Wolfgang Tillmans / Today is the first day at WIELS, Brussels

by Alice Zucca

What strikes the most in the work of the visionary German artist Wolfgang Tillmans is certainly the non-continuity in its stylistic path, however it is still capable of giving back the consequentiality of an image of the world around us that evolves in a chronological manner and of a universally recognizable and generational reality. This distinctive feature is the key of the uniqueness that allows him to give back to the world a vision of what stimulates him in everyday life, that is as coherent and realistic as it is hyperbolic, using a variety of media formats and elements, from two-dimensional to audiovisual, that reinvent new methods of production and fruition of the image, whether it is to be intended for what it is intrinsically or to be understood as “imaginary”, and therefore freed from an attached visual concept but always allowing the presence of observable element. After all, making something “visible” – whether it is the processes of everyday life, the change of the social structures and the technological progress, the invisible or the evolution of what is in existance – is the ultimate goal of Tillmans’ art, who seems to place the emphasis on the element of transition, the moment in which change becomes perceptible, the relationship between our knowledge and what is perceived in the surrounding world.

Wolfgang Tillmans, 6407-35, 2007, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

A new world can seem awkward because the interpretation schemes that we have painstakingly developed in the old world are no longer suitable for interpreting the changed reality, and if it is true that we can no longer count on our reassuring routines stabilized during the span of a lifetime, it is even more real the impossibility of functionally interfacing with a new world without the availability of new ideas on which to found it. Tillmans does not want to give us an idea but he seems to provide us with a starting point for analysis. In this regard, he invites us, starting from the setting of the installation, to a personal reflection, made of personal connections and experiences through the fruition of the work in space and the work in itself. 

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert

The two floors of the WIELS in Brussels, which host the first large-scale exhibition of Tillmans in Belgium, are a worthy extension of the imagery of the German photographer who always expands his artistic creation to the entire setting of the exhibition, integrating the architectural space, the light, the sound, in order to serve as presentation for the “image” as an integral element in its production. The intimate room which is set up for the audio “I want to make a film” (2018) is a real meta-image in a fundamentally non-visual work in which this element of transition and perceptibility resounds strongly, in my opinion, as an example of that change mentioned before,  and also as a declaration of intent of Tillmans’ poetics, “wanting to make this film” fictitious, as the ultimate desire to visualize the change, to understand its power and how things could continue to change, and so they do, changing our existence. Tillmans talks about his desire to make a hypothetical film that puts the technological process in perspective that has led us to rely on the computing power of the machines, by analyzing the first computers and devices up to the smartphone, an emblem of technology such as an integral part of our daily life, of our way of living. Tillmans wants to make a film “to help imagine what goes on in this powerful machine that is in your palm” and in achieving this concept, he wonders incredulously how this happened, so quickly, and how much the change has been perceived, by himself and by others “I certainly know: in my flat in London nothing was exchanged from 2000 until 2011 – and the internet got faster and faster, while the telephone cable was still just hanging outside and down the building. I want this film to try to allow myself to understand what goes on in this cable under the Atlantic. – This film should be about: Let us put into perspective, what a powerful instrument you have got in your hands”.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Argonaut, 2017. © Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin, and Maureen Paley, London.

Always detached from the conventional, far from what is traditionally shared and without sequential succession, Tillmans’ work expands and covers the entire surface of the rooms, in an experiential path that also includes more unusual locations, resulting in a real site specific installation in the making that, here in Brussels, in “Today is the first day” involves three decades of production including the latest developments of his research in the photographic, audio and video fields, in a spatial constellation specifically conceived for the spaces of the WIELS. 

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert
Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert

In the name of a conscious political conscience, which has always been one of his peculiar characteristics, Tillmans has lavished his creative commitment in various areas: from the artistic production to social commitment, from safeguarding democracy to defending the rights of minorities. As an artist, he has set himself the goal of grabbing the essence of the everyday world, and this is what he intends to “reproduce” in his works, assigning a primary role both to insignificant details, normally disregarded, and to majestic phenomena – of a concrete nature or tending to the sublime or the abstract – which in an upward motion extend vertically.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 231, 2012, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Alice Zucca

Part of his production is done without the use of cameras, negatives or films. The artist creates abstract works by manipulating the light on paper while working inside his dark room. And light and sound are essentially the cornerstones of the visitor’s experiential journey at WIELS. Tillmans uses various media like photography, video, sound, music, thus creating elaborate artistic concepts designed to be installations, which avoid any attempt at categorization and homologation and induce the observer to carefully scrutinize the whole and also every single element, to then elaborate his personal connection with the artistic output.

