Tag Archives: art and photography

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017, a world of fascination

Wolfgang Tillmans’ current exhibition is on at Tate Modern in London U.K. until 11 June 2017. There are 14 themed rooms filled with work from the period 2003 to the present, so not a true retrospective and Tillmans isn’t presenting it as such.

Tillmans uses the height available in the Tate Modern's exhibition space. photo ©Malcolm Raggett

Tillmans uses the height available in the Tate Modern’s exhibition space. photo ©Malcolm Raggett

He’s saying ‘here’s what I’ve been fascinated by over the last 13 years  and what’s inspired me to make my work.’ This period coincides with the widespread rise in digital technology both in photographic reproduction and in life in general. This has acted as inspiration and catalyst for a lot of the work in this exhibition. For example, there are two mural-size high resolution images of the ‘chaotic analogue static’ pattern displayed on a digital TV when it is not tuned. These invite close examination and ask when is a picture not a picture? In fact ‘where are the limits?’ is a frequent refrain in Tillmans’ work.

Mural sized images invite close examination. photo © Malcolm Raggett

Mural sized images invite close examination. photo © Malcolm Raggett

Tillmans has had a long-held belief in the purity of the unframed image (his words) [1] and many of the images in the show are clipped to or taped to the walls. There are some framed images though, and it is interesting the effect this has, especially when the two types are mixed: the unframed images seem to be more about the subject and idea and feel like a raw work-in-progress whereas the framed prints have the air of stand-alone finished art objects. Initially this juxtaposing of framed and unframed is unfamiliar and disquieting but is part of Tillmans questioning of how meaning and charge can be incorporated into an industrially produced image, a question that flows through the whole exhibition and extends from the theorist Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura [2].

There is an old aphorism that goes ‘never let the facts stand in the way of a good story’ that applies in varying proportion to many parts of the media, but in 2004 it was show beyond reasonable doubt that the widely-held belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which was the main justification for invasion by western powers, was incorrect. For those who had any lingering doubt it demonstrated that governments, too, could not be relied on to produce accurate information and that any criticism of the media by government was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. There were also numerous lower profile cases of misinformation by vested interests around the globe and it was probably Tillmans increasing awareness of this that prompted him to set up his Truth Study Center [sic]. He originally declared that the Truth Study Center  was set up to examine ‘our desire to find a universal truth and the impossibility of doing so.'[3]. In late 2005 he released a book of the same title and included work in an exhibition at The Serpentine Gallery, London, made up of

groups of photographs, cuttings from newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, advertisements, all kinds of printed matter, which he presented not on the wall but under glass on narrow custom-made wooden tables. Under the collective title Truth Study Center, they drew attention to the exercise of power behind the ideologies of Islamic fundamentalism, Catholicism, capitalism. He has subsequently included a version in various installations, adapting the subjects depending on the venue. [4]

So even in the early days of the Truth Study Center there was an intent to reveal specific alternatives to any official truths or myths, and he departed from a purely photographic medium to do so. The continuing need for such work is only emphasised by, for example, the current battle between the US presidency and the media over ‘facts’. There is certainly plenty of material for Tillmans and he uses it to strong effect in room 4 of his current show; it is the largest and most densely-packed of the rooms. The presentation is the same as at the Serpentine with cuttings, photos and printed matter in glass-topped tables laid out in a way that invites the viewer to browse. It would be easy to spend an hour in this room alone if you are happy to read text as well as pictures. It is informative, fascinating and worrying. Tillmans reveals, if we didn’t know already, that the only ‘universal truth’ is that there is no such thing!

Abstract images have long had a fascination for Tillmans. He started experimenting with abstraction while at school [5] and sees it as a process of taking photography to its maximum potential [1] unfettered by the requirement to be representational, an assumption that viewers frequently make when looking at a photographically produced image. Many of Tillmans’ abstracts are not even made with a camera and yet such is the human desire for metaphor that most people will try to find a representation of this world in pure abstract photographs. It reminds me of this or that is a frequent reaction to abstraction, which shows that the viewer is engaging their imagination when faced with the image and not just passively accepting the image as-is. Only one room is devoted to abstract images, though they occur throughout the exhibition, suggesting that Tillmans has reduced his interest in this area of work. But then something has to give way to the variety of other work, and too much abstraction is exhausting for the viewer, so although I enjoy Tillmans’ abstracts, I think he has the balance about right in this show.

