David Zwirner is pleased to present an exhibition of new and recent work by Wolfgang Tillmans across the gallery’s three locations on West 19th Street in New York. Choosing a markedly different approach to his inaugural show at David Zwirner in 2015, Tillmans here eschews his signature style of floor-to-ceiling installations in favor of a more minimal, linear presentation concise in subject matter as well as scope. Featuring photographs, video and sound, and a spoken-word piece, the show revisits themes explored by the artist throughout his thirty-year career, but also initiates a subtle reevaluation of how to portray a world consistently in flux.
Since the early 1990s, Tillmans’s works have epitomized a new kind of subjectivity in photography, pairing intimacy and playfulness with social critique and the persistent questioning of existing values and hierarchies. Through his seamless integration of genres, subjects, techniques, and exhibition strategies, he has expanded conventional ways of approaching the medium, and his practice continues to address the fundamental question of what it means to create pictures in an increasingly image-saturated world.
In a continuation of his recent spatial interventions to exhibition spaces at the Museu Serralves, Porto in 2016 and at the Kunstverein Hamburg in 2017, Tillmans has made small changes to the gallery’s architecture and lighting, which subtly draw attention to some of the conditions that guide perception. Each room in the show constitutes a self-contained environment that reverberates in the others, setting up unexpected dialogues across the three galleries at the same time as creating a continuous viewing experience.
The photographs on view were alternately created with a photocopy machine, in the darkroom, and with a camera. A common denominator is a focus on materiality and the surface of the physical world: closeup depictions of sand and foam find counterpoints in aerial views of deserts and rivers, but ultimately conflate notions of macro and micro; textile folds suggest presence and absence at once; and collages with eggs, insects, and intertwining body parts reveal layers of life and decay, sex and fragmentation. For these works, Tillmans composes the image on a book printing press, exposing different pictures to the plates while he processes them. As such, they represent his latest subversion of the still photograph, with the actual act of arranging the plates akin to performance. Other works were created directly on a photocopier by manually moving paper edges while scanning in four colors. The resulting ink-on-paper compositions challenge the medium specificity of a photograph while also emphasizing its inherent alchemical qualities.
The exhibition also presents a large selection of new Silvers, which form part of an ongoing group of abstract works begun in 1998. Made by manually feeding paper through a darkroom processor filled with exhausted photo chemicals, they reveal deceptively nuanced “chemical realities” with equal degrees of cause-and-effect and coincidence as a representational photograph. For Tillmans, the rhythmic pattern created by the paper’s gradual movement—during which it endures different pressure points and varying amounts of residue—is comparable to notation and the visualization of sound in sonograms. In Silver 198 (2017), a mishap in the darkroom whereby two pieces of photographic paper stuck together face to face, preventing the developing liquid to reach the entire surface, resulted in a strong juxtaposition of light and dark. Their direct contact creates a subtle analogy to images of bodies clinging to each other elsewhere in the show.
Video is another means by which Tillmans explores a style of narration that at once diverges from and resembles the still photograph. In Rebar (2018), part of an installation comprising three works, the artist causes movements and unexpected musicality of steel rods at a construction site. Although intangible, the sound assumes a tactile and material quality, which suggests parallels to visual representation. A video showing the Gherkin building under construction in London—where an otherwise seemingly still image is constantly moving due to hot air turbulence from the artist’s open studio window and passing birds—features a percussion soundtrack by Tillmans created on a triangle and by manipulating a digital audio recorder (Swiss RE / Triangle, 2002/2017). Music by Tillmans also accompanies Completely Changed (2017), which depicts the gentle motions of the telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.
Playing within a near-empty, darkened room, I want to make a film (2018) is a new sound piece in which a male voice discusses plans for a film about the computing power of smartphones. Disarming and quixotic in its bewilderment, it maintains a daring and powerful insistence on the act of questioning, which ultimately reverts back to the question posed in the exhibition’s title: How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?