Ralph Waldo Emerson has this to say on the difference between academic and letter writing: “The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, – and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words”. This exchange of letters between Herman Asselberghs and Emiliano Battista certainly hopes to prove Emerson right, though it will be for you, the reader, to decide whether their exchanges are graced with “good thought” and “happy expression”. Their subject is cinema and anything related thereto that seems to capture and reflect something of the contemporary situation. An exchange can be discrete, or build on an earlier one; it can be long, or short; lopsided, or even-keeled; it can come across as a dialogue, or as two monologues joined only by a common object... There are no rules, other than sticking to “chosen words”.
I can hardly believe that it’s been a full month, and more, since Heine and Yukiko had their première night. During drinks afterwards, I hinted at corresponding about the Wolfgang Tillmans show at Tate Modern. My plan was to convince you to take the next Eurostar to London and enjoy it for yourself. Well, that didn’t happen. Since I am writing this letter well after the show’s closing date, I can only try to voice the profound impression that it made on me. Consider it a late report on a very timely exhibition.
The title of the show simply read 2017. In the heart of London, on the façade of a major national museum, within walking distance from the British Parliament, the figure conjured but one image: post-Brexit. Inside, the 14-room survey of Tillmans’ 21st century output indeed culminated in a poetic reflection on the major quake in European politics. Still, upon sauntering through the large and wide-ranging selection of pictures large and small, framed and unframed, hung high and low, or spread out on tables, I started to perceive 2017 as equally marking this moment in time, when high resolution camera phones have become completely ubiquitous. The topic’s Wiki page proves me right. This month actually turns out to be somewhat of an anniversary for phonecams. Allow me to cut and paste: “On June 11, 1997, Philippe Kahn instantly shared the first pictures from the maternity ward where his daughter Sophie was born. He wirelessly transmitted his cell phone pictures to more than 2,000 family, friends and associates around the world. Kahn's wireless sharing software and camera integrated into his cell phone augured the birth of instant visual communications. Kahn's cell phone transmission is the first known publicly shared picture via a cell phone”.
Fast-forward two decades to the age of social media, when mass posting, tagging, sharing, and liking of recorded memories is standard practice. To make pictures by phonecam now is beyond easy, quite as natural as texting and surely less conspicuous these days than making a regular phone call. The routine recording of encountering people, things, and places, and of experiencing moments: this compulsive need to capture the ephemeral mainly produces ephemeral data to be uploaded to the cloud or stored on hard disks. Taken abundantly and without much thought, these digital souvenirs materialize mostly, if not solely, on the light-emitting screens of increasingly compact, lightweight, and thus mobile devices. Less than a century ago, Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin had to fill at least two large train cars with equipment and trained collaborators to be able to film, develop, edit, print and screen images on one single location. Today, anyone who can afford the expense of a smartphone-cum-mobile subscription uses the same portable machine for taking, viewing, handling, and disseminating pictures (while running an office, manning a communication unit, and enjoying an entertainment centre on the same device). Dedicated users tend to keep their cell phone close to heart, and not just because it is expensive. It is personal stuff, it is about personal space, much like the photos that we make. It is also about the early 21st century sensation of tactile seeing: an intimate correspondence between hand and eye in relation to screen and surroundings. You know, like when you swipe through your messages and check breaking news while you’re looking for your car using a cam pic to help you remember where you parked it, all the while trying not to hit someone else’s vehicle with your pushcart. Should that happen, you and others will surely take detailed photos for evidence in any insurance claim.
