To step into the universe of Wolfgang Tillmans is to find oneself in the middle of a conversation; it is to ask questions and be questioned in turn. The first thing that strikes a visitor to the exhibition on view at Tate Modern (until June 11) is that it’s unlike any other exhibition. In contrast to most monographic shows, it is not arranged by theme or subject matter; it doesn’t aim at comprehensiveness; and the last thing it cares about is the “development of the artist.” It doesn’t try to establish any sort of progression in terms of techniques or materials; nor does it propose a critical study of the artist’s work. In fact, it is not exhibition at all. It is an installation designed by the artist to fit into the gallery space, and as such it seems to turn the notion of exhibition on its head: rather than focus on the artist, the selection of works presented in the form of a complex, polysemic montage, turns outward to examine its own place within the museum and in the here and now of a post-Brexit world faced with a refugee crisis, global wars, terror, resurgence of nationalisms and right-wing governments.
Each room offers a spatial arrangement of images that are sometimes made years apart, in different media and formats: inkjet prints on aluminum, laser photocopies exploring the gradual degradation of the image, chromogenic prints. Framed or unframed, held by bulldog clips or strips of scotch tape, the images range in size from 4×6 photographs, to A4 photocopies, to oversize prints. The differences in scale from one image to the next further disrupt traditional modes of presentation, not, however, in order to question those modes in some sort of meta-curatorial, self-reflective gesture, but rather to challenge habitual interpretations and to spark a constructive dialog. Abstract and figurative images — categories that are continuously problematized by Tillmans — sit side by side Truth Study Center tables that combine the artist’s own images (sometimes same as those seen on a different scale on the walls), newspaper clippings, printouts of research articles from scientific journals, found images and artifacts… These archives, laid out under glass, imperceptibly manipulate the body of the viewer who switches between the vertical confrontation with the wall display and the contemplation of the horizontal plane. The absence of hierarchy in the organization of the material, with sheets of paper and images sometimes partially overlapping, along with a lack of unified orientation, hinder linear reading, compelling the viewer to actively engage with words and images, to shift their position as they approach the tables from this or that side to make sense of the texts and pictures as much as of the gaps and blanks between them.
Julie Ault entitled one of her essays on Tillmans, “The Subject is Exhibition.” Tillmans’ practice, as Ault aptly points out, subverts the modernist division of labor, incorporating the task of curator into his work as an artist, and consciously abandons the auratic, eye-level, well-spaced display of the work aimed at elevating it to the status of a masterpiece. In Tillmans’ hands, the exhibition becomes a laboratory, a space for experimentation, rather than a shrine for immutable works or even less an exhibition for exhibition’s sake. In the installation, the work is put to work. As Tillmans explained in correspondence with the art critic, “Avoiding what I call a language of importance was a key choice I took in 1992, feeling that I wanted to use the gallery space as a laboratory in which I can put my pictures and see how they react to being with each other, being in public, as well as being just naked sheets of paper.”
Room 14, one of the more sparsely populated galleries and the last in the exhibition, can be viewed as one in a chain of laboratories, all interconnected by a web of analogies formed in the visitor’s memory. The center of the room is occupied by two Truth Study Center tables containing several untitled images, printouts, and a set of stamped envelopes marking different periods in German history. One of the printouts asks directly: “Quel âge as-tu?” Our age, a day in June 2017, becomes a pivot point on an unusual timeline. Other printouts read: “Oscar Niemeyer died in 2012, aged 104. / 104 years prior to his birth was the year 1803.” “Now 1980 is as long ago as World War II was in 1980.” “Next year 1991 will be as long ago as the Civil Rights Act was in 1991.” These historical parallels are like ink blot images in the Rorschach test, unfolding from a given point in time to the span of several decades to form a picture of an era in the mind of the visitor. Everyone will interpret the pivot points differently, and have a different vision of how the time leading up to that point compares to the time that followed. Depending on whether one associates, for instance, the year 1980 with the birth of the Solidarity movement in Poland, the death of John Lennon, the election of Ronald Reagan and roughly the start of the Reagan era (and of Thatcherism, too, since 1980 was Margaret Thatcher’s first full year as Prime Minister), the Moscow Olympics, or the launch of the CNN, the pattern formed before and after will take on a different meaning. The question, “How old are you?,” invites the visitor to build their own timeline around the year of their birth; for Tillmans, to ask “How old are you?” is to ask, “What is your place in history? What have you experienced? How have historical events affected your life? And vice versa, how have you participated in these events?”
