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Installation view Serpentine Gallery, London
Photograph: Gautier de Blonde

The new frontier starts here

Review by Corinna Lotz

Wolfgang Tillmans opens up new frontiers in art, politics and perception with his installation at the Serpentine Gallery.  

At first glance his images and styles are so disparate that they almost seem to be made by different artists/photographers at different ends of the planet. Tillmans says:

“It’s all about what it’s like to be in this world, the sensual exploration. I was looking at the model of the Serpentine show in a happy moment, thinking ‘This is actually really like a laboratory for studying the world in many of its facets and visual manifestations.”

The delicate trailing of red pigment in Urgency XXI, a C-type print, for example, has an abstract beauty but also the suggestion of tiny sprays of blood. Tillmans shows us the mysterious infinite beauties of the natural world: far-away planets,  wet gardens, dense, even menacing forests, waves approaching a shoreline.

Ostgut Freischwimmer, right 2004 Inkjet print 231.1 × 607.8 cm
Collection of Kunstmuseum Basel, Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London

On a larger scale is the utterly haunting Ostgut Freischwimmer, in which tiny trace-marks float through space touching up against a surface and then vanishing again. Are they the imprints of a swimmer’s movement through the water?

Heptathlon 2009 Inkjet print 208.5 x 138 cm
Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London

Why show us water drops on the leaves of a plant? What’s the meaning of the tall female athlete, standing before national flags and Nike swooshes in Heptathlon? Where is Kelibia? The images and techniques are familiar and yet, by placing them side by side, the strangeness and the estrangement of our world become ever more striking and provocative.

A sheet of photographic paper becomes an abstract colour sculpture or even a flowing paper “drop”. Silver Installation VII,  pure colour rectangles pasted onto the gallery’s walls, provides a sense of accidental pleasure, a casual excitement.

Like veteran British artist Richard Hamilton, who occupied the Serpentine’s spaces just before him, and than Francis Alys, presently at Tate Modern, Tillmans is acutely political. Jerusalem Wall, the island of Lampedusa (through which immigrants from Africa try to reach Europe) and Empire (US/Mexico border) show how power is exercised by monstrous barriers and border controls.

Tillmans’ display tables Space, Food and Religion highlight through advertising images, the commodification and marketing of food and the exploitation of the results of over-consumption. Newspaper cuttings reveal the connection between religious dogma, the hypocrisy of the established church and role of various dogmas.

Tillmans is convinced that “every time and every historical situation allows for the making of new things and demands a new response. They might be progressions of what has been going on before, but ultimately there has to be something that’s specific to this time and this condition … it always come from a sense of enquiry and curiosity and play and experimentation – trying to see if it’s possible to make something new”. This show succeeds in gently but firmly taking us some way down that road.

1 July 2010

Wolfgang Tillmans is at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens until 19 September. Jean Nouvel’s pavilion opens next to it on July 10. Free admission.

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