On March 3, 2017, Turner Prize-winning photographer (and since 2013, Royal Academician) Wolfgang Tillmans live-premiered his sound, light and musical composition, “Fragile: Wolfgang Tillmans, Tim Knapp, and Jay Pluck,” in the South Tank gallery at London’s Tate Modern. Though this performance was billed online by the Tate as an “open-form music installation” that is “part rehearsal, part performance,” this reviewer experienced the event as more of a hybrid, twenty-first-century happening/sound installation composed of: light, sound, slide projection, video, spectator participation, spoken word, poetry, and original music –all of which were interlaced with political and social commentary relating to current global issues. “Fragile” —a reference to Tillmans’ alter ego— was as an immersive, full-body, and multi-sensory aesthetic and political experience that complemented, and extended, Tillmans’ parallel exhibition of photographs, video, musical, and other works, now also on view (until June 11, 2017) in the Boiler House at the Tate Modern.
“Fragile” comprises a diverse variety of audio-visual media, including originally-composed, pre-recorded dance club music (perhaps a nod to the Berghain club in Berlin), audio field recordings (e.g., the voice of a Sainsbury’s self-checkout counter, and sounds of a Berlin subway train), a lightshow, dance videos, and photography projected onto the walls of the large, cylindrical space of the South Tank. Just prior to the artists’ appearance on stage, a rainbow-coloured light sculpture appeared in the near-dark space, the individual lights of which began to rotate and bathe the audience, and interior walls of the usually grey, concrete walls of the South Tank, in jewel-tones of light. The rainbow light sculpture seemed to symbolise both the identity of the artist, and that of the LGBTQ community, and Tillmans effectively used it to define the exhibition space as a queer, safe place for collective reflection, political consciousness-raising, and action.
The full performance of “Fragile” (lasting 100 minutes) featured alternately-played, live and pre-recorded multi-media segments, ranging in length from approximately thirty seconds to ten minutes. Many of the live pieces were performed by Tillmans himself, who —in a departure from his still photography in which he rarely depicts his own image— began to tentatively, and intermittently, occupy center stage. Tillmans’ pieces mixed poetry and song to express his concerns about human rights and other global political, social, and environmental crises.
During the performance, Tillmans was accompanied by deep bass, techno, and house-inspired music played by his bandmates, Tim Knapp and Jay Pluck, as he sang texts, such as:
“Come out, speak out, for your life and for your rights!”
“Because it happened before, it can’t happen again.”
“Twenty-five years ago, I could never have thought that this could have happened.”
“His son had recently been angered by seeing two men kissing.”
For this reviewer, “Fragile” seemed to articulate several themes of crucial importance to the artist. One of these was the concept of community, which Tillmans created through his all-welcome, free-of-charge admissions policy, and his use of the round, inclusive gallery space of the Tate Modern’s South Tank. A second important theme was LGBTQ and human rights, which Tillmans rightly interprets as subject to massive attack in our contemporary society. Lastly, the performance appeared to have an aesthetic purpose as well, namely to “blur the border between still and motion pictures” —a feat Tillmans successfully accomplished in both his live performance of “Fragile,” and his parallel exhibition at Tate Modern.
Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 is on view at Tate Modern until 11 June 2017.