It would be simply incorrect to identify Tillmans’ extended art practice as photography. The man specializes in pictures, sure, and he dabbles in music and video, but 2017 attested first and foremost to exhibition making as tantamount to photo making and, especially, to print making. I must say that I was familiar with the artist’s work before entering the London show. Over the years, I had taken a good look at the many photo books he has published. I had frequently come across his pictures in different magazines as well. I had visited at least two smaller shows of his in galleries abroad. Still, at Tate, the scope and depth of the work (finally) dawned on me, very early into my visit. In room 1 my curiosity was immediately sparked by two images of a digital printer taken at an industry trade fair (Double Exposure V and III, 2012). In room 2, I gasped in wonder at the picture of a minutely dismantled, defunct colour photocopier that the artist bought with his winnings from the 2000 Turner Prize and used to the full. Turning the corner, in room 3, I was overwhelmed by a large-format inkjet print of the colourful tableaux of a crowded Ethiopian market (Market 1, from the 2012 Neue Welt series). Knowing that I had previously sighted all three images in publications, yet realizing that it was the mounted objects themselves that made me see them for the first time, I backtracked to the first room and from there on studied and admired each and every print in the entire show.
I am probably lagging behind here in terms of Tillmans’ work and/or photo printing in general, but I must say that I was (and still am) really in awe of the sheer materiality of the textures and tones reproduced in that large set of exhibited pictures, the greater part ink-jet printed in various formats on paper or (a few) on aluminium. From now on, I suggest that we refer to Tillmans as a print maker instead of a photographer. Apparently, I am not the only one beguiled by the machinery. It is the artist himself, first and foremost, who seems enthralled by it. You’ll find proof on YouTube when you watch his short 2011 video Printing Press - Total Solar Eclipse. In it, he manages to turn the Heidelberg Speedmaster XL printing press into a rhythmic play of abstract images set to the tune of his own technopop song, ‘Make It Up As You Go Along’, partly fabricated by using the repetitive sounds of that very machine. Tillmans clearly finds his subjects close to home. Whether it is friends or lovers, kindred spirits in clubs and demos, strangers during travels, still-lives and hardware in the studio, waves and clouds in nature, or public figures posing as part of an assignment, the world at large effortlessly becomes part of a living practice that becomes print making tangible colours and fabrics of the now.
Did you know that there is this rare directness to his material? The artist’s habit of pinning a good many unframed prints on the museum walls with bulldog clips strongly contributes to the pleasant feeling of being able to step with ease into the world(s) of Tillmans. Or, to put differently, seen from his perspective: by getting rid of both frame and glass pane (respectively strapping and fencing the photo), and by then dispersing all images (framed ones included) in a quasi-nonchalant way throughout the entire space, he manages to install almost literally a sense of proximity to the sharp renderings of his private and public surroundings. Depending on your likings, there are many examples to highlight. Tillmans cherishes a great love for bodies anyway, and so there are plenty of tactile pictures of people to relate to. In book form, one of my favourite series is last year’s Conor Donlon: a long-term portrait of one person, chronicling a friendship through a fine selection of photos taken over the past 15 years. In 2017, I was astonished – as many others were, I suppose – by a large-format close-up from below and behind of a pair of balls and buttocks (nackt, 2, 2014). And equally taken by a profile shot of a young man’s long, pale neck, caught between the faint stubble around his nape and the black cotton of his hoodie (Collum, 2001).
Well into the exhibition, I was unexpectedly impressed by a close shot of the lower back of a person wearing a backpack over his jacket that leaves uncovered part of his sweater over jeans (blacks, 2011). To me, this study of different shades of blue-grey and black, showing 7 distinct textiles in one compact frame, made me grasp why I love this entire body of work. (If you are fond of cars, you could probably have had the same epiphany in front of one single bright-red image out of the 2012 Headlight series, which focuses on the shiny surfaces of luxury car headlamps.) One: the utterly prosaic subject of the image made clear to me that here is someone who is deeply convinced that all and everything is worth looking at, and consequently worth recording. Little did I know that this appears to be somewhat of an axiom for Tillmans: the title of his 2003 Tate Britain show read If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. Two (and this is a lot harder to articulate): the complex nature of this simple picture and, by extension, of this entire highly accessible oeuvre, flaunts its resolute contemporariness. Watching the show, I couldn’t help hearing Rimbaud’s words echoing in every room: “Avant tout, il faut être moderne!”
