Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 at Tate Modern review: a celebration of banality with little to give

Steve Dinneen
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Wolfgang Tillmans 2017
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This collection of 14 years’ worth of work by Turner Prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is a globetrotting celebration of banality, the output of an artist who long ago started believing his own hype.

Pictures are scattered throughout the space, some metres high and framed, others postcard-sized and sellotaped to the wall, each one designed to interact with each other and the viewer. Trying to discern a coherent message, however, is like reading tea leaves to see the future. In one room we have a bluebottle perched upon a lobster carcass, the night sky, a car headlight, a churning waterfall and a hotel room TV; it’s like a cryptic crossword without a solution.

Elsewhere a young Indian man in a magenta robe hangs out beside a close-up of TV static and a scrubby plant-pot. It’s all so oblique that you’re tempted to assume there’s hidden genius at play. Tillmans is charming, smart and articulate, and you expect to find a commensurate charm and intelligence in his work.

But while there’s plenty of technical skill on display – individually some of these pieces are rather wonderful: water escaping from a drain-pipe, giant abstract swirls made by applying light directly to photographic paper – as a whole, it’s utterly lacking in substance, held together by the self-important internal logic of a student degree show.

The space is littered with time-based factoids – did you know 1980 is now as long ago as World War II was in 1980? Or that Visage’s Fade to Grey was released 13 years after Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland? – printed out and stuck on trestle tables alongside press cuttings about the Iraq War and proliferation of fake news. We get it – this is “now”, or at least it was.

Other pieces feel like they were abandoned mid-way through; one room plays music that we’re presumably expected to dance to; another is filled with posters and press releases for Tillman’s own shows, intermingled with magazine cuttings; and next-door to a four metre high picture of a scrotum is a video of Tillmans shuffling about in his tighty whities. It brings to mind Charlie Brooker’s character 15Peter20 from the series Nathan Barley, a photographer who made art out of people urinating because it’s like “crying through your genitals”.

There’s an almost Dadaist absurdity in searching for meaning in these images. This is an exhibition that lives parasitically upon its viewers, sucking up brain-waves and giving nothing in return. There’s another moment in Brooker’s series when a witless TV producer has a pint of lager thrown in his face. Assuming the title character is a genius, he spins around frantically, demanding to know if “something brilliant” is happening. It wasn’t. It isn’t here, either.

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