METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART | JANUARY 26 – NOVEMBER 1, 2015
When German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize in 2000—the first photographer and the first non-British citizen to do so—he had already made a name for himself as a sympathetic chronicler of youth and gay cultures and of the ephemera of the everyday. What made Tillmans’s work so unique was not so much its subjects, however, as it was the way he trained his eye on them. Rejecting the aestheticizing approach of a trained professional, he instead embraced the gaze of the amateur photographer, capturing the perspective of the naked eye in informal-seeming snapshots. Indeed, it’s possible that if you encountered one of Tillmans’s photographs in isolation, without attribution or outside the context of a gallery or museum, you might very well mistake it for a hastily snapped photograph taken by any ordinary person. But when you look at his photographs closely, and especially when you see them side-by-side or as part of a larger composition, the brilliance of Tillmans’s approach shines brightly.
Whether it’s shots of revelers at Berlin’s techno-dance-festival, “Love Parade,” or of the Concorde jet, Tillmans brings an alien’s eye to the everyday, making the familiar seem strange. Consider, for instance, Jochen Taking a Bath (1997), in which a houseplant—rather than the painter Jochen Klein, Tillmans’s partner at the time—occupies the central position. In the foreground, to the left, we see a man, slumped in a tub. Staring blankly into the water, he looks dwarfed by his surroundings, his ennui seemingly magnified by the absurdity of the tall, spindly plant that someone has placed in the narrow space between the tub and the toilet. What might seem normal if encountered in daily life looks heavy with tension if not slightly bizarre when Tillmans trains his lens on it.
Tillmans further communicated his aim to topple hierarchies of representation in his unique way of displaying his photographs. Instead of hanging them like pieces of fine art—equidistant from each other, at eye level, in frames behind glass—Tillmans tacked them to the gallery walls, unframed, and at odd angles, next to tear-outs from glossy magazines, print-outs from inkjet printers, and newspaper clippings, blurring the distinction between images made in the name of art, those made in the name of promoting commodities, and those produced for personal use. In his turn to the ordinary and embrace of the amateurish viewpoint and nonhierarchical representation, Tillmans anticipated a shift in social behavior and perception, namely, the radical democracy of the internet and smartphone photo and video years before either had become ubiquitous. Yet today, in a present dominated by amateur portraiture (e.g. the selfie), and a constant flow of information from myriad sources, what once marked Tillman as radical now feels conventional.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Book for Architects, a 40-minute, 55-second video, comprising 450 photographs, projected onto two screens, that Tillmans took over the course of ten years in thirty-seven countries. Produced for the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, it is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 1st. Though ranging widely in terms of setting, perspective, and even subject matter, all of the photographs focus on some aspect of the built environment. Moving from the sweeping and the grand (panoramas of sprawling city grids, heroic Brutalist skyscrapers) to the abruptly quotidian (rolls of unfurled toilet paper and sagging insulation), the photographs in Book for Architects shift between the planned and the improvisational. From mirrored escalators and airport lounges to tarp-and-concrete shantytowns, from glass-covered skyscrapers to tangled pipes and overloaded power cords, on and on the slideshow of images from around the world continues, without commentary, without text, without distinction for either the time or the place in which Tillmans captured the fleeting moment.
Therein lies the problem. In its mode of presentation, a slideshow of rotating, anonymous interiors and exteriors shot from around the world, the Book for Architects replicates what is now common for many, the experience of streaming through countless images on the Internet that over time blend together into a ceaseless stream. Tillmans pairs, for instance, close-ups of faux wood paneling in someone’s home in what might be London or what might be Dubai, then shifts to porcelain toilets and moldy bathroom tiles in similarly indistinguishable domestic interiors. From rural outposts in Latin America to small towns in the Ruhr to megacities on the Indian Subcontinent, it all appears as one common, universal experience of computer monitors, coffee mugs, prefabricated concrete housing blocks, and dripping pipes. Emptied of history, of connections between places and people, of particularities of any sort, the images become an endless parade of humanity and the built environment. The profound lack of distinctions or ranking of knowledge—the entrenched presentism, the notion that all time and place converge into one human experience—have profound consequences. It blunts a potentially critical edge, robbing viewers of the opportunity to distinguish between the past and present, to assign responsibility, to perceive cause and effect, and the very real differences between societies and individuals’ places within them. London is not Dubai.
Tillmans’s earlier work did not merely anticipate a shift in behavior and perception but pushed it forward in unexpected ways, challenging entrenched hierarchies, humanizing formerly marginal subcultures, and dignifying the perspective of the everyman. Yet the freshness and radicalism of Tillmans’s earlier approach is missing from his latest project. In Tillmans’s words, the photographs in Book for Architects are meant to reflect his preoccupation with “the infinite number of formal and structural solutions, seen en mass and the world over, that human logic found for similar problems.” But in our current image- and information-saturated age, the notion that all times and places are part of one global experience feels less like a critique of the contemporary system of representation than it does like participation.