Stars, Cheese, Clouds, Watermelon and the Like: On Wolfgang Tillmans’s Neue Welt and “PCR”

by Anneliese Katherine Mesa-Jonassen, Columbia University
Originally published in the Spring 2016 edition.

Someone told me once – that we were all made of stars, that every atom in our bodies was at one time the atom of a star.”

“And you believed them?”

“Fuck you.”

“I mean, in between, we were probably also some cheese at a sorority tea.”

(Lorrie Moore, Birds of America, 165)

Stars speckle the front cover of Wolfgang Tillmans’ fourth photography collection with TASCHEN Books, Neue Welt (New World) / Life is astronomical (2012). At the top of the cover each star appears as a stark individual white dot against the dark background; further down the various stars blend into a single shade of pale yellow. For the German photographer, the ability to capture stars was one of the main draws of digital photography. He explains his images of stars would not have been possible ten years ago without manipulation.1 Tillmans’ recent use of digital imagery is crucial to this collection, which conveys the artist’s desire to capture a sense of the contemporary by chronicling his travels from London to Papua New Guinea. Tillmans describes reality today as constituted by “the simultaneity and availability of all things,”2 undoubtedly in part an effect of the Internet. As we increasing identify, multiply, and communicate ourselves through pixels rather than atoms, we are left wondering what is to become of the singular bones and flesh of our physical bodies. What is the relevance of our material selves or our communities? Can we understand our bodies as beautifully ephemeral and vast as stars? Or are we as concentrated lamely tactile as cheese at a sorority tea? Tillmans might argue both. In an interview with German curator Beatrix Ruf, included at the beginning of the collection, Tillmans explains how he thought of the phrase in the book’s title Life is astronomical, saying that he sees “the Earth, and most importantly, all living things as merely the formation of a particular astronomical conditiont.” Tillmans continues, “’We live on the earth,’ and ‘Save the planet!’ just isn’t so, because we are the planet.”3 Tillmans’ fascination with the conjunction of matter is apparent in his photography.

Juxtaposition and simultaneity are crucial to Tillmans’ photographic practice. For example, in one spread of Neue Welt he overlaps various bodies, often fragmented, from all over the world. A man standing on the tarmac of an airport has his back to the viewer, his thin white t-shirt hanging languidly across his spine. His golden neck is turned in anticipation against a light gray sky. Meanwhile, a young girl in a turquoise shirt faces a rural scene. She uses her thin, brown arms to balance firewood and a stray plastic bottle atop her head with elbows bent and fists clamped, ready for what’s ahead. Both subjects are presumably disparate in age, gender, geography, and lifestyle; yet through Tillmans’ juxtaposition we can see a similarity in the act of bracing for the future. In the same spread, Tillmans draws a link between apartment buildings, human limbs, and a pregnant woman. A slivered image of stars peaks through from underneath, as if to remind the viewer of the subjects’ shared origin. While Tillmans seems to yearn to mash the world together into one Silly-Putty form, his work does not romantically long for a coherent global whole, nor does it attempt to exoticize world. Tillmans explains in an interview with Martin Herbert for ArtReview that his travels helped him to “accept the similarity, and at the same time, total different-ness of people and places. On the one hand we’re extremely the same, and at the same time we are insurmountably different.”4 Tillmans claims that his photographs are about humanitarianism more than aesthetics or technicalities. They are an ethical reaction to what he sees, our current condition.

This is not to say that the technical and aesthetic decisions Tillmans makes in his work do not inform his humanitarian interests. In making the switch from analog to digital photography, Tillmans battled with the inherent implications it would cause for the genuineness of his work. The result of this struggle to understand the world’s relationship with digital media is found in his most recent show, “PCR,” which opened this past fall at the David Zwirner gallery. Tillmans neither fears digital media or wishes to ignore it. In fact many of his recent works reveal how technology allows Tillmans to more accurately convey his contemporary physical experience.5 The exhibit’s title, standing for polymerase chain reaction (the process by which DNA is multiplied in biological laboratories), refers metaphorically to the proliferation of photographs enabled by modern technology. Like PCR facilitates the regeneration of genetic material from a trace amount of starting material (such as a hair follicle), digital photography opens up a wider range of subject matter for the artist.6 According to Tillmans, digital photography supplies him with unprecedented capabilities to capture “super ‘now’ moments,” such as a night drive, dancing at a club, or looking out at the stars.7

When one looks at an image made by Tillmans, the artist promises you are looking at a testimony that his body was physically there. The issue of honesty and authenticity arose for the photographer when he made the decision to switch to digital media in 2009. With analog film, one cannot easily go back and manipulate the image to change the narrative. In digital photography, however, we have come to expect alteration. Tillmans finds this assumption of manipulation “a bit disturbing.”8; He refuses to retouch or alter anything after taking his photographs.9 Instead, he wants people to trust his photographs, to take as a given that what they see “was in front of the lens.”10 Tillmans’ photographs are even marked by his own height since he shoots his photographs from the vantage point of his human eye, aiming at a non-hierarchal point of view.11  To the artist, building trust with the viewer is “somehow more powerful than all the pixels I can move around.”12 His artistic philosophy suggests that his work is more genuine and therefore powerful when it is limited by physical space and time.

