Life Is a Fold

Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition at Peder Lund in Oslo imagines nature and the body beyond traditional constraints.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Garten, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Peder Lund.

The constellation of photographic works in Wolfgang Tillmans’s After Venice at Peder Lund recalls Dada’s strange collages where intimate attachments between bodies, matter, and things evolve. Brightly coloured summer plants in a lush garden (Garten,2008); potted soft plants on a sunny concrete balcony, (Plant life, 2005); and a forest of black and grey trees washed-out in bright white sunlight (Wald (Briol I), 2008) occupy the same room as a series of glossy abstract surfaces (Silver installation VII, 2009), wrinkled clothes hanging on a chair (Faltenwurf (Morgen) II, 2009), and a large picture of a warmly lit studio or office in which we glimpse the cropped and decentred body of a young Black man (meeting lights, 2006) – the only human figure in the exhibition.

Silver installation VII belongs to a body of work that Tillmans began in the 1990s. It consists of photo-sensitive paper, sometimes exposed to different light sources, fed through a manual processing machine. The unframed surfaces that make up Silver installation VII are carefully installed in a grid on the wall with varying distances between them. Other than occasional traces of silver nitrate, water, dirt, and dust and almost invisible scratches and dots, they show nothing but thick layers of colour: variations of blue, white, green, black, purple, red, and pink.

The layering of colours and their nuances suggests movement, making the viewing experience hypnotic and meditative while evoking a sense of intimacy, play, and openness. Each unique work conveys the material reality of its making and the life that flows between natural and artificial materials, between surface and sensation. In Silver installation VII,photographyis not a passive representation of reality; emphasising the photographic process at a time (the late 1990s) when photography had become glossier and more vital and could circulate in new ways, these images also point to the material world as essentially relational, in the most general sense of the term.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Silver installation VI, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Peder Lund. 
Photo: Uli Holz © Peder Lund.

However, this world of emerging relations can only be accessed if we encounter the Silver works as a part of the larger whole that the exhibition presents. Their monochromatic surfaces are no more or less meaningful than the precise textural contrast between green plant leaves and blurry red flowers in Garten, or the wrinkled purple T-shirt and blue tracksuit jacket occupying the entire surface in Faltenwurf (Morgen) II. The word “faltenwurf” is German for drapery – folds of fabric hung or stretched. There is something intimate, perhaps even desirable, about these casual folds. In The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1988) Gilles Deleuze uses the figure of the fold to challenge accounts of subjectivity that presume a simple opposition between interiority and exteriority, between inside and outside, surface and depth. In his conception, humans are not sovereign subjects among passive objects; both matter and humans emigrate compulsively and uncontrollably between states of being in a world of endless folds and surfaces.  

As a concept that reimagines the subject through aesthetics, the fold shows up in a variety of ways in After Venice: blurred flowers and vivid leaves reaching for the sun; large trunks and branches suspended between soil and sky like horizontal and vertical spines; smooth fabrics that appeal to be touched; whole surfaces offering only vistas of colour; and an atmospheric picture of architecture that confounds our sense of space. These image surfaces all evoke an intimate proximity to the sensual qualities and unstable forms of both real matter and bodies. Demonstrating photography’s capacity to produce new realities by dissolving or turning ingrained models and hierarchies on their heads, they invite us to reimagine what a subject or an individual is in relation to others and to their surroundings.

After Venice may not stand out in comparison to more wide-ranging presentations of Tillmans’s work from the last decade, such as his large and complex image constellations at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2012–13 and his retrospective at Tate Modern in London in 2017, or his forthcoming exhibition at MoMa in New York later this year. But despite its modest scale, After Venice still intones the essential questions at stake in Tillmans’s work: Where and how is reality produced? What worlds are possible? To affect and be affected are capacities belonging to all surfaces and bodies, Tillmans seems to suggest, regardless of whether they are living in the human sense or not. After Venice imagines a safe and transformative ecology in which its inhabitants probe a reality beyond representation, where the boundaries between self and other and nature and culture are always porous and interpenetrable.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Faltenwurf (Morgen) II, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Peder Lund.