‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’, as the 1624 prose by English poet John Donne sounded centuries ago. Though these lines are written in a different era, the words ‘no man is an island’ were the inspiration for one of the pro EU posters by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) in the realm of the Brexit referendum last year.
His campaign of 25 posters against Britain’s exit from the EU illustrates the strong and increasing desire of Tillmans to keep addressing and raising awareness on global concerns. Although Tillmans is known to the main public as a photographic interpreter whose work reflects a contemporary way of life in which music and subculture play a major part, social commitment is one of his key concepts as well.
The breath and multi-faceted nature of his practice is reflected when discovering his oeuvre. One might find his earliest pictures of 1990s club nights and intimate fashion photographs alongside his recent abstract, colour-saturated images informed by experiments with the photographic process. One could also discover details of his music making. He depicts his immediate surroundings, nature, politics, or religion. Driven by an enduring interest in who we are and how we interact with the wider world, Tillmans continues to push the boundaries of what art can be and mean to us and how an artist can contribute to this.
Photography and installation go hand in hand for him, thus experimenting with exhibition methods. Images alone, arrays of smaller and larger photographs, some of them framed, others unframed and attached to the wall with bulldog clips.
They can hang high over doorways, shuffled on a table or squeezed in the corner of a room. Each exhibition is the basis for new combinations of those images created. It is a renegotiation and rearrangement of material, ideas and subjects. While emphasizing both pictorial and material qualities of the image, Tillmans experiments over and over again with his own material. He reprints his work, exhibits it in other sizes and colors, or even plays with three-dimensionality. This is more than just a way of amassing his material. They take account of our mobility and insatiable hunger for the next thing, in order to slow us down and pay attention. And with success. He succeeds to captivate the viewer entirely without losing their focus and concentration.
His oeuvre has always been and will remain an alchemical blend of detachment and engagement. I can’t stop thinking about the lines ‘It’s a question of where you feel you belong’, lines from his pro EU poster campaign. Together with the empty ocean of the Atlantic, in the work The State We’re In, A (2015), it reminds us to the visible and invisible borders that define and sometimes control us. Captivating.
Tate Modern presents together with Wolfgang Tillmans a major retrospective of the artist’s work, on view until 11 June.