The exhibition notes are a brief but well-written introduction to each room. Photo © Malcolm Raggett

The exhibition notes are a brief but well-written introduction to each room. Photo © Malcolm Raggett

With fourteen rooms and at least this many themes, there is so much complexity in the show that a lot more could be said. I’m going to finish up, though, with my last thought about Tillmans’ fascination with materiality and particularly paper. As an artist using photography it is not surprising that he’s interested in the material world: cameras are an exquisite tool for examining this. Less obvious to me is his claimed interest in the material qualities of paper [5]; paper is used extensively throughout the exhibition – it is the main base for all the works, but with a few exceptions it is not the materiality of paper that features here, at least not to my perception. As someone who is also fascinated by paper I would love to see a Tillmans show devoted to this topic. Maybe next time?

2017 is an engaging exhibition by an eclectic artist that is well worth visiting. There are lots of ways to read it at different levels; It is certainly worth going beyond the themes of the rooms and thinking about other unwritten strands that span the rooms. I’m looking forward to Wolfgang Tillmans’ next show already!

 

  1. Tillmans, W. 2010. From the Archive: In Conversation-Wolfgang Tillmans. https://photoworks.org.uk/conversation-wolfgang-tillmans/. Accessed 2017-02-16.
  2. Benjamin, W. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (translated).  https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm. Accessed 2017-02-18.
  3. Anon. Taschen marketing material https://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/photography/all/01363/facts.wolfgang_tillmans_truth_study_center.htm. Accessed 2017-0219.
  4. Jobey, L. 2010. Wolfgang Tillmans: the Lightness of Being. in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jun/26/wolfgang-tillmans-serpentine-photographs-exhibition. Accessed 2017-02-19.
  5. Anon. 2017. Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 Exhibition Notes. Tate Modern.
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Clare Strand: performance photography

Clare Strand's Getting Better and Worse at the Same TimeGrimaldi Gavin Gallery, London, are currently showing Clare Strand‘s latest photographic works (ends 6 June 2015), which they describe as revealing “Strand’s discordant relationship with the photographic medium, exploring its promise and limitations through unexpected and eccentric means.” Such a description has me rubbing my hands in anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed: I loved the sense of directed play and the irreverence towards “art”, which is something I wasn’t expecting at a gallery situated in an area of London renowned for being rather affluent and well-heeled.

Although there isn’t much time left to see the show, leaving it until the end has the advantage that you will see more output from The Entropy Pendulum. This pendulum has a foot designed to scour the surface of a print in a central stripe. The print is changed each day and the one from the previous day put on display in one of the 35 waiting frames. The original images are not Strand’s but have clearly been chosen for their centred composition, which means the pendulum abrades and corrupts the original meaning, giving it a new meaning. Although I could intepret the images individually I couldn’t make any sense of the sequence, narrative or developing concept, which I think is a trick missed. Though it’s entirely conceivable that it was just me who missed this final point.

Clare Strand's Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

Clare Strand’s Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

The Entropy Pendulum in action

The Entropy Pendulum in action. I was attracted to the dust generated by the abrasion of the print’s surface

Rubbings is as close as Strand gets to conventional photography: she photographed the bifurcation points of trees, printed them life-size then pinned them back on the trees for a time thus letting nature create the art, and she photographed the prints on the trees from a little further away. On display were the now-weathered prints from the trees twinned with the record of the work in progress. As an experiment in random decay it’s OK I suppose, but what elevated it for me was its unintended juxtaposition with the concurrent exhibition by Robin Maddock and Benedicte Kurzen at TJ Boulting Gallery, which I saw the same day (see my review here). The latter also examined time/decay of photographic objects, and the two works together were particularly resonant.

The Happenstance Generator went even further into randomness with a selection of small images blown about as if by the wind followed by a short period to allow them to briefly settle before being blown about into another random sequence.

The Happenstance Generator

The Happenstance Generator (and a strikingly red sofa)

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log. Not content with playing with photography, Strand is also happy for us to see the artwork warts-an’-all!