One could hardly miss Tillmans’ joyful embracing of the here and now in the many empathic images of modern people in contemporary settings full of present-day things. I sensed its presence in 17 Years’ Supply: a 2014 matter-of-fact top shot of a banal cardboard box, quite filled with the empties of different types of HIV medicines. To me, it was one of the most touching images in the show precisely because of its lack of sentimentality. That is what I mean by the layered complexity of these seemingly straightforward pictures. They are at the same time abstract and figurative, conceptual and realistic, observational and biased, intimate and social, visual and haptic, monochrome and colourful, tightly framed and open ended, precise and relaxed, picture and print. I can discern a similar to and fro between Tillmans’ entire photographic undertaking and phonecam culture. Yes, Tillmans is undeniably a professional photographer at work, with a very good eye for composition, framing, lensing, light, deciding on the right distance, choosing the decisive moment and what not. And yes, he is an accomplished, prolific, and world famous visual artist whose work sells for high prices on the art market. Still, it seems to me that he, too, is essentially preoccupied with capturing the ephemeral and eager to produce recorded evidence of his existence. The key contrast between his artistic practice and the one of a regular phonecam user may well lie in the printing: only artists seem not to have enough simply by looking at passing pictures on handheld, luminous screens. Of course, I know that there is a world of difference here. But I cannot stop thinking about how 2017 must have felt to a visitor not necessarily versed in contemporary art. My guess is that she or he has encountered a very identifiable universe and somehow recognized a way of looking at the contemporary world. For once, the spurious remark that one hears far too many times in exhibition spaces – “I could have done that myself”, or “Anyone can do that” – may well have some truth to it.
Tillmans’ full dedication to the here and now fuels what was going on in room 7 of 2017. The work shown there, under the title Playback Room, is a temporary space acoustically designed for listening to recorded music. Visitors are invited to take a seat and listen to music at almost the same quality at which it was originally mastered. There was an image involved in this non-photographic installation work, and a strong one at that. All chairs were very orderly placed facing a demarcated front stage area, as if the usual artist, curator, or panel talk was about to begin. Except that there were no table, no chairs, no microphones. Instead, there on the stage was a compact high-end hi-fi sound system with two towering speakers sounding vintage eighties EDM at optimum playback quality. The set-up could have well been a Tillmans photo come to life. While listening, I was as much seduced by the visual perfection of the ultra-modern equipment as by its razor-sharp sound reproduction. I did not have to look far to trace the connection between the sonic exactitude in the audio room and the sharpness of the pictures on the walls of the adjacent spaces. And both are not that far removed from the detailed precision of digital projection on cinema screens today. Much closer to that rich aesthetics for sure than to the familiar one of the poor image and the compressed audio file of everyday internet culture. Although it goes without saying that I watched Tillmans and his band Fragile’s recent visual music album online, of inferior quality and all, and enjoyed it just as much.
That’s Desire/Here We Are (2016) was dropped on YouTube two months before the opening of 2017. In under half an hour, it articulates the show’s emotional undercurrent by minimal means. Happening people such as model Hari Nef and actor Bashir Daviid Naim, hula hooper Karis Wilde, Tillmans himself, his band mates and collaborators are all dancing and posing by themselves in a small white cube bathed in various soothing hues of neon light. The music is disarmingly catchy, in spite of (or thanks to) the artist’s off-key singing in 80’s-inspired, post-punk synth pop songs of his own making. At 18 minutes in, track 5, ‘Naive Me’, says it all: this is how Tillmans is coping with what he terms in the liner notes “the shock of realizing the unimaginable happened on June 23” of last year. The referendum on the future of the UK’s EU membership is what happened on that day. And the spare lyrics speak volumes about how he feels affected by its outcome: “25 years ago I couldn’t have thought this could happen / In disbelief I stand despaired / How did we end up in this shit?”. The liner notes again: “I wanted the overall feel of the EP to be reflecting the desire to carry on and live our lives in a quest for personal happiness, whatever the circumstances are. We need to protest and campaign, but this shouldn’t stop us from reaffirming love and life, here and now”. To my above list of bridged dichotomies, I can now add hope and despair. Lightness and gravity. Mourning and militancy.