These suggestive timelines are collated with images that similarly avoid imposing any sort of interpretation: the words “8 years ago was the year 2009. 8 years from now is the year 2025.” are printed on an A4 sheet of paper on top of a glossy photograph of the artist’s studio. In the picture, we see a desk strewn with papers and working documents; a potted plant grows in all directions on the windowsill, and on the computer screen is a news image of Barak Obama’s swearing-in ceremony. While the image seems to anchor Tillmans’ timeline in the context of American politics, with the implication that, now, in 2017, it’s Trump who is President, but that, eight years from now someone else will be in office, even if Trump should get re-elected, there is nothing to really date the image. Similarly, knowing that the artist is based in the UK and Germany may color our reading to consider the global implications of US presidency. Ultimately, however, the image is there to engage us by asking, “Where were you in 2009? Where are you now?,” and, more importantly, make us think of the future not as a fait accompli, something out of our control, but rather something we must actively seek to take part in. The artist’s working environment is in that sense one model of being present in the world, of interacting with it, and contributing to change, be it on a smallest scale.
In the corner of Room 14 we encounter another form of artistic/activist engagement. Pages from one of Tillmans’ small-format publications, Wako Book 5 (2016), devoted to “Border Installation,” are arranged in a constellation on the adjoining walls. Some images are small-scale reiterations of larger prints already seen in other rooms, such as the image of a display case at Heathrow headed, “What is a liquid?” — a question immediately answered by a list of “liquid” substances: “Gel, cream, or paste.” In a work that is in many ways complementary to Harun Farocki’s critique of representation and of the uses of the image for the purposes of control and surveillance, Tillmans focuses on airport signage to underscore the extent of physical and behavioral control and regulation we are subjected to as international travelers. A sign at an Australian airport informs passengers that “AVIATION SECURITY IS NO LAUGHING MATTER.” “Making jokes about bombs in baggage,” for example, may be interpreted as “a threat to commit an act of unlawful interference with aviation.” By defamiliarizing such notices, Tillmans’ images bring out the absurdity of the various commands and interdictions. At the same time, however, he seems to suggest a way of coping with this excess of control: laughter.
Whenever we move across borders, our bodies, like our luggage, are subject to constant control. Several images in this corner cluster show people submitting to security checks and passport control; taking off their shoes and arranging their items in trays; going through full-body scanners. And yet the idea of “border” is extremely arbitrary, a fact that is nowhere clearer than at an airport. Tillmans photographs a row of automated passport readers sitting idle behind a barrier: they seem as pointless as a doorway in the desert, and it strikes one as absurd that they should mark the passage from one country to another.
The issue and the meaning of “borders” is central to Tillmans’ thought, whether it’s national borders, or borders and edges of photographs, or conceptual boundaries erected, for instance, between the private and the public spheres, or between genders. Often unframed, arranged in constellations rather than in neat rows, sometimes placed low to the ground, other times so high that the image becomes inaccessible, Tillmans’ photographs invariably communicate across their borders. And while the visitors’ progression through the exhibition is constantly disrupted, since to access it, they must stoop, step back, lean over, look up, these gestures are the contrary of institutionalized control: they are a release, a change of pace, a subversion of expectations, and an invitation to think with the whole body.
Two large-scale seascapes, The State We’re In, A (2015) and La Palma (2014), dominate Room 14. La Palma shows sea foam gathering on a rocky beach, its thick white tongues licking the shore. This could be anywhere. The title of the work points to one of the islands in the Canaries, and the white swaths of sea-foam bring to mind the “sea of clouds” the archipelago is famous for. The State We’re In, A shows a deep-grey ocean stretching as far as the eye can see. One of the Truth Center tables stands in the way of one’s simply stepping back to take in the oversize image at a glance. Instead, one becomes engulfed in it. The ocean swells, threatening to spill into the room, while the narrow strip of sky above the horizon offers no point of anchor and no direction. The “state” we’re in may be a metaphor for a rudderless world, or perhaps for the rising sea levels: we can then read it as a sort of apocalyptic image, a world with no shores against which waves would break and the sea foam. Seen in the context of the other images in the room, the seascape is also a comment on borders. When we travel across a sea, what country are we in at any given point? How far do the territorial waters of a given state extend?
If one is a refugee trying to cross the Mediterranean these questions may be a matter of life and death: if the overcrowded boat breaks down, or worse, capsizes, who will come to the rescue? Will anyone? To be confronted with an image of the ocean, several meters across and a couple meters tall, is to experience, no longer the awe before the sublime power of nature (an experience to be had perhaps only if you’re safe), but the panic of those lost at sea and at risk of drowning.