While previously the artist was content photographing introspective microcosms close to home, (such as a wrinkle in a piece of cloth), he has recently felt the urge to shift his gaze on to the whole world. The work in “PCR,” and his collection Neue Welt / Life is astronomical shows the wide range of places Tillmans’ body has been in the past ten years. In the preface Tillmans explains his impulse to travel: “In order to engage in such an “experiencing of the world,” one has to physically move oneself to the most diverse places on Earth.”13; To Tillmans bringing his body in contact with different environments is integral to his artistic process. When Ruf questions the necessity of this physical journey, asking if he could make the same pictures and journeys on the internet, Tillmans says no: “I think a value is created when I “put myself in situations” and subject myself to unpredictable reactions.”14 According to Tillmans, in one way or another, everything on the Internet is “predefined.”15 In other words, when surfing the web, you may not know what lies on the next page, but you are still only seeing the product of your own queries. In the real world, on the other hand, “the possibility of a surprise is always imminent.”16 Tillmans’ fascination with serendipity manifests itself in his photograph water melon still life (2011) featured in “PCR,” in which he let a piece of fruit decay in a bowl for a few days, enabling the substances to separate. Tillmans attributes the ability to “let something be” and “not interfere” as responsible for the beauty of this photograph.17 Tillman’s embrace of the unpredictability of the physical world over the constructions of the cyber-world coincides with his refusal to manipulate his digital photographs. In both ethical and aesthetic decisions, he willingly surrenders control, allowing for chance in his photographs.

Tillmans insists on the physicality of experience not only in making his photographs, but also in viewing them. In his idiosyncratic installation he brought viewers on a tour through David Zwirner’s two West 19th Street spaces. During my visit to the show, I remember leaning closer to peer at a sunset—rose sky and blue ocean captured within the borders of a 4×6 inch photograph. Then I took a few steps back to eye an enormous photograph of a weed sprouting between stones and surrounded by dead leaves, comically dwarfing the nearby photographs. Just as Tillmans moved his body to disparate corners around the world to take these photographs, he now choreographs my movements and physical experience of the space from afar through his choice or relative scales.  According to Tillmans, the gallery enables the viewer “to feel the physical presence of the work—coming from an expanse of colour, or being drawn by an image into the corner of a room.”18 In the same way all subject matter was up for grabs—from majestic sunsets to a piece of decaying watermelon—so, too, is every inch of gallery space. Tillmans surprises viewers by highlighting “supposed weaknesses of a space: the corners where there are service doors, or alarm systems.”19 In forcing us to acknowledge these often overlooked aspects of our daily architecture he demands a more observant, and furthermore, present viewer.

Besides the  unusual installation, the full size of the photographs made seeing them in person valuable. As a result of Tillmans’ use of digital photography, many of his images have an almost infinite information density that “only reveals all its details when enlarged to two meters. Even then, one doesn’t see pixels!”20 Therefore, Tillmans explains that no digital medium exists “that can show these pictures in their full quality, there’s no screen that has the depth of information. And so it becomes very much about standing in front of this print, and having the spatial relation and movement around it.”21 While digital media enabled the creation of Tillmans work, its true realization can only happen in the flesh.

1Martin Herbert, “Wolfgang Tillmans Interview,” ArtReview, 2013.
2Tillmans, Wolfgang, and Beatrix Ruf. Neue Welt / Life Is Astronomical, 2012.
4Martin Herbert, op. cit.
5Alex Greenberg, “ ‘These pictures would not have been possible ten years ago’: Wolfgang Tillmans on his new show at the David Zwirner,” ArtNews, September 2015.
6“Wolfgang Tillmans: PCR at David Zwirner,” Musee Magazine, September 2015.
7Greenberger, op. cit.
8Martin Herbert, op. cit.
9Tillmans, Wolfgang, and Beatrix Ruf, op. cit.
10 Martin Herbert, op. cit.
11Tillmans, Wolfgang, and Beatrix Ruf, op. cit.
12Martin Herbert, op. cit.
13Tillmans, Wolfgang, and Beatrix Ruf, op. cit.
17Alex Greenberg, op cit.
18Rob Wilson, “A Warm Eye: Wolfgang Tillmans on his “A Book for Architects,”” uncube magazine, June 2014.
20Tillmans, Wolfgang, and Beatrix Ruf, op. cit.
21 Martin Herbert, “Wolfgang Tillmans Interview,” ArtReview, 2013.

Works Cited

Greenberger, Alex. “‘These Pictures Would Not Have Been Possible Ten Years Ago’: Wolfgang Tillmans on His New Show at David Zwirner.” ARTnews. September 21, 2015. Accessed January 27, 2016.

Herbert, Martin. “Wolfgang Tillmans Interview.” ArtReview. 2013. Accessed January 27, 2016.

Loomis, Paul. “Wolfgang Tillmans – Review of “Neue Welt”” American Suburb X. January 25, 2013. Accessed January 27, 2016.

Tillmans, Wolfgang, and Beatrix Ruf. Neue Welt / Life Is Astronomical. Köln: Taschen, 2012.

Wilson, Rob. “A Warm Eye: Wolfgang Tillmans on His “Book for Architects”” Uncube Magazine. June 27, 2014. Accessed January 27, 2016.

“Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt. TASCHEN Books.” Wolfgang Tillmans. Neue Welt. TASCHEN Books. 2016. Accessed January 27, 2016.

“Wolfgang Tillmans: PCR at David Zwirner – Musee.” Musee. 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

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