Celestial bodies, water, sunsets, computers, nude bodies, print technologies, plants, paper sheets, telescopes, iPhones. These are objects, photographically mediated, juxtaposed, and unconventionally installed on the walls of the Hasselblad Center in Gothenburg for Wolfgang Tillmans’s Hasselblad Award Exhibition. Some of these images are glossy and saturated, others noisy and grainy.
We see a wall of A4 printed portraits and images from the 1990s: portraits of the artist himself, unframed pages from Homme+ and sheets from other magazine collaborations. In the same room a large, glossy, and saturated inkjet print of empty medicine bottles is installed. There is a framed C-print of male genitalia; a framed black-and-white poor Xerox copy of an unrecognizable landscape; a large inkjet print of digitalized TV noise; poetic abstract photographs; a group of tables displaying sheets from the journal Natur und Wissenshaft; images of an airplane wing; close-ups of modern technologies at ESO (European Southern Observatory); and many other images – some found, others taken by the artist himself. In a symbiosis with these diverse photographs, the repetitive sound of the video work Printing Press Heidelberg Speedmaster XL – Real Time Total Eclipse Nightfall and Exit (2011/2015), creates an addictive rhythm that haunts the entire space.
Taking a closer look at his motifs, Tillmans’s image-world is a unification of technologies and biological lives in a media ecology – or perhaps even cosmology – where both humans and non-human entities become active agents with the power to force, change, and effect. In his 2010 artist’s book Neue Welt – comprising a body of work the artist made using a high-definition digital camera for the very first time, juxtaposed with his abstract non-camera produced Silver works – Tillmans himself notes:
“I see the earth and, most importantly, all living things as merely the formation of a particular astronomical condition, which specifically exists on this planet. The human assumption that we all heed, that life on earth is in and of itself separate: ’We live on the earth’, ’We populate the earth’, and ’Save the planet!’ just isn’t so, because we are the planet; all of us are the formation of these conditions and, for that reason, only the expression of an astrogeological concoction. The same is inherent in the juxtaposition of people, plants, constructions, and technologies: Everything is matter continually renewing itself and transforming from one aggregate state into another.”
Indeed, materialities and energies within this ‘astrogeological concoction’ become vital if not fundamental to his work. This photographic ontology does not rely on images as representations per se, but rather on an idea of the photograph as a process: a flow of matter and energies where the world is manifested as a profound entity that is continually transforming its own existence – as an aggregate of forces, a place where people, plants, and technologies become vital living objects on their own cosmological terms. While natural forces of water and sunlight flow in and around the structure of the earth, so does electricity, information and communication. This image-world expands our understanding of ecology, media and nature itself.
The powerful water mediated on the large inkjet print La Palma (2014), the energy of the sunlight in untitled (Island red sky & ocean) (2015), the weed slowly growing from the earth’s soil in Weed (2014) can all, following Manuel De Landa, be seen as lives engaging in self-organizing behavior. The same could be said about the technological processes behind these works – processes of programming, scanning, heating, storing, lighting, transforming, printing. The large saturated artworks manifest themselves and their motifs in front of our eyes, sometimes making the invisible visible, the digital tactile, the passive active, and so forth; they are, unambiguously photographs. Yet they are also processes or motors that, following Maurizio Lazzarato “accumulate and produce duration and time and thus affective energy.”
Almost at the same time as Wolfgang Tillmans was making his initial photographs using the first digital laser Canon copier, the philosopher Félix Guattari published his essay The Three Ecologies (1989). Guattari recognized the acceleration of data and technological processes, and assumed that the human species would witness “the unfolding of animal, vegetable, cosmic, and machinic becomings which are already prefigured by the prodigious expansion of computer-aided subjectivity.” Can social, mental and environmental ecologies exist without one another? Is it possible to think about the growing weed, the light of the Sun, and analog TV noise as separated lives in our contemporary world? Following the work of Tillmans, the answer would be no.
