The political art of Wolfgang Tillmans

This wryly understated show at the Tate explores the meaning of beauty.

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"A camera gives a good reason to be allowed to look at things," said Wolfgang Tillmans in 2001. This landmark solo show at the Tate Modern documents his increasing politicisation since then, and is his first major exhibition in the UK since winning the Turner Prize at the turn of the Millennium. A lot has happened in those seventeen years, and especially in the last few months, that seems to demand a direct response, yet Tillmans sets out to prove in this show that the simple act of looking at something still has powerful political significance.

Making activist art can be a tricky business, as Tillmans found out last year when he created and distributed a series of pro-Remain posters in the lead up to the EU referendum. For someone so adept at switching between genres and mediums, from installation to film, analogue to digital, portraiture to abstraction to sculpture, the posters were curiously heavy-handed. Vague slogans that seemed designed to lament rather than persuade (“what is lost is lost forever”) made Tillmans’s beautiful abstract images of clouds and skies feel unfortunately like underwhelming ‘inspirational’ stock photos.

What a joy it is to discover then that this heavy hand is largely absent from Tillmans’s new exhibition, which allows the politics to flow naturally from his visual instinct rather than the other way round. There is, for example, a wryly understated focus on the security rituals of international airports, and the absurd paranoia surrounding mobility that has become the norm: in one photograph a signposted display cabinet in a U.K. airport, full of bottles of shampoo, engages in a listless conversation with itself: “What is a liquid? Gel, cream or paste”, while another sternly warns that, “aviation security is no laughing matter”. Most of us might pass over the dull-seeming contents of an airport interior, yet Tillmans is able to conjure up and critique contemporary anxiety by confronting the viewer with what they have forgotten to look at – what they may not feel allowed to look at.

The latter is certainly the case with some pictures in the exhibition, including the surprisingly majestic print of a testicle escaping from someone’s pants, and another Courbet-inspired portrait elsewhere. Tillmans, he says, wants us to think about, “beauty and what is acceptable as beauty,” and how these kinds of aesthetic judgements are often really political judgements. Tillmans himself uses the example of a photograph of two men kissing, and the variable reaction that such an image still might get today, depending on the context and the audience.

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These political points are achieved by subtle interactions between images, repeated motifs and themes – Tillmans even does away with the usual labels next to each image, to better encourage the flow of associations between them. Most images, additionally, are unframed, fixed to the wall by tape or bulldog clip. The result is a stream of large and small photographs that is artfully managed and meticulously planned by Tillmans, who curates his own exhibitions, obsessively playing with picture arrangements first in an architectural maquette of the space and then in the exhibition rooms themselves to achieve the right balance.

Heavy-handedness threatens to creep in and disrupt this balance only once more, with Tillmans’ ‘Truth Study Centre’ installation. These displays juxtapose, on a network of plywood tables, images and fragments of newspaper and academic articles which all explore, in one way or another, the peculiar relationship towards truth that our political era is said to have. This collection of materials has all the qualities of a late-night Wikipedia binge, in the best and worst possible senses. What is most interesting is how all this source material is transformed into Tillmans’ complex, powerful and varied photographic work – the articles themselves seem less illuminating.

The photographer announced at the opening to the exhibition that he wanted everyone to be “encouraged by the curiosity I have for the world,” and that his work was by definition political because “the private and political cannot be separate.” Some will find this evasive and self-centred, others will find it hits the mark – the private lives of gay men, like Tillmans, for example, have been unfortunately and destructively considered a political matter for a long time.

Wolfgang Tillmans is at the Tate Modern until 11 June.