The photograph may always lie about what is in front of the camera, but never lies about what is behind the camera. I found that to be absolutely true. Wolfgang Tillmans
Review by Travis Diehl
Add Wolfgang Tillmans latest to the list of shows that opened just before the United States presidential election of November 9, and feel much different after. But the pre-Trump era was already post-Truth. The present version of Tillmans’s Truth Study Center (Truth Study Center (Los Angeles), TSC 2016) surveys the phenomenon of “post-truth,” through a series of aphorisms, abstract photograms, snapshots, diagrams, and printed articles, under glass on slender wooden tables—the reports on fake news, reinforcement of belief in falsehoods, and how feelings overcome facts of an informed citizen’s recent news diet. Back in 2005, the year Stephen Colbert gave “truthiness” its modern sense, Tillmans’s first TSC installation attempted to frame the Bush Doctrine deceptions of WMDs and torture memos. The Machiavellian claims to reality-making by the “unnamed Bush aide” now seem practically noble compared to the shameless truth-denial of Trump apologists. Yet truthiness, not post-truth, remains a more punctual phrasing of the problem. It’s not that factually-true no longer matters; it’s that feeling-true matters more.
Tillmans asks the old question in a new era: Which does art favor—facts, or feelings? Even at its most rigorous, art is interpretable and personal; the viewer completes the work; their “gut” tells them best. Art thus says opposite things to different audiences at the same time. This polyvalence is crucial: the poetics of naming, by elision and doublespeak, that for which there is no word. As a New York Times columnist put it to a certain demagogue, “One branch of your forked tongue is silver.” Or, as Yvonne Rainer has it, feelings are facts.
And when art is a photograph, it proposes (without defining) both a subjective and an objective truth. Here are photos of places Tillmans has been and things he’s seen. Several of his photographs are aerial views; desert (workers’ accommodation)(2009) shows warehouses and apartment blocks from the window of a landing or leaving plane; untitled (carton)(2012) the peach-pink tops of clouds. The many formats and treatments of the photos, large and small, framed and unframed, c-print and inkjet, high and low, formalizes the protean ability of the artist to scoot between milieus. (Photos with shop signs in Hindi; photos of the Gaza border wall; photos of Los Angeles traffic). In not yet titled (2011), a sign at airport security asks, “What is a liquid?” The sign gives examples; for security officers screening baggage, there are definitions; yet here in a show by Wolfgang Tillmans the photo’s meaning flies into the next photo.
Liquidity, indeed, offers a through-line in an exhibition that, like the artist’s others, is an a-chronological selection from an ongoing body of work, an “ocean” of images. At least eight photos depict oceans; most are explicitly the Atlantic. (There is also a portrait of Frank Ocean; Tillmans likes puns.) These appear more or less evenly throughout the install, thumbing back to a grandly symbolic notion of Sea, padding the particulars of modern life (a plate of cured salmon, a tilting airplane flap) with reminders of both our inner oceans and the wide sea of humankind. On a prominent wall is a medium-size print of a group of demonstrators behind a banner: “STOP BOKO HARAM! / KILLING PEOPLE.” The image is surrounded by surf: immediately to the left, as if a diptych, The State We're In, B, 2015, a thin strip of gunmetal sky at top, steely ocean beneath; to the right, a bit of wall, and then atlantique, a, 2016, a frothy closeup of waves breaking on shore, at 409cm x473cm the largest print in the show, so large that the inkjet print has its own horizon: a horizontal seam. The shot of the demonstration is adrift, associated with transhistoric heft, yet also so powerless against the crush on either side, and so distant—literally across the Atlantic. Sometimes history takes the form of waves of humanity: protestors, refugees, armies. It always washes over us.
Us? And here are photos of his friends, their studios and their apartments, their faces and bodies. Tillmans' photographs are both a record and an elegy for those micro-communities that cohere around the politically personal. In Fragile Waves, 2016, four figures wade in whale-blue surf. Here, at the edge of an indifferent depth, is an affective confederacy, rallied by Tillmans through his art. A takeaway poster on a gallery ledge, using an atlantique photo, is topically captioned: “Only the Americans have the power to stop Trump.” The poster names a national identity (short of nationalist) as the one form of power up to the task. Yet the Tillmans exhibition is, in the end, a tour de force for Tillmans—individual, subject—and of his self-expression. The viewer can relate, perhaps; but this collective, mass relation is secondary to the bannered, titular, individual expression of the artist, while those relations, those prompted “feelings,” are individual, too. Fragile Waves puts an image to the central problem of engaged, political art: which is, not coincidentally, the predicament of democracy: the individual’s lonely swim in the collective.
There is a further “liquidity”: Two mural-scale abstractions, titled Greifbar[Tangible] 38/39, resemble reddish dye pellets dissolving in liquid chemistry. Like atlantique, a, they’re also inkjet prints, stitched together by a horizon. They appear to be non-objective, in that no lens was used; indeed, the fluid aspect may only be an illusion created by light moving across photosensitive silver. The Greifbarseries (2014-) and Tillmans’ other abstract efforts promote the crux of artistic truth: an “objective” truth of the alt-process image, the facts of how photos are made; the “non-objective” truth of colors and forms, and the feelings they evoke—the photo’s truthiness. Thus, exactly where we might mistake this exhibition for pretty pictures with a topical graft, Tillmans insists on epistemological drift.
It’s Tillmans’s gambit that the empiricism of photography has always been suspect; its documentary persuasion only goes so far; the index is only a technicality of why we believe in photos. If the photograph, the artwork in general, doesn’t exactly give evidence of feelings, it certainly provokes them. Scattered on the skinny wooden tables of the Truth Study Center are a selection of darkroom “mistakes”—olive green, coal black, burn pink smudges and smears where, indeed, the process of indexical illusion let slip an inner truth. The non-objective photo asserts photography's scientific nature at the very moment that it transcends technical fact. In chemistry, there are no accidents. And yet, the broken emulsion looks beautiful. It feels like art. So do the many printouts of false-color brain scans—visualizations of a science that can barely begin to understand how consciousness “works", abstracted into a different kind of pretty picture. Another recent work (not on view here) goes further: Borrowing the table format of TSC, I refuse to be your enemy (2015-16) displays standard US and European sheets of blank paper.
Tillmans’ show is largely a political salve: beauty and community will transcend, our individual lives notwithstanding. There is also a coded warning: to be “woke” to the rhetorical threats that, indeed, have more in common with art than we would like to admit. (Look no further than the murder of Walter Scott; in December 2016 a video that clearly showed a cop shooting the fleeing, unarmed man in the back failed to convince a jury. And there will always be Rodney King.) Implicit here, too, is the dark charge that maybe we as a nation or a species don’t really want to change. Maybe the Americans don’t want to stop Trump. Maybe the Americans like their wars—culture and otherwise.
And maybe the art world likes its virtuosos, its formalism—the “rigorously” concrete play of clean scotch-tape hinges and framed c-prints and standard formats, offhand snapshots and in-camera miracles, that can, at the exact same time, make a primal, anti-intellectual appeal. A PHOTOGRAPH OF THE SEA. Tillmans’ more or less witting execution of photographic empiricism frames exactly the conflict of interest that animates politically engaged art—a dialectic of individual expression and political reality, or a self-made trap. Yet turn it again: If photography has always been truthier than truth, if its affective powers have often transcended its empirical claims, then maybe the post-truth world ain’t so different after all. In Tillmans’ photos, it’s a world we recognize as ours.
The artist can fashion a beautiful thing; and if he does not do it solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all. Oscar Wilde