As a microcosm of the random images we see everyday blurring past us and occasionally visible to our conscious mind, it makes its point well. I had expected to see a random display of images that the viewer could develop a story from during the quiet dwell time of the apparatus but unfortunately the dwell time was too brief for me to grasp more than a couple of images before they were whisked off again into the vortex of the machine, which is a shame because a small adjustment to the timer could have allowed this extra level of interaction and engagement of the viewer’s imagination. So a great concept falling just short of great implementation, well for me at any rate.

There were a couple of other works on show but I’ve gone on long enough. I call her art Performance Photography in the sense of performance art and in this too she is pushing forward conceptually. Suffice to say that I think Clare has a playful and insightful imagination that resonates with my own ‘world view’, and I look forward to seeing more of her work!

OnLandscape conference: craft versus art

OnLandscape, an on-line photography magazine, organised a weekend conference from 21-23 November 2014. I don’t think of myself as a landscape photographer but walking and photography have been synonymous for most of my life so I thought I’d attend. Here are my thoughts.

It's a fungus. No, it's a highly eroded landscape. No it's avast underground city. Yes, it's a metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

It’s a fungus! No, it’s a highly eroded landscape! No it’s a vast underground city! Yes, it’s a metaphor!! ©Malcolm Raggett

A glance at the OnLandscape Web site and the type of photographs that many of the contributing photographers take shows the narrow definition of “Landscape” to be expected at the conference. We’re talking “Natural Landscape” here: the urban or built environment is anathema to most of these photographers, as is any sort of environmental activism. The overwhelming aesthetic derives from that long thread stretching back from today’s Joe Cornish and Paul Gallagher (colour and black & white respectively) through Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams to the American Sublime and the English Landscape painters.

Most of the conference speakers (all male, I note) talked about the business, craft and practicalities of their photography, though David Ward considered cultural origins of colour, Rafael Rojas gave an excellent analysis of his approach to fine art photography and Jem Southam showed how he used the photographic process to satisfy his curiosity about contested spaces, narrative and metaphor. Southam’s talk was the closest we got to offering an alternative aesthetic in landscape photography and, judging from my conversations with other delegates afterwards, caused strong division of opinions amongst those who heard it.

Pushing a little harder at this division, there are those who think that a photograph should depict the subject in front of the camera in the most conventionally beautiful way possible. The recent winner of Take-a-View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year was held as an example of this, and two of his prints displayed at the conference did show a distinct tendency towards oil-painting qualities. I didn’t gather opinions from everyone at the conference but my perception is that the majority of those present fell into this “conventional beauty” camp. The concept that what a photograph is of and what a photograph is about can be entirely different hasn’t occurred to many viewers, or that a series of images can be greater than the sum of the parts was only acknowledged in a superficial way (such as a book being a collection of someone’s best photographs).

orange cone by yellow rape

Is it a road cone by a field of rape? Or is it a king leading his army into battle? Oh no, it’s another metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

The photograph has a powerful hold in many peoples’ minds as a reproduction of reality. Much has been written to dispel this myth but still it persists, perhaps because that is how most of us serve our photographic apprenticeship: recording photographically as an aid to memory. Yet one of the characteristics that is unique to our species (as far as we currently know) is our use of metaphor. It seems to be inate, starting with children seeing clouds that are shaped like animals through fictions that represent real life, to lines on paper that represent gods. Why then can’t aspiring photographers make the same associations in theirs and other photographs? Perhaps because the photographer never intended it? Or because the viewer never thought to push themselves outside their normal mental comfort zone?

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

I wonder if Jem Southam’s unuttered plea for delegates to think more deeply about their photography, to let go of the camera-as-craft and use it as a tool of enquiry, will have fallen on deaf ears. If a few people are encouraged along this line of thought then I think the conference will have been a success. It certainly helped me to see the different levels and diversity there is even within the narrowly defined scope of the conference. The conference was subtitled “A Meeting of Minds”; I do hope those minds have been encourages out of their comfort zones!

Nadav Kander and the aestheticisation of landscape

Nadav Kander’s latest landscape series “Dust” is exhibited at Flowers, Kingsland Road, London until 11 October 2014.

