Home The Washington Diplomat June 2007 Eye for Arrangement

Eye for Arrangement


Wolfgang Tillmans Brings Diverse Images Into Sharp Relief

A bona fide celebrity in Europe, Wolfgang Tillmans is an esteemed photographer who shoots iconic images of musician Moby and model Kate Moss and hangs out with British rock band Pulp.

But the 38-year-old German is also a serious artist with a lot to say and a unique way of saying it, as evidenced by his gripping, politically incisive new exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The survey—an East Coast debut—features about 300 photographs, a video and installations that span the artist’s career. Many of the photographs alone are ho-hum, but Tillmans’s talent for unconventional arrangement brings diverse—even obtuse—subjects into sharp relief.

Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by the intimate images of sweaty, vacant-eye club kids as they whirl, gyrate and lose themselves on the dance floor. Around the corner is a mesmerizing photograph of a couple of young men perched on large rocks as they stare out across the water. A shimmering, setting sun centers the image, which begs the viewer to linger and think.

Tillmans says the eye is an instrument of freedom, and his camera lens captures the joy of freedom as well as any photographer working today. “You are free to use your eyes and attribute value to things the way you want,” Tillmans once said. “The eyes are a great subversive tool because they technically don’t underlie any control. They are free when used freely.”

In a room called the “Truth Study Center,” Tillmans turns his eye on power and the establishment. He has arranged hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings with photographs—some his own and others taken from various sources. The images, splayed across a series of uneven, glass-topped wooden tables, offer Tillmans’s commentary on the world. One headline blares “Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Blood.” Another image screams the words “America’s Dirty War!” along the left side of the frame, while on the right a woman prepares a huge hunk of raw meat in her kitchen. It’s bizarre and just a bit unsettling, but in the best sense.

Another table contains a mundane photo clipping of the planet Saturn. Nearby, a Tillmans photo of a stale cup of coffee, shot tight from above and slightly off center, dazzles as it reminds one of the human eye and all the complexity and soul contained therein.

“Although many of Tillmans’s photographs are highly memorable, even iconic, they remain fundamentally untheatrical and rooted in a social context,” said Russell Ferguson, the exhibition’s co-curator. “It is even possible to see all of his photographs as an ongoing, extended self-portrait, a record of his passage through the world.”

Tillmans was awarded the Turner Prize in 2000 by the Tate Modern in London, which recognizes the work of artists younger than 50 who have distinguished themselves nationally in Great Britain.

Ferguson pointed out during a media preview of the exhibition that although Tillmans’s work is sophisticated and multilayered, it is not inaccessible to someone who lacks deep artistic understanding. “It can appeal very directly to an audience that is not specialized in contemporary art,” he noted.

There is certainly nothing traditional about Tillmans’s approach to arrangement. His work spans entire walls and galleries and incorporates clusters of ink-jet prints and C-print photographs that vary in size. Inane images might be carefully and expensively framed, while some of his own best work is reduced to the size of a playing card and taped on the wall.

A now-famous series of photos of the Concorde taking off and landing juxtaposes the sleek power of the world’s fastest (and now retired) commercial jet with its staid earthbound surroundings, including highways and barns. In another vivid image, a tight, partial shot of a twisted tree trunk covered in moss appears to morph into the leg of something that is much bigger than ourselves—an apt reflection of much of Tillmans’s work.

Wolfgang Tillmans through Aug. 12 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.