at a certain point during the wolfgang tillmans exhibition currently at the tate modern the viewer is presented with a large abstraction, several metres high; a dull, yellow ochre print with black squiggled lines scouring its surface made by exposing the film to moving bright light sources. There are no texts on the walls of the exhibition space to guide your analysis, nothing but the pithy insights provided by the small accompanying pamphlet. for me, however, due to my background in neuroscience, there was an instant association: the first drawings of neurones made by santiago ramon y cajal after his pioneering of the silver staining technique developed by camillo golgi. tillman’s image is remarkably similar to the silver stains, from the noxious amber background to the writhing black tadpoles, arranged almost perfectly into cortical layers.
the brain and cognition certainly feature heavily throughout the exhibition. dotted around on long tables under glass are newspaper articles and scientific findings on cognitive biases and their neural underpinnings. he is a man fascinated by the innate drives that prevent us from seeing other perspectives and thinking logically. this makes a good deal of sense given his involvement with the remain campaign in the brexit referendum, the first major political event in a string of many that shook the world last year and laid bare the irrationality and emotional decision making that is the human experience. the remain posters and leaflets he produced are presented towards the end of the exhibition.
for tillmans, the political is personal, and he invites us at several junctures to relate ourselves and the current political climate (the show is entitled ‘2017’) to history at large by providing insights into the timescales of major modern historical events. ‘now 1980 is as long ago as world war II was in 1980,’ reads one such datum. in the corner of a room full of homoerotic photographs is a series of portraits and interviews with russian lgbtq activists. he is not too concerned that his politics might put you off his work; for him they are inseparable. in every single shot, in every room we get a better sense of the man. after all, he did personally curate and design the exhibition. in one room we are treated to three tracks from a band he happens to like, an oddly confessional choice. but in every photo there is a piece of tillman; his sympathetic gaze can be felt in every room.
an acquaintance of mine remarked that the exhibition felt too ‘all over the place,’ and while the subject matter on first glance appears to be quite scattershot, each image contributes to an elusive truth about the modern condition. a predatory car headlight, a plant stem on a newspaper, the voracious gushing of a waterfall all come together to point to something within contemporary humankind. and what could be more indicative of our minds, of our times, than a fracturing and speeding up of subject matter; a flood of information.
tillmans is an incredible talent, and the work showcased is of a scope I can’t recall ever having seen in another artist. there is no sacrificing of technical quality in the process of transmitting his message. each piece is capable of standing on its own, but together they tell an incredible story. in the hurly burly of 2017, this was a much needed pause for reflection and meditation, by pointing his lens at everything, tillmans shows us ourselves.