Nadav Kander, Dust.  Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

Nadav Kander, Dust.
Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

All photographers make an aesthetic decision when they choose a viewpoint and frame a photo, but aetheticisation goes beyond this to making “pleasingly beautiful” or “idealised”1 landscapes. It’s a sliding scale, with photographers like Daido Moriami and his snapshot approach at one end to the over-saturated pointless sunset at the other. In between there are professionals and amateurs emulating masters of the past, copying masters of the present or genuinely exploring and pushing forward photographic landscape aesthetic.

Artists making a living by landscape photography are restricted by their market; they tend to photograph in a way that will sell. This frequently results in the commodification of a mythic landscape using lowest-common-denominator aesthetics. So as a professional artist/photographer Nadav Kander has a difficult path to tread with “Dust”. In this work he chooses to document a “dirty” landscape – radioactive ruins on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia where atomic bombs and missiles were tested – in his characteristic quiet light reminiscent of the Dusseldorf School (Gursky, Ruff, Struth et. al.). Sometimes he chooses a camera position that only shows one side of a building, giving a static 2-dimensional impression but more commonly he shows us 2 sides, giving perspective, a little more dynamism and a greater sense of reality. He gets in there and shows us individual buildings or at least what’s left of them after an atomic blast or quake.  Thankfully there are no aerial photographs, which I find too distant and abstracting to get me involved. Kander’s landscapes are under-stated, controlled and consistent but not so consistent that they become boringly repetitive. They engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally without bludgeoning them with a message. Given the subject, I find his images err on the too-comfortable aesthetic side, but like all good art the work poses questions rather than provides answers so I can forgive his tendency to over-aestheticise. Having said that, he stays safely within his own photographic aesthetic to great effect: the viewer can almost hear the Geiger counter clicking away in the background. If you like Kander’s previous work you should be impressed with this new one. If you don’t know his work I highly recommend seeing Dust.

There’s an interesting interview with Nadav Kander on Vimeo and there’s a (slightly expensive) book. If you can’t get to the exhibition, do check out the book.

 


1 dictionary.com

Andreas Gursky: Photography is Strictly Prohibited

There’s a truism that says First Impressions Count. My first impression of the Andreas Gursky exhibition of photographs at White Cube Bermondsey is of the two notices saying “Photography is strictly prohibited”. So prominent were these notices that I thought this was the title of the show rather than a command to visitors.

White Cube entrance

OK, I admit it, I Photoshopped “Photography is strictly prohibited” onto the wall, but you get the idea! It could also read “White Cube Welcomes Adverse Publicity”

So negative is this first thickly-ironic impression that my effort to overcome it was not entirely successful. Several large rooms were filled with Gursky’s ceiling-height photographs which impress with their size and detail, but I’m sorry to say that this isn’t enough: my lasting impression is that Gursky’s photography has gone off the boil; it no longer pushes boundaries – it has become comfortable. Perhaps this makes a better living in today’s art market, but I was underwhelmed by this exhibition. There were 4 images that did make me stop and look though. These were of superheroes in pensive mood: comic book characters showing their human side; telling us that having super powers isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A great metaphor for this exhibition: my expectations of Gursky’s superhero status is rather misplaced, and this is his way of telling me. Nicely put Andreas!

E-magazine: 43mm

There are an increasing number of on-line magazines devoted to aspects of photography. One that has caught my attention recently is 43mm Magazine, published by TZIPAC, which claims to be “an organisation who is crazy about art and photography”. If, like me, you are more interested in the image than in how it was made, or the meaning over the content of a photograph, you should find something to interest you within its virtual covers. I’m guessing that the title is a reference to the diagonal measurement of the 35mm film frame and hence the focal length of a “normal ” lens for that format, but the mag is not about equipment or technique.

43mm e-magazine Issue 1

43mm e-magazine Issue 1

Issue 1 contained results of several competitions and work by Sarah Jarrett and Meghan Ogilvie

43mm e-magazine Issue 2

43mm e-magazine Issue 2

Issue 2 has a monochrome theme with work by Larry Louie, Dominic Rouse, Clayton Bastiani, Scott Gilbank, Uwe Langmann and Jackie Ranken.

The magazine is published on the issuu platform, which I don’t particularly like (the page navigation is crude and there is shading to imitate a gutter down the centre of the page, which is an unnecessary visual interference to images that spread across the page). Despite this, the content is varied and high-quality. the publication is rated as 18+ as some articles may contain adult material – in the name of Art, of course.