The sea washes over imaginary borders with indifference and thus for some also holds a promise of freedom. Between La Palma and Wako Book 5, we find three images slightly larger than the standard Letter format. One of them shows a slanted horizon separating a somber expanse of the sea from billowing storm clouds. Sheets of rain alternate with pale sunlight streaming through the clouds. In the right corner of the image, a powerful searchlight, like a small sun, illuminates a patch of water. The title of the photograph is Italian Coastal Guard Flying Rescue Mission off Lampedusa (2008). The next image, duplicated in the Wako spread, is simply titled Lampedusa (2008). It shows a refugee boat graveyard. Taken in 2008, the two images predate the 2013 disasters that claimed 394 lives, although by 2008 the island had already buried an unreported number of “tragic landings,” and its holding centers were suffering from overcrowding. Viewed in 2017, however, these photographs have also become inseparable from the tragic history that followed.
In “Beyond Human Rights,” Giorgio Agamben, building on Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the condition of the refugee, notes that, as “a limit-concept … [the refugee] brings a radical crisis to the principle of the nation-state” — with its implied territorial claims and border controls — but it also “clears the way for a renewal of categories that can no longer be delayed.” While the idea of nationhood relies on subordinating the human (or the “bare life”) to the political-juridical status of a state subject (i.e. the citizen), the refugee “represents a disquieting element” that “breaks [their] identity.” States can conceive of refugees only temporarily: sooner or later they must be absorbed into the body of a state, either assimilated or repatriated. The so-called refugee crisis we are confronting today is also a crisis of the nation-state, as Hannah Arendt diagnosed already in 1943.
While foreseeing that a “Europe of the nations” is headed for a catastrophe in the short run, Agamben imagined the possibility of Europe as an “ateritorrial or extraterritorial space in which all the (citizen and noncitizen) residents of the European states would be in a position of exodus or refuge”: “the status of European would then mean being-in-exodus of the citizen.” We pick up a similar aspiration in Tillmans’ images.
The wreckage accumulated on the shores of Lampedusa, with boats that may have once seemed “solid” shattered into bits, reminds us of the fragility of things and beings. As Mark Godfrey stresses in his essay in the exhibition catalog, to Tillmans vulnerability is “a condition of living and loving”; it is a quality that is quintessentially human. When he participated in the anti-Brexit campaign, Tillmans emphasized the importance of the European Union as a supranational entity capable of protecting those cast outside the legal order of the nation-state: refugees, homosexuals, transgender people …, that is, anyone belonging to the limit-categories that undermine state-instituted dichotomies on which, in turn, as Agamben and Arendt have shown, the state is dependent for its survival.
The last two sets of images in Room 14 further explore those notions of fragility and vulnerability. Tucked in a corner near the exit is a series of photographs of an apple tree the artist grows on the balcony of his residence (apple tree (h), (e), (f), 2004 and apple tree, 2007). Outside of its natural habitat, several floors above ground, the apple tree is a sort of a rooftop refugee, surviving and thriving in a new environment, its fragile branches growing imperceptibly thicker over the years. Lighter 99 (2011), a chromogenic print produced without the use of camera on a distressed sheet of photosensitive paper, faces the apple tree across the room. Unlike the other images, it is mounted in a deep Plexiglass frame. The creases and folds in the paper and the uneven distribution of the pigment — orange-red like the skin of the apples ripening on brittle branches — signal the fragility of the photographic medium: and it is this fragility, rather than the work of art as an autonomous object, that needs to be sheltered. Similarly, we can think of the open-endedness of Tillmans’ installation, of the refusal to impose any fixed interpretations, whether of the work or of the world, as an act of deliberate exposure of the body of work and staking everything on the possibility of encounter with the other, with the visitor, and on our willingness to risk exposing ourselves to such an interaction with an uncertain outcome.
Ela Kotkowska is a freelance writer, translator, and editor. She lives and works in New England.
February 15 to June 11, 2017
London SE1 9TG
 In Wolfgang Tillmans. Exhibition Catalog, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago / Hammer Museum, Los Angeles / Hirschorn Museum, Washington, DC, 2006–2007. Yale University Press, 2006. Pp. 119 et seq.
 Ibid., p. 126.
 Christian Sindbaldi, “Lampedusa’s Migrants.” The Guardian, July 16, 2008.
 Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights” . In Means Without End. University of Minnesota Press, 2000. P. 23.
 Ibid. p. 21.
 Ibid. pp. 24–5.
 Mark Godfrey, “Worldview.” In Chris Dercon and Helen Sainsbury, with Wolfgang Tillmans, eds., Wolfgang Tillmans 2017. Tate Publishing, 2017. P. 20.