in Frieze | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Beautiful Things

Wolfgang Tillmans

in Frieze | 09 SEP 99

A scene on the edge of town: low, red-roofed houses, palm trees, a cat's cradle of telegraph wires, cars parked on the parched dirt roadway. There are pools of dense shadow amongst the luminous white buildings, the windows are dark, and the lonely magnesium glare of two street lamps seems to heighten a feeling of imminence. Hazy clouds hang in a midnight blue sky and everything appears to shimmer as if in the heat of the afternoon. To one side, a group of children in shorts and T-shirts stand on a garden wall. The two eldest look out over the roof tops to a phenomenon light years away from this dusty, low-rise, oil drum, stray-dog townscape: a total eclipse of the sun.

This work from Wolfgang Tillmans' 'Total Solar Eclipse' series may smack of Wilde's 'gutter and stars' quotation, but certainly there is something here (and in much of Tillmans' imagery) that has to do with transcendence or the transformation of everyday life into something more bearable, exciting and intoxicating - so splendidly ingenuous that it has the effect of embarrassing the viewer.

Tillmans' photographs really are shocking. You might be shocked by the picnickers, the happy crusties, fluffy puppies or a Vogue fashion shoot; you might even be shocked (although it is less likely) by the blow-jobs and masturbation, hard-ons and urination. But the most alarming aspect is that you find yourself almost believing it all - you begin to share in his overt enthralment with the world as a place of mystic equivalence and utopianism. It all seems so unfashionably sincere, so lacking in what is called critical distance, that the work can appear naive and even clichéd, but you are left struggling to understand why it's beginning to convince you.

One might be persuaded to describe Tillmans as a chronicler of subculture; or else a flâneur employing the camera to dredge the imagery of modern life, his work nothing more than superficiality par excellence. He is probably both of these. This is Conceptualism Lite, and powerful because of it. It isn't simply elusiveness that makes the photographs intriguing - you hope that there is something far more complex at work, that the images contain more than meets the eye. Perhaps there's just too much joy: what Tillmans does looks too natural, too kind. If there were a little less sympathy towards the subject, a few ugly people, more of the drudgery of the here and now, then there would be no problem calling it Art.

But you enjoy the work precisely because it is unselfconscious - you take advantage of the vulnerability that makes it so easy to dismiss. You think that you ought to doubt its status and sometimes suspect that you have been fooled. Looking at a Tillmans image is engrossing; they can be meticulously descriptive or coax a little beauty from utter mundanity. The photos define certain moments: the intense present, instances of rapture - the position of a body, or how socks drying on a radiator can be just as sublime as the setting sun.

For all his depictions of 'alternative' lifestyles - the protesters, the squatters, the painfully hip or the too-far-gone-to-care - Tillmans is a most traditional artist. There may be no obvious distinction between high and low culture in his imagery, but he displays an acute yet highly sublimated awareness of almost classical conventionality, which is what separates his work from that of myriad other photographers whose images look no different. Tillmans' images often look like recapitulations of art historical clichés, from Gustave Courbet to Monet to Caspar David Friedrich - distillations which can be candid, abstract or nauseatingly romantic. Images viewed through a gauze of collective memory - images that you might have imagined or you might have really seen - that Tillmans has stumbled upon. Yet somehow they don't look like parodies, or kitsch, or simply contemporary regurgitations of art-historical themes. Tillmans acknowledges the history of picture-making and then spins off into something much less determined and easily explained.

In his studies of drapery - the folded and crumpled fabrics of clothes discarded on a bedroom floor, jeans, T-shirts, details of buttons, pockets and gussets - this classical formalism is highlighted through the most unexpected subject matter. The photographs capture a second of visual pleasure in the colours and textures of a pile of dirty laundry: the play of light and shade on blue satin running shorts, white cotton flecked with some unsavoury stains. They have more than a hint of eroticism, clearly evoking the act of undressing, and appear to retain the warmth and scent of the wearer. They feel airless, maybe even claustrophobic - like being tangled in sticky bedclothes on a hot summer night in a windowless room. This beauty of mess and ephemerality is in part what Tillmans describes: he has a heartbreaking fondness for the moment that will inevitably vanish, and fanatically attempts to record just how lovely, how special and how unrepeatable it is.

Certain photographs appear to crystallise a restless search for definitive instances. The 1997 'Concorde' series shows the supersonic jet taking off from Heathrow Airport and gaining height over the outer limits of West London with its pebble-dash housing, lock-up garages, grafittied railway sidings and signs pointing to somewhere else. Something that once embodied a real belief in the benefits of technology, but which now seems as quaint as the Orient Express, Concorde is a relic of another age - the last thing from the era that still works, that we still want to believe in. It stirs up images of the international jet set, the space race, lip gloss and dry Martinis, the streamlined elegance of how we used to imagine the future. Now that we live in the future Concorde was intended for, it has become a nagging reminder of all the unfulfilled ambitions of the past.

It is only a privileged few who have the opportunity to travel at twice the speed of sound: competition winners, business men, Kate, Naomi and Stella. Concorde transports your physical presence, in a relatively short period of time, over great distances - an extravagantly luxurious idea in a hysterical age of digital communication, when you don't need to leave the safety of your computer terminal to have everything (except real experience) available at the click of a mouse. The old advertising strapline 'Paris. London. New York' encapsulates the aspirations of those who choose this exclusive and outrageously expensive mode of transport. Concorde passengers need to shake hands, do deals, smile, pout and be photographed; they can be seen and heard, even smelled and touched. Only the real thing will do, and on Concorde they can be made real in three hours. Though sometimes described as downbeat, Tillmans' work is certainly about glamour and Concorde is perhaps one of the most glamorous things imaginable. The scrappy, kerosene drenched suburban hinterland of London's Heathrow makes a fast getaway all the more enticing - that may seem like an easy metaphor but, characteristically, Tillmans uses it as a banally graceful backdrop.

The publication documenting the series of 56 C-type prints is like a flick-book, charting the plane as it gains altitude and finally becomes no more than a vapour trail with points of light disappearing into the red evening sky. There is something trainspotterish in this photographic account: the pictures are not only about longing, but also about a kind of dumb search of the skies for the most distinctive shape in aviation - a methodical record of sightings.

The photographs from the 'Total Solar Eclipse' series also document sightings, in this case a natural rather than man-made phenomenon. The conjunction of heavenly bodies, although now explained and predicted by rational science, still has the capacity to induce an almost Mediaeval hysteria. But Tillmans' eclipse photographs don't speak of a terrible and sublime force of nature, they simply record how it looks. His unpretentious snapshot aesthetic presents the experience as anything but spiritual; nonetheless, the images are mysterious because they look so matter-of-fact. The dramatic quality of the subject matter is almost cancelled out, but not quite. You often can't tell what you are supposed to be looking at amongst the deep blue skies suffused with a strange light, silhouetted houses, glowing clouds, a choppy sea and fiery horizon, the light trails of stars taken with an unsteady hand - descriptions of luminescence.

Formally these images are very like those of Concorde - the rooftops, the tracery of branches, skyscapes bisected by telephone wires. Being on the earth and looking up, Tillmans has not produced expansive panoramas, but instead a strange sensation of containment: a modest, medium-sized view of the infinite. His work seems to suspend the present, rather than act as a souvenir of the past. This is something more complicated than evidence or nostalgia. Neither melancholic nor a serving of facts, the photographs leave us feeling insecure, dissatisfied, because what can be said about them never quite explains why they should be so affecting.