Room 14, then. The solemn apotheosis to the show. A patchwork of signs of the times: small-format pictures of concrete border zones, passport areas, and separation walls. A set of 4 equally small pictures of an apple tree branch steadily growing from a pot on a balcony of a London flat (I don’t want to get over you, 2015). Three large, standing, soft-tone scapes in which the horizon stars (Tag/Nacht II, 2010, Transient, 2015, Peninsula, 2011). Three proposals for another kind of boundary, more gentle and muted than the harsh dividing line between opponents and proponents of leaving the EU. Tillmans used these and other of his pictures in which sky, sea, and earth meet for his self-initiated, public poster project backing the Remain campaign. The eloquent activism has made way for lyricism. While the posters are still up for download at tillmans.co.uk, these calm, semi-abstract views into the hazy distance no longer aim to encourage people to register and then to vote ‘In’. The world has turned and it continues to do so at a relentless, violent pace. Any valid contemplation of dismay and loss needs to be countered by the creation of a sense of urgency. And so, in the same room, Tillmans also hangs his most monumental work, provided with a surprisingly suggestive title. The State We’re In (2015) pictures a wall of waves in large format and in incredible detail. Under moody sky, the sombre, heaving surface of the Atlantic seems to push the high horizon out of the frame. There is no human presence in sight. Even Tillmans’ look over the blue-grey, borderless ocean feels like disembodied: the digital camera and the ink-jet print produce just too sharp an image to match human sight. Maybe this otherworldly seascape can, consequently, work as an allegory of the movement of history itself. Of the way we currently experience history: adrift, eruptive, overwhelming.
The midst of the room offered some grounding by way of installing a very simple historical perspective. A4 prints neatly arranged on two elegant, wooden tables conveyed soberly typeset one-liners that read: “1969 was 24 years away from 1945. 24 years back from now is 1992”. Or: “Now 1975 is as long ago as World War II was in 1975”. In deploying shared history and collective memory, Time / Mirrored (2017) cautiously connects the present to the past to the future. When typing these words, I now suddenly recall a photo book on our bookshelves: Concorde, by Wolfgang Tillmans. It was a present from a dearest friend for my birthday in 1999. It only has pictures of the Concorde in overflight. Wow.
I wish you’d seen the show,
Your letter stumped me. It is a wonderful reading of Tillmans’ Tate Modern show, 2017, and I was particularly taken with the way you organized it, walking your reader through the show room by room, even taking him or her with you when you found yourself backtracking, so that the reader felt like he or she were at the Tate walking alongside you. The problem, though, as you know, is that I didn’t see the show, so I’ve been at a loss as to how to respond, particularly since I don’t know Tillman’s work that well. Certainly a deeper knowledge of his work would have given me some sort of reserve to draw from in my reply, but even that might not have been enough, because what you offer is a reading of the show, of how a particular combination and arrangement of works produces the effects, ruminations about Brexit, and reflections about social media present that you discuss in your letter.
Stumped, my first instinct was to focus on what you say in abstraction from the work/show. I was intrigued, for example, by what you have to say about the phonecam, about the fact that nearly all of us these days is carrying an HD camera on our person, about the instantaneity with which images travel: upload a photo to your Instagram account (or whatever), and, if you’re lucky, the ‘likes’ start pouring in seconds later. What I find striking about all this, and it’s something you don’t stress as much in your letter, is that images so easily shared are just as easily forgotten. In other words, the ‘cred’ or satisfaction lasts only as good as the next posting. My teen-age daughter Ella is constantly on her phone, and I imagine Kobe is too. Not a day goes by without a selfie or two, without some sort of image being shared on social media. The curious thing, though, is that I don’t think Ella ever looks back at the images she takes and shares, and I suspect that she would be annoyed and disappointed if a virus wiped out her hard disk, but I doubt very much that it’d ruin her day. Imagine the same thing happening to us two, and I’m pretty certain that it would ruin our day. That difference in our respective relation to images is not insignificant.
