Wolfgang Tillmans, review by Bryony Bond
On the periphery of this year’s Liverpool Biennial is a surprising and deft series of interventions made by Wolfgang Tillmans in the Walker Art Gallery’s permanent collections. Invited to respond to the Walker’s impressive collection of art ranging from the medieval period to the twentieth century, Tillmans has chosen locations for twelve works, removing or repositioning other pieces around his own.
At first glance, Tillmans’ work has a natural disposition to comparisons with traditional genres of art, falling as it does into familiar categories of portraiture, still life, landscape and his more recent works of abstracts and monochromes. But at the Walker Tillmans has resisted such literal relationships, and instead draws more evocative and generous connections between the historical and the contemporary.
In the Romanticism & Early 19th Century room, one wall of the gallery now stands much emptier than the rest. Two paintings and two photographs hang alone, revealing a patchwork of varying red rectangles on the fabric of the wall: the shadows of previous hangs. One of the paintings is almost completely abstract, a landscape barely discernable through a hazy light that fills the painting. A late work by JMW Turner, the fine vertical cracks across the painting’s surface identified it as one of a group of canvases found rolled up in his studio at the time of his death. The second larger painting, depicting the moonlit ruins of Holyrood Chapel, is a work by Louis Daguerre, an artist perhaps better known as one of the inventors of photography than as a painter.
The inserted photographs are two abstract works by Tillmans, one a red work whose folds have cast shadows across the paper when exposed in the dark room, and the other a completely black work with one fold bisecting the paper. The folds of Tilmans’ photographs resonate with the cracks of the Turner, disruptions belying the surface illusion of the picture plane. The whole wall itself works as an installation, the photographs, faded fabric and paintings engaging in a dialogue on abstraction, light and the physicality of painting and photography.
Other installations throughout the galleries variously make formal connections; a huge Tillmans’ print replacing a tapestry exactly the same size, or they create conversations between artworks; like the crumpled faded pink t-shirt in a Tillmans’ work matching the colour of a silk dress in an eighteenth century portrait , or Tilmans’ faxed punk gazing out at one of the first sculptures of a manual labourer in Britain.
Throughout, Tilmans creates asymmetrical and uneven installations by removing selected works in a gallery and leaving others in their original positions, then inserting his own photographs. These highly authored configurations are a strong statement, but rather than overpower the works around them Tillmans’ tactics have a lightness of touch, activating the spaces and the artworks within them. As Tillmans says of the Old Masters, “I have learnt to see them as contemporary in their times and recognise that they were dealing with questions of art and life through what one might consider the straightjacket of religious subject matter. When you look past that you’ll see them as commentary on their point in history.” Tillmans’ interventions have a knack of making you do just that.
Wolfgang Tilmans, Serpentine Gallery, London