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“Rebuilding the future” with Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans – An IMMA Exhibition


This week, international photographer Wolfgang Tillmans was appointed the new chair of the London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts; the Circular looks back at his exhibition in Dublin, last year.

Walking through the porch of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the visitor finds itself in the middle of the perfectly square courtyard of what used to be the Royal Hospital. Surrounded by a building of historical importance, one is already taken aback by the impressive size and symmetry of the building. 

The Irish Museum of Modern Art is housed in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, considered one of the finest 17th-century building in Ireland, and commonly known as the ‘RHK’. The Royal Hospital was founded in 1684 by James Butler, Duke of Ormonde and Viceroy to Charles II, as a home for retired soldiers and continued in that use for almost 250 years. It is now home to the National Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, started in 1990 and now numbering over 3,500 artworks by Irish and international artists.

One of them decided to set up camp in this prestigious Irish landmark: we’re talking about Wolfgang Tillmans. But who is this mysterious artist?

Wolfgang Tillmans is an influential contemporary German photographer. Emerging in the 1990s with his snapshot documentation of youths, clubs, and LGBTQ culture, Tillman’s practice has expanded to include diaristic photography, large-scale abstraction, and commissioned magazine work. “I want the pictures to be working in both directions,” the artist has said. “I accept that they speak about me, and yet at the same time, I want and expect them to function in terms of the viewer and their experience.” Capturing landscapes from an aeroplane window, still, life of crustaceans or a portrait of the singer Frank Ocean, his work conveys the profundity of an exhaustive archive. Born on August 16, 1968, in Remscheid, West Germany, Tillmans spent the early part of his career in London after graduating from the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. In 2000, he was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize, marking the first time the prize had been awarded to a photographer or non-British artist. In 2017, the survey shows “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017” opened at the Tate Modern in London to critical acclaim. The artist currently lives and works in London, United Kingdom. His works are presently held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, and the Kunstmuseum Basel, among others.

The exhibit was hung by the artist himself at the premises of the IMMA, giving the visitor an even more intimate view at the artist’s work. His way of hanging the pictures is a work of art itself. We’ll analyze his work in the first two rooms of the exhibition as an example.

First of all, the visitor is taken into a room with only four photographs, printed on different materials and sizes, at the centre of the room are two tables. On the first one, some rocks are carefully placed in a pattern; and the second one is a photograph of the same rocks, though disposed differently. Hanging the walls are: a close up of lemons, a picture of mushrooms or mould, then stands a photograph of the roof of a hut, and on the fourth wall is a framed picture of medicines in what appears to be a trashcan. 

The visitor can only interrogate the artist’s sanity whilst entering the room as it doesn’t seem to make any sense to hang these pictures together. But after some explanations and a closer look at these pieces, a theme, as pattern starts to stand out. The photograph of the stones is standing as a symbol for our representation of the truth or questioning our representation of truth. 

Indeed, if one doesn’t take the time to take a closer look at the stones, one would think the second table is simply a picture of the first table. As for the rest of the pictures, all of the natural subjects of the composition are used to make medicine, which is then thrown out when used. This whole room is the artist’s way of presenting “the economy of truth” in our modern world. 

After questioning the artist’s work in the first room, the visitor is brought to a second room where the atmosphere is completely different. It’s an OR; an operation room. The eye of the visitor is taken into the intimacy of the OR where it usually wouldn’t be allowed.

In the second room, the prints are also hung strategically, on different materials. But one picture is hung higher than the others, almost like it’s out of reach. After further explanations, we learn that it is, in fact, a picture of the artist holding hands with his partner who died of AIDS, in a hospital bed. This photograph introduces the visitor to Tillman’s work advocating for the cause of the LGBTQ community. 

This minimal tour of the exhibition only gives us an insight of the work at play in the artist’s head, but one can already catch a glimpse of the magnitude of Wolfgang Tillmans’ work as a photographer but also as an activist. 

Tillmans’ work is easily appreciable; his abilities and sensibility are never questioned but the intricacies of his thought process are not easy to catch or even understand without further explanations.

Happening in the IMMA now

Wolfgang Tillmans is the new chair of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts

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