Dates matter in Tate Modern’s vast exhibition of the work of Wolfgang Tillmans. The show is titled ‘2017’, a gesture clearly intended to fix this show in a particular moment in time. But other dates appear scattered throughout too, offering up a different type of grappling with the present. “Now 1980 is as long ago as World War II was in 1980,” says one printout of text. Another reads: “The beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 is now 14 years ago. In 14 years it will be year 2031.” Like inspirational quotes listed on Facebook, these statements have the appearance of profundity but are in many ways just a numbers game. Though, combined with everything else in the Tillmans show, they hint at a world filled with intrigue and complexity, where everything is connected.
Taken individually, Tillmans’ images can seem equally throwaway. The variety of his photography is bewildering. People dancing, a close-up of a car’s headlights, a portrait of Oscar Niemeyer, border crossings, a man’s buttocks and balls: all are welcome here. On their own the photos can seem fashiony, fun, frivolous. But together they become a summation of our world, dirty and messy, but interesting.
Themes can be extracted. The show offers an examination of the state of photography itself. Opening it is a room full of works that demonstrate how digital photography has offered us a chance to capture the world in ways previously impossible. Sendeschluss/End of Broadcast (2014) shows the snow pattern of static on a TV, whereas another shot taken on Sunset Boulevard from a moving vehicle reveals a pristine, unblurred moment. Elsewhere Tillmans makes playful use of film, resulting in beautiful abstract images blown up large. All these works could perhaps be written off as just technical feats but they also fit into Tillmans’ wider project of capturing a moment in time, a world always changing.
Politics feature heavily. One room is centred on Tillmans’ ‘truth study center’ project from 2005, which sees the artist mix his own images with clippings and printouts from the media, both online and in print. The juxtapositions are often playful and provocative, with Tillmans calling attention to how the media and individuals vehemently assert the ‘truth’ as they see it. And all this 12 years before the outcry over ‘fake news’ that exists today.
Even older works by Tillmans that may once have been seen as simple documentary shots become political in the context of today’s society. His happy photos of people of clubbing, or just hanging out and expressing themselves, take on a new urgency in a climate of nightclubs shutting down and attitudes over race, gender and sexuality hardening across the world.
Tillmans was overtly political on behalf of Remain in the run up to the UK EU referendum vote and posters created by the artist for the campaign are on display here, as part of a room also showing magazines, exhibition catalogues and books featuring his work. It is refreshing, especially in the context of Tate Modern, to see such formats displayed with as much reverence as his photos, and these demonstrate Tillmans’ democratic approach to distributing his art.
Elsewhere there is a room that he has curated himself, where visitors can listen to the recorded music of the band Colourbox. Tillmans’ reasoning here is that studio recorded music is rarely afforded the public attention it deserves, in contrast to the live experience. In both spaces – and in a corner reserved for documenting the shows he has held at his own gallery Between Bridges – there is an acknowledgement that art today is constantly happening outside expected spaces, and that museums in turn could and should be used to exhibit the unexpected.
In ‘2017’, Tillmans takes us skimming and jumping around the world, showing us scenes that are sometimes poignant, sometimes emotional, sometimes everyday, though never ordinary. The show is restless and bitty, and at times so concentrated on the surface it is hard to be sure there is anything that profound lying underneath. But such is life in 2017.
Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 is on show at Tate Modern until June 11; tate.org.uk