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Wolfgang Tillmans / Galerie Buchholz, Cologne

Galerie Buchholz’s Cologne space is marking the 25th anniversary of its collaboration with Wolfgang Tillmans with a retrospective exhibition spanning the time period. The sinking sensation one might instinctively feel upon hearing news of a new solo exhibition to mark an anniversary, perhaps akin to reading an interview with a musician vowing that the next album will be a return to the roots, is certainly understandable, and the overloaded, sometimes didactic, Tillmans retrospective at the Tate Modern earlier this year would certainly provide reason for the viewer to be wary. Standing at the Tate before the glass display cases with psychology text books opened imperiously to specific passages on topics like epistemic closure and news clippings documenting the miserable events of the present political discourse evoked the unwelcome association of a once-prominent bumpersticker in which one dog angrily points to a book laid open before another dog and shouts “Read Dammit!”. So I will admit to coming with low expectations, dread even, for the next logical step after Tillmans’ high-minded but futile aesthetic interventions into the the Brexit vote. While critical skepticism may be a virtue, contrarianism is not. The Buchholz show offers glimpses of Tillmans at his best. Certainly there is a whiff of nostalgia, particularly in the images from the 80s and 90s that appear. Photography, as many others have noted, is an inherently elegiac medium, and, to an extent, Tillmans has always traded in a kind of anticipatory nostalgia, not a sense of longing for a past, but a sense of longing for the creation of a memory. With Tillmans’ best work, photography is less of a declarative medium, and more of a propositional medium and the Buchholz exhibition offers a number ore examples of this quality, this is particularly evident in his images of demonstrations. His best images of this kind, for example an upward shot of a protest sign in Berlin declaring “We Existed, We Exist. We Will Exist.”, may lack the crystalline iconicity of, for example, the work of Gordon Parks, but in that the work is less frontal, it becomes more participatory.   

Installation view, Galerie Buchholz Cologne

Tillmans’ ability to tap into a sensibility that is nebulous but affecting, perhaps ecstatic melancholia is a succinct way of expressing it, at its most potent in the recent images on show. A number of “not yet titled” c-prints expressed this feeling masterfully, two men millimetres from a kiss that is as inevitable as it is eternally deferred, casually contemplative portraits of friends and associates. Tillmans also manages to use the retrospective format to generate image-internal narratives, particularly with regard to a set of prints of sea- and beachscapes, including one of Tillmans himself disappearing out into the waves. The sea first appears in an inkjet print from 2017 entitled “Wolkenbruch” in the gallery’s first room; the calm cloudscape, inevitably, summons the extensive history of German seascape painting, but as the images pile up, as in the rough waves of “Weathering” (2017) in the second room, and an ecstatic beach sequence later, the viewer can construct myriad notions about mythology, nature, individuality, cyclicality of time. Tillmans’ gift for beatifying the mundane and the marginal, in terms of narratives, biography, and even simple materiality, licenses this kind of openness. Tillmans never seems to force an emotional response on the viewer, and while some might take this for a kind of bet-hedging, it also creates space for the kind of kinship between image and viewer that the best photography elicits.      

Wolfgang Tillmanns
Neven-DuMont-Strasse 17
50667 Koln
Until 7 April

Images courtesy of Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/ Cologne
Cover: Wolfgang Tillmans
“Mi-shell FIOW”, 2017