‘Say you’re in if you’re in. What is lost is lost forever’. The posters covering the entrance of Maureen Paley in East London alert us to Wolfgang Tillmans’ latest London show: a very literal call to arms from an artist who, with his outspoken resistance to Brexit, has become an unlikely candidate for the art world’s most forthright political voice over the past few months. Where the meaning of Tillmans’ work is usually extracted through context, by his careful placing of one image next to another, here the message is spelt out – as unequivocal as it is urgent.
With studios in both Berlin and London, Tillmans has a professional as well as personal investment in the European Union and the titles of his pieces carry the force and concision of poetry: ‘The state we’re in. I refuse to be your enemy’. Tillmans has never been an artist afraid of engaging with the political, even if up to now it’s been largely coded. His representations of lives lived on society’s margins, whether countercultural and queer, have steadily helped move these conversations into the art world’s mainstream over the past twenty years.
On the whole the visual work functions with greater subtlety than the titles, and the two don’t always gel. Throughout the exhibition a more powerful motif is that of borders, both literal and metaphorical. Within a cluster of images, we see a row of clinically lit customs desks at an airport. Elsewhere, a large, eerie image of a seascape in monochrome highlights the ambiguities of Britain’s geographical borders. So too is there a tangle of medical tubes filled with blood, suggesting the crossing of a corporeal border, and emphasising the base, biological kinship we share across countries and continents. He doubles down on the homogeneity of everyday, material details – a dying house plant in a generic office space, a staircase, two friends hunched over a bottle of beer and a cigarette.
In doing this he surveys the very quotidian parallels between Europe and Britain, a fascinating complement to the broad, statistics-led rhetoric of his political grandstanding. The giant seascape is particularly striking. Another of Tillmans’ posters highlights the advancements made by the E.U. in securing peace between European neighbours ‘after centuries of bloodshed’. Tillmans’ invocation of the English Channel as an ominous harbinger of political unease echoes the historic fascination of British artists with this volatile stretch of sea – from the militaristic splendour of Queen Elizabeth I’s armada portrait, to J.M.W. Turner’s turbulent visions of the Channel from Margate.
The exhibition is both coloured and to some extent overshadowed by its political context. After the vote, as Westminster turns itself upside down, the show carries an additional, Cassandra-like poignancy. It is a little difficult, however, to reconcile the sweeping, confrontational stance of his posters with the nuance of his work with images, and one occasionally wishes that Tillmans had stuck to a more consistent format. Although his posters and titles are admirable in their passion and political grandstanding, the restraint and precision of his photographic arrangements alone provide a more persuasive lamentation of the losses we face during and after this historic split.