You mention at some point that, at the heart of Tillmans’ aesthetic, is the conviction that “everything is worth looking at, and consequently worth recording”. You even note that Tillmans had emblazoned this credo in the title to an exhibition from 2003: If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. It’s a nice thought, and I’m not in general adverse to it, but I’m not sure that that is what’s happening on social media. Also, it’s a fragile thought, because it must contend with – it must accept, in fact, as an equally valid logical conclusion – the opposite claim, viz.: if even one thing doesn’t matter, then nothing matters. Remember what Ivan tells his pious brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, when Alyosha is trying to convince him of the intelligent goodness of God’s creation? As long as there is even one innocent child suffering, as long as such a “scandal” (Ivan’s word) can be allowed to happen, then Ivan is not buying into so much as one iota of Alyosha’s spiel. That one scandal weighs heavier than all the goodness and intelligence Alyosha may point to; that single blemish (and Ivan knew just as well as we do that it is hardly singular!) on the face of His creation cannot be washed away, or ignored. So no deal. And we could go on here to rehearse everything Camus has to say about another Dostoevsky character, Kirilov, particularly about his reasoning for committing suicide: since God doesn’t exist, he must kill himself – not as an act of revenge, Camus says, but as an act of revolt. The distinction is important, because for Camus Kirilov’s suicide is not an act of revenge against the deceit, now exposed. In other words, it is not an act that compounds the nihilism represented by God’s death: since God doesn’t exist, nothing matters, and since nothing matters, my life doesn’t matter either. That, in a nutshell, is the revenge logic. Kirilov’s suicide is a revolt against that nihilism: he reasons, absurdly, that in killing himself he will become God, and thus vanquish the very nihilism that justified his suicide in the first place.
I’ve been going on about that because, well, it’s something I can respond to. And also because, as I mentioned just above, it seems to me that you are suggesting that something of Tillmans’ credo, which he gives shape and body to with his art, is at play in you call the ‘routine recording’ of just about everything with the phonecams we carry with us. Social media encourages, even exacerbates, the idea that ‘everything is worth looking at, and consequently worth recording’. Hence your speculation that even visitors not “versed in contemporary art” probably found a world that they recognize in 2017; the show, you continue, may actually have given some truth to the remark that “one hears far too many times in exhibitions spaces”: “I could have done that myself”, or ”Anyone can do that”. Sure, anyone can drip paint onto canvas; having the idea to do so, and actually pushing through with that idea, now that’s a different story: not everyone can do that. You locate the difference between Tillmans and the vast majority of us in the fact that, for him (and for artists in general), it is not enough to swipe through these images on a screen: Tillmans actually prints them. That observation leads to the very intriguing and provocative claim that we should not think of Tillmans as a photographer so much as a printmaker. I like this idea a lot, even if my ignorance of Tillmans’ work means that I can’t do more than simply tell you that! But let me offer, anyway, a counter-suggestion, just for the sake of argument. It could be that the difference depends just as much on the act of looking: recording, and the printing that goes with it, or follows it, are continuations of that act of looking. Unless you think things have inherent meaning (and, in general, I don’t), we have to look at them, we have to take the risk of addressing them, in order to invest them meaning. It’s up to us to make them matter – including, in Kirilov’s case, by dying precisely so that they would matter.
