. It dovetails beautifully with another study on photography spanning several galleries. The work spans everything from printer paper folded and presented in perspex boxes to images created using chemical darkroom play. "CLC 800, dismantled" features a taken-apart color photocopier that Tillmans bought with his winnings from the 2000 Turner Prize. Perhaps less evidently, a shot from a moving car on Sunset Boulevard explores the capabilities of digital photography, the medium of choice for many contemporary artists.


A more politically charged study is one on the nature of truth. At a time when "fake news" is discussed daily by the media, the exhibit's "Truth Study Center," started in 2005, is poignant. Here, a variety of printed articles are collaged on tables—designed by Tillmans—sometimes arranged beside contradictory articles. The intent: to prompt the viewer to question the information presented to them. "Given that phrases such as 'alternative facts' and 'post-truth' have entered the vernacular only very recently, I think it is remarkable how prescient this work, that was begun nearly twelve years ago, has become," Lewis says.

"astro crusto, a," 2012

Gallery Nine also showcases tables overtaken by collaged media. Here, it's more of a study of Tillmans's early work for magazines like Attitude, Butt, Arena Homme +, and i-Das well as some of his directly political work, namely posters he made about the Brexit referendum.

An unexpected addition is the "Playback Room," a soundproof chamber playing three tracks by the band Colourbox. "I think it's a great surprise," Lewis says. Music is one of Tillmans' most notable hobbies. He released an EP last year called Device Control, and its title track appears on Frank Ocean's album Endless. "He wanted to create a space for listening to recorded music as close as possible to the quality in which it was recorded," Lewis adds.

Colourbox never performed live, and the upgraded sound quality is especially important when applied to their work. "We are encouraging museums and other exhibition spaces to start thinking of music the same way as they think about other art forms," Lewis says. "[Tillmans] wanted to highlight the work and the craftsmanship that goes into music from the artists as well as the producers." The result is not only a mindful study of the music itself, but a study of how society reviews music in relation to other art forms.


A photo of Wolfgang Tillmans's "Truth Study Center" installed in Tate Modern.