As I walked into the next gallery at Wolfgang Tillmans’s most recent exhibition at David Zwirner, I kept hearing gasps, whispers and hushed comments. As I turned the corner, I saw why immediately. A large-scale photographic print showing the close up of a man’s hairy ass and scrotum greets visitors as they enter one of the largest galleries within David Zwirner’s West 19th Street gallery. “Is this supposed to be art?” a woman next to me, evidently perturbed, mumbled curtly to her friend under breath.
To some Tillmans’s work may seem unsophisticated, crude, and ordinary. Some say there’s no point–it’s just a bunch of photos that anyone could have on their iphone or in a family album. To say make these comments is not to truly see the work, to not take enough time to look at his images and allow yourself to feel an emotional response. For this is what Tillmans’s work is all about—a personal, intimate and emotional connection to something or someone within the realm of the everyday.
A German photographer and artist, Tillmans has made quite the impact in the contemporary photography world. His career gained a high level of prominence in the 1990’s with its new approaches to subjectivity, pairing intimacy and playfulness with social critique, and the persistent questioning of existing values and hierarchies.
This latest exhibition, which closed on October 24th in New York, titled PCR (polymerase chain reaction) presented a diverse array of subjects and photographic styles. The prints are displayed haphazardly around the galleries; some are hung so low that you have to bend over and crouch to see them whereas others are stuck high up so you have to crane your neck back. It’s different, but makes you physically interact with the space, most likely what Tillmans hoped for as he designed the layout.
Everything and anything was on display; from mundane yet carefully arranged still lifes of fruit, to beautiful nature landscapes, to snapshots of protests from around the world, to dark and smoky club scenes, to intimate portraits of couples or families, to night shots of Los Angeles traffic intersections.
The arbitrary nature of these images is frustrating at first—what are we even looking at? Do any of these things even matter? Where is the artistic revelation…perhaps under that heaping pile of laundry (which every single person in the gallery has dreadfully waiting at home) that he decided to point his camera at and transform it into a print priced in the thousands?
The beauty of Tillmans’s work is that he humbly brings us back to reality. Everything around me seems familiar, like I’ve experienced or seen something similar to it before. It is comforting in a way that many contemporary shows strive not to be. Instead of shocking or irritating us with nonsensical, perverse, or ridiculous manifestations of “the limitlessness of art” Tillmans gives us a much needed breather from the weirdness of contemporary art. The images on display at David Zwirner are the in-between moments. They are reminders us of the small, seemingly insignificant details of our daily lives, which we so desperately try to ignore or transform into something fabulous and “likable.”
His next show will be opening at the end of November in the Gallery of Contemporary Art and Architecture at the České Budějovice House of Art in the Czech Republic. After that his next show will open in December at the Hasselblad Center, Göteborgs Konstmuseum in Gothenburg, Sweden.