Now, I’m not at all sure that this is what’s happening in our image-crazed present. The thousands of pics on Ella’s phone seem to me less about looking than about showing, displaying, self-fashioning. Hence the narcissism that we tend so easily – and not altogether incorrectly – to associate with the manic and compulsive attachment to social media. Insofar as the distinction makes sense – and I don’t have a fully worked-out treatise on it – the ubiquitous practice seems to me less a way of looking than a way of showing, less a way of investing the world with meaning than bait thrown into the water to see how many fish bite. It suffers from the same circularity that Plato says defines desire – plenitude followed by emptiness followed by plenitude … – and explains why desire can never actually be satisfied. In a way, I don’t think the idea of recording or documenting, which, as I suggested, depend on looking, is part of it at all – hence my suspicion that, were Ella’s phone to be wiped clean, she’d move on without caring all that much. So much to say that it is just as possible that recognition of Tillmans’ world, as presented in 2017, would leave visitors (“not versed in contemporary art”) baffled: why go to the Tate to see what they already see every day on their phones or tablets?
You know that I’m pretty addicted to podcasts, and you may even remember that I suggested we should exchange letters about one that was a sort of worldwide sensation a while back called Serial. The first season was brilliant and gripping (the second a lot less so), and it was interesting to see someone harness the format of TV series (and, I suppose, radio series long ago) for journalism: the first season of Serial revisits a crime committed almost twenty years ago. Anyway, more recently, I’ve been listening to a short podcast series (seven episodes) by the musician and writer Damon Krukowski called Ways of Hearing. Inspired by John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (the TV series more than the book that followed from it), Ways of Hearing wants to look at something very specific, which Krukowski spells out at the top of each episode: the podcast “explores the nature of listening in our digital world”, and across seven episodes he discusses how the “switch from analog to digital audio is changing our perceptions – of time, of space, of love, money, and power. This is about sound – the medium we are sharing together now – but I’m worried about the quality of that sharing, because we don’t seem to be listening to each other very well right now in the world. Our voices carry further than they ever did before, thanks to digital media, but how are they being heard?” I like the meta element, the discussion of sound through a sound (as opposed to a written) medium. And you will not be surprised to hear that he thinks that sharing has led, Krukowski thinks, to a greater and greater solipsism. A Boston resident, he recalls that, twenty years ago, the whole city would erupt simultaneously in celebration of a Red Sox homerun; today, because of time-lags inherent to digital media, the simultaneous eruption has become a sort of staccato, since everyone not at Fenway is no longer in the same timeframe. Subway riders in Tokyo, he notes, close their eyes and pretend to be asleep to avoid eye contact; in New York, riders close their ears with earphones to avoid ‘ear contact’. In a later episode, he discusses the experience of walking into record and book stores, and what’s at stake here is not nostalgia but an observation into two ways of being in the world (if I may): as you walk into a store, you must adapt to its reality; shopping online, and life online more generally, adapts itself to you: search engines collect information and little by little ‘learn’ to anticipate your preferences, eventually getting very good at showing you precisely what you want to see.
Anyway, it doesn’t take an enormous leap to see that what he says about sound applies just as much to images: their ubiquity, and the ease with which they are shared, doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is being shared in any meaningful way. It could be that the very opposite is the case. The fact that we see so much everywhere and all the time doesn’t mean that we’re actually looking at anything – if by looking we mean something more than registering data, something closer to what Tillmans does and that manages to invest, to transform, reams of data into something meaningful, something that actually matters (if one thing matters…) to us beyond the ‘like’, something that we may want to register, record, and even print, and that we would be disappointed to lose. Roland Barthes says in S/Z that people who fail to reread are condemned to reading the same story everywhere. Sometimes I think of that when I see Ella on her phone, infinitely reading the same story, disguised as different, day after day.
I recognize that these are the reflections of a middle-age man about a practice and a culture (social media) that I know nothing about and that, in general, I feel entirely alien to (it looks so boring!). And no doubt there’s more at work in it than I’ve managed to make out. It occurs to me now that, in this sense too, it would have been instructive and eye-opening to have seen Tillmans’ show, and that, although I played devil’s advocate for lack of better options in my reply, you’re no doubt right that visitors (including Ella) would have felt some form of kinship with, and not just bafflement at, the show. I really wish I had seen it too!
Well, my friend, that’s it from my side. I hope this finds you well,