Wolfgang Tillmans: What Is Different?

Nîmes—Wolfgang Tillmans was born in Germany in 1968 and divides his time between Berlin and London. Recognised as one of the most important artists of his generation, since the 1990s he has produced images that sometimes flirt with art-historical genres such as the still life, landscape and the portrait, but also abstraction. Wolfgang Tillmans: What Is Different? is a major survey of the artist’s practice that will feature portraits and abstract photographs, works related to his ongoing Truth Study Center project (begun in 2005), and posters made in support of the anti-Brexit campaign.

 Wolfgang Tillmans. Vapeur,
Wolfgang Tillmans. Vapeur, 2017

The exhibition will reveal Tillmans’ different ways of instituting a relation to the visual and physical world but also the other. It is closely linked to the publication of a book in which he considers the Backfire Effect, and more precisely its current banalisation, which is not without an impact on our relation to truth but also on the construction of our identity and political convictions.

Making portraits is an essential gesture in which a very direct human relation is instituted. These images reveal both the fragility and the strength of individuals through their gestures, sartorial styles and attitudes. The questioning of the representation of the body is also central in his practice; they show how the media and social codes oblige us to conform to standardised images.

The self-portrait is a genre in its own right. His first, Lacanau (self), 1986, is a portrait taken on the beach at Lacanau in France, in which he photographed his own body from above. This is one of his first abstract images, but also an affirmation of his presence in the world.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Yulan Grant
Wolfgang Tillmans. Yulan Grant, 2016

At the heart of the images, and in their arrangement in space, they reveal elective affinities, the existence of a community, of amorous or affective relations. The almost cinematic orchestration allows the artist to create links between individuals but also their environment in a world in which certitudes seem extremely fragile.

The work is also about the body of photography, the sheet of paper on which the image is inscribed being concomitant with its appearance. The paper drop series, begun in 2001, reveals that all images appear on the flat surface of the paper but are also objects. We see a large sheet of paper, folded back on itself, which takes the form of a drop of liquid.

The truth study center works, begun in 2005, reflect his desire to show that many of our current problems come from the desire for an absolute truth. These are simple tables on which he presents photocopies of erroneous information from the press together with theoretical texts. These collages introduce the political world into a more personal photographic world while underlining the importance of analysing what is visible.

These images can also be the vector of personal engagements such as his recent participation in the campaign against Brexit. On the posters we read, What is lost is lost forever and No man is an island – No country by itself.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, from which it takes its title. As guest editor for Kulturkreis der Deutschen Wirtschaft (editor of Jahresring), Tillmans became interested in the Backfire Effect, a psychological state in which the individual remains convinced of the truth of an affirmation in spite of the fact that it is totally false. Nothing can persuade the person to change their views – indeed, proof to the contrary only strengthens their conviction. For Tillmans the Backfire Effect “plays a particular role by leading to questions linked to emotional states that impact our identity and political convictions.” If there have always been conspiracy theories, it is clear that today many more people are impermeable to factual arguments and that we are gradually sinking into a state of somnolence. In this publication Tillmans questions what has fundamentally changed over the last few years. What is different? One of the aims of this book is to reflect on the proliferation of “fake news” and to ask who benefits from it.

The exhibition opens from May 4 to September 16, 2018. It follows large-scale presentations of the artist’s work at Tate Modern, London, and Fondation Beyeler, Basel, both held in 2017.

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