Wolfgang Tillmans, CLC 014, 2017, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Coming from the rational foundations that belong to German culture, Tillmans, since the end of the 80s, unties that element of rationality that’s inherent in its background by pushing the concept of photography beyond the limits of the existing definition, moving between the immaterial and the concrete and what governs rhythms and changes – the passage of time – and the political and social implications that mark its variations. By deepening the analysis of what exists, in all its real or apparent forms, Tillmans digs a gap in the internalization of the concept of change, and repeats it in forms that are always new. His works, might appear without a logical or guiding thread, but they reveal themselves, starting from the images of the early 90s, as a cross-section of society in the process of entering a new era.  A real, subjective reportage of the European underground. Tillmans immortalizes his generation, that of homosexual emancipation, of subcultures, clubs, electronic music and so on, through its daily life, defining and affirming a new way of conceiving documentary photography.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Chloe, 1995, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
Wolfgang Tillmans, Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, 1992, © the artist, courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London, David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

For Tillmans the change from analog to digital opened up new cognitive horizons, applicable both to his perception of reality and to its transposition in digital format. But the actual manipulation is one of the distinctive elements of most of the production of the German photographer, already at the end of the 90s, in fact, Tillmans starts experimenting with what we could rightly define the creation of photographs without the use of the camera, images produced directly in the darkroom, like the ones from the series “Silver”, are now visible as part of the exhibition “Today is the first day”.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Alice Zucca

The artist achieves the result by passing photographic paper through a processing machine without having it cleaned from chemical residues, dust and dirt, basically left over products from previous prints. At the WIELS, in the room where this series is exhibited, Tillmans works directly on the museum walls – sandblasting the exhibition walls until they reveal the concrete hidden under the layers of paint – a very interesting dialogue with the space that puts the emphasis on the materiality of the support, its change and its history and finally, more in depht, the non-neutrality of the white cube as an exhibition space. 

Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Philippe De Gobert
Wolfgang Tillmans, Today Is The First Day, WIELS, Brussels, 2020, installation view, Photo Alice Zucca

The discourse about abstract imagery continues among Tillmans’ most recent works, showing an abstract subject with text that poses a first-person question “How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?” Once again, through this sentence the point regarding the perception of the surrounding world, the relationship between us as alike and between us and our knowledge returns. It is a question that the artist asks himself but  he also asks the viewer of the work, it is evident here the importance that the artist gives to the viewer’s point of view that sets in motion his own reflection on the “new world”, which therefore changes, with the new ideas that we need to have formed, that we need to be able to think and understand and that define the relationship with the means which serve us to produce the formation of these new ideas themselves. It is a matter of individual perception on issues that concern our universal history and vice versa. This work is part of a series created using scans of already existing images and texts, which are in fact largely derived from the world of neuroscience. During the process, the light scans the original document several times and in this process Tillmans moves the document so as to create a distortion in its reproduction, movements that deeply alter the final result. Divergences that indicate here how in our era of fake news and post truth our perception is widely distorted.

Photo: Alice Zucca

Few contemporary artists have succeeded in placing the emphasis on the resonance of contemporary art as a “vehicle”, managing to capture and influence a generation as Wolfgang Tillmans did and continues to do, and more than ever in an era like ours in which the production of the image now seems obvious, when we rely on that powerful machine that is in our palm (the smartphone). Tillmans presents us with an imagery that he is able to put always under a different light, asking himself what creating images means in a world increasingly saturated with images, highlighting the singularity of the image through peculiar ways of producing it and amplifying it. Each of the works, in this highly successful exhibition at WIELS, engages in an intricate system of relationships – between space and work, time, installation setup and its subjects – to involve the viewer, as we have seen, as an active part of the dialogue in an experience of connection that is rooted in the perceptive process of “looking”, of “seeing”, which not only expands the conventional ways of approaching photography and its practice but addresses the fundamental question of the visible world and the limits of what can – when, how and why – be seen.

Due to the Covid-19 emergency WIELS might be closed until further notice. We invite you to check their website to find the latest updates.