In 2012, Tillmans returned to video. His engagement with video technology is unknown to many despite the fact that he started working with video already in the 1980s, both in an art context and for the music scene (for instance, an extradordinary music video for Pet Shop Boys). At the Hasselblad Center, the one video work exhibited is highly present. When viewing Printing Press Heidelberg Speedmaster XL – Real Time Total Eclipse Nightfall and Exit, we see a moving image of an enormous Heidelberger printing system. The sound of the machine’s mechanical movements is synchronized with the repetitive electronic sound added to the video, vaguely reminiscent of 1990s club culture. We follow the feeding of paper and the distribution of the thick colors with our bodies, in the rhythm of our heartbeats. Metaphorically, the work prints the entire exhibition. The video is suddenly silenced, and a static landscape of an ocean horizon underneath a solar eclipse appears on the screen. The ‘real time’ speed of the celestial bodies and the ocean contrast essentially with the speed of the rapid machine, as two different temporalities in the same world, one natural and one machinic. As much as the video is about the temporalities of printing machines, planets, the sun, and video technology, it interacts with the exhibition’s queer subcultural subjects of the 1990s. Consequently, another political dimension is added to the work, the exhibition, and Tillmans’s practice in general.
On the other side of the wall hangs the large inkjet print Sendeschluss/End of Broadcast IV (2014): an image of analog TV static illustrating the random black-and-white pattern that appears, snow-like, on the screen when no transmission signal is received. The print is so large that the motif of the image becomes difficult to identify. The presence of these electronic television signals nevertheless has a special significance in a time – our time – when analog television has lost its original agency, having been replaced by digital codes. It is precisely these ‘invisible’ electronic signals and the information they transmit – via a machinic, noisy randomness – that this work aims to visualize. Indeed, the work is, in itself, a digitalization of analog static: the electric white noise is scanned and inkjet-printed on large-scale paper.
Redistribution is without doubt an essential concept of this show. Tillmans’s artist’s book What is Wrong with Redistribution? (2015) can be read as both an extension of the exhibition and a retrospective of his work Truth Study Centre (2005–). The book contains diverse documents and photographs: newspaper articles, found photographs, photographs taken by the artist himself of people, traditional sculptures, various machines and technologies, screens, and so forth. In Truth Study Centre these images are installed as photo-collages under glass on wooden tables – appearing as archeological objects of the past. New tables are displayed at the Hasselblad Center, some with captions such as: «Now 1980 is as long ago, as World War II was in 1980». With traces of DADA-collage, the rich material on the tables becomes an archive that challenges history and the sciences: evolution, politics, war, art history, astronomy, and so forth. The redistributed images and documents themselves (and the book) rhetorically ask how truth and knowledge are expressed – and perhaps even produced – by information and communication technologies.
Abstract photography is forever present in Tillmans’s work. A smaller selection of images from the scanned and printed light-painting series Freischwimmer is installed as framed C-prints in the main room. This recognizable work might be most well-known for its appearance on one of the main walls of the Panorama Bar at the Berlin club Berghain. The images, produced directly on light-sensitive paper without the use of a camera lens, appear to mimic the inner human body and flesh: the close-ups of what virtually appear to be raw skin, armpit hair, human veins and bodily fluids, somehow make us aware of our own nervous system.
According to Tillmans himself, there are no distinctions between his abstract and representative images. Yet, what becomes profound is the thought of forgetting semantics and the discourse of photography as a representation. If one manages to do so, Tillmans’s argument makes sense. The representative images, in particular 17 Years of Supply (2014), Jochen Taking a Bath (1997), and almost all the material presented on the Truth Study Centre tables, are surfaces that certainly imitate nature, objects, humans beings, things. Their indexicality is difficult to deny. However, they are also codes and feedback systems consisting of flows of information and energies ‘invisible’ to our sensory apparatus. It is perhaps these processes (in our brains as much as on screens, paper, and other media) that the abstract work of Freishwimmer explore. Reversing the development of the photograph, they underline their own ontology, based on flows of light and electricity. Tillmans’s images, and therefore the exhibition as a whole, remind us that media technologies are not extensions of the human body and sense apparatuses, as Marshall McLuhan once claimed. They are a part of us, synchronized with us, our senses, and our reality, as nodes in a large network where plants, inkjet liquid, the sun, weeds, genitalia, computers, printers, and water are all machines, producing life, energies and affects.