Visiting 2017, Wolfgang Tillmans’s recently opened an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, one gets particularly impressed by the portraits included.
Tillmans’s models often look slightly awkward, uncomfortable in front of a camera that ruthlessly registers blemishes, attitudes, and feelings. Whether these portraits portray friends, youngsters clubbing, the singer Frank Ocean, the architect Oscar Niemeyer or the artist himself, they manage to present people in their human fragility and ordinary nature. Because of this reason, these photographs carry an unusual openness, deeply engaging with the visitors.
The train of thoughts and doubts that fills our everyday is offered to the viewers, as plain as it is, on the walls.
The concept of “Einfühlung”, translated in English with “empathy”, is most commonly used to describe the engagement of the viewer in front of an artwork. When this happens, thanks to an emotional correspondence, an invisible movement between the artwork and the viewer takes place: the work, so to speak, is “felt into” the viewer. The primary condition to these dynamics is openness. Before receiving the artwork in himself, the viewer needs to find a crevice in it, to get into it. In Tillmans’s portraits, little anxieties, sudden recollections that make us smile, ideas too often dismissed… they can all be found behind the gazes of the artist’s models, opening small fissures to the viewer, who recognizes him- or herself in them. The incoherent train of thoughts and doubts that fills our everyday life is offered to the viewers, as plain as it is, on the walls.
Etymologically, the word “vulnerable” comes from the same Latin root of “wound”. And wounds are always breaches, putting in contact the unknown fragility of the inside with the infectious reality outside. (Although Tillmans acknowledges the ephemeral nature of his prints when exhibited in a show, usually taped directly on the wall or attached to it through binder clips, paradoxically, he never pins his photographs, thus avoiding to puncture the surface of his images).
Very often, the focus in the picture is pushed from the centre to the edges, catalyzing a centrifugal movement that once again emphasises the openness of the image.
Look at Collum, 2011, a portrait of Tillmans’ former assistant, Karl Kolbitz, which is a great example of openness and a very sensual photograph at once.
Everything that one would expect from a traditional portrait is denied. With the exception of one ear, Karl’s facial features are somewhere else that is outside the edges of the images. (To stress this point, on the bottom right corner, even the logo on the hoodie worn by Karl is cut off, although we are still able to recognize it, picturing it in full in our mind. A quick look back at the ear reveals that even that is slightly trimmed at the top).
With this first expectation frustrated, the eyes are drawn to the delicate architecture of diagonal lines created by Karl’s neck. The contrast between the dark colour of the sweatshirt and Karl’s pale skin is reinforced by the similarities in texture between the nubby inside of the hood and the sharply shaved nape, both titillating tactile memories. In between the brightest point of light and the darkest area of the image, the veins in Karl’s neck emerge, modulated by shadows, gently affirming the sensuality of a body whose identity is denied.
In a delicate analogy, the portrait sits on the wall next to an almost pictorialist photograph of a solitary white chrysanthemum on a black background.
Indeed, it is through analogies like this one and thanks to the visual complexity of his set-ups that Tillmans preserves the vulnerability of the pictures, their ability to be “felt into”.
2017 is a masterful example in this sense: iconic pictures and old favourites have been re-arranged in new combinations, grouped in clusters carefully organised on the walls, enlarged, mixed together, paired with newspaper clippings, magazine spreads and catalogues. The images float in the exhibition space in the same way memories and thoughts flow in the mind, constantly coming back, always re-presenting themselves in different configurations.
In times of division and mistrust, Tillmans keeps on talking about inclusiveness and empathy. A gentle reminder that beauty can be found even in vulnerability.