Monday, 15th November, 2010

The Walker: Wolfgang Tillmans

18 September 2010 – 12 December 2010

Yesterday, to the Walker to view the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition. It is Remembrance Sunday and, as I arrive, Orangemen have begun assembling on the steps to St George’s Hall to lay poppy wreaths at the cenotaph. Men in black suits, bowler hats and embroidered sashes across their shoulders – apparently engaged in their own separate, afternoon service.

The bowler hat, Tessimond’s emblem of the everyman, has become peculiarly their own. The reason why Orangemen wear bowler hats today, has shifted from the origins of the custom. They now wear the hat because they are Orangemen, a ritual shared only by fox hunters, equestrian sales-persons, cabaret stars, and nervous fancy-dressers undecided whether to say ‘Laurel’, ‘Oddjob’ or ‘that guy out of Clockwork Orange’ when they arrive.

The bowler has become particularised. This undermines its origins as the great millinery leveller of class; it now denotes sectarianism. Even the universality of remembrance can be made schismatic.

Initially the Tillmans exhibition offers no such divisions. The pieces are scattered amongst the gallery’s permanent collection responding to the works that are always on display. Rather than being grouped together in one room, this accordant approach seems to say ‘it’s all just the same – whether it’s a seventeenth century Dutch interior, or a fifteenth century altar piece – it’s all just things to look at.’

I like that.

What exhibitions like this have the power to do is to challenge the ways in which we look at historical works as well as inform the way we see the modern pieces. The Tillmans exhibition certainly does that; many of the pieces explore the physical material of the photograph – paper – which in the context of a room filled with images of Christ painted on rough bits of wood, has a pretty electric quality.

The main problem is that there is no freely available map to the exhibition, which in some ways creates a sense of Homeric wandering throughout these rooms, but ultimately is very annoying. There is an uncertain sense that you might have missed something that you went there to see. There is a guidebook available from the gift shop for £1.50 – which is a reasonable price – only this is where my issue with the exhibition began. I did not have £1.50.

Being able to locate the works in a free, public exhibition is not interpretation that should need to be paid for. It hampers accessibility. This should not be privately owned information.

The Walker is one of Britain’s most important national galleries. Not simply because of the staggering collection, but because of what the institution represents. In the 1980s, the militant council leader Derek Hatton threatened to sell off Liverpool’s collection. Thatcher’s response was to nationalise all of the city’s galleries and museums. In 2001, when the Labour government introduced free entry to the national collections, the city was suddenly blessed with seven freely accessible  cultural venues. This has had an unmeasurable effect on Liverpool; unwittingly Thatcher’s actions have led to the free distribution of education and cultural nourishment amongst all people of the city. This should be a fundamental human right. Liverpool should be a model for all other places to follow.

The £1.50 is therefore a small quibble when the rest of the exhibition is, by act of parliament, free. I found however that it highlighted a key issue about some of the works. In a room filled with eighteenth century society portraiture, Tillmans has hung a large chromogenic print – Faltenwurf (Morgen) II (2009). It is a beautiful, textural piece. Filling the frame is a chair, over the back of this hangs a slightly crumpled t-shirt, inside out, seams showing. On the seat of the chair is a pair of navy-blue tracksuit bottoms. The positioning of these items perhaps implicitly recalls Sarah Lucas’s sexually provocative sculpture Pauline Bunny (1997), though the setting in Tillmans’s photograph is perfectly naturalistic. There is no reason why this should not be straightforward documentary.

Hanging the piece in this room, as Tillmans’s commentary on the wall makes clear, draws parallels between the use of textiles in the photograph and in the eighteenth century portraits around it.

‘Faltenwurf’ is one of those peculiarly brilliant German words that sums up an idea that English fumbles into a sentence. I suppose, ‘drapery’ is close, but it is not that. The Faltenwurf of Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wright of Derby and Thomas Gainsborough that surround this photograph, shows the class and status of the sitters. Wright is known to have borrowed clothing and jewellery from his clients to include in their portraits, though the general custom of the period – as particularly prevalent in the works of Reynolds – are for these fabrics to have no personal connection to the individual portrayed. They are simply props from the studio that reappear in portrait after portrait. Like the bowler hat, they are identifiers of a specific group rather than a specific individual. Rich folds of taffeta and silks, all in abundance, state plainly that these are figures with a great deal of cash.

It is fetishistism. The physical object is used as a vehicle for a larger idea and feeling. It simplifies the  vast and complicated human character into a series of physical commodities. In Tillmans’s Faltenwurf, this is taken to a greater level, by removing the sitter from the portrait completely. His work is no less a portrait than these others, but in common with the historical society paintings, the image of the sitter is a somewhat two-dimensional reduction. What do we take from Reynolds’s countless paintings of the daughters of Dukes? That the women are fair, and lovely, and wealthy, and young? Though doubtlessly they were, this seems a divisively simplistic rendering of all these personalities.

What do we assume of Tillmans’s absent sitter? The inside out t-shirt placed on the chair implies disrobing. The man who has worn these clothes is now not in them, and this gives an implicitly sexual air to the scene. The creases are not abundant folds, but suggest wear. They are the creases of a garment that has not been ironed since it was washed.

The clothes in the photograph do not suggest wealth. They are cheaply produced. They are practical, perhaps, but they are signifiers of mass-production; of sports shops with endless discount sales. This is sportswear, but it is not the sportswear worn by a professional athlete.

In the far left of the picture, from one of the tracksuit pockets, protrudes a red Biro pen. I found myself wondering about this object most in the picture. It is the cheapest available type of pen, but that it is red is curious. The pen-user has either made a specific choice to write in red, or they are precluded from choice. Conceivably, these are the clothes of a P.E. teacher – but I am not entirely convinced by this. The bottom right of the image has a door hinge. It is heavily painted over.

‘There is this disparity in class between my picture and these society portraits, if one can call them that’, Tillmans says in the text panel beside the picture. Reynolds’s folds are those of the landed gentry, Tillmans’s are those of the working class male. Yet it is more than that – Reynolds’s folds are dressed, Tillmans’s are undressed. Like Reynolds, Tillmans celebrates these objects, but he also sexualises them. There is something voyeuristic about the photograph. It is, in a sense, a celebration and eroticism of the sitter’s poverty. The sitters in Reynolds’s paintings hold the power through their dress, Tillmans’s sitter is nude of his.

Of course this is not unique to Tillmans. There is a strong theme through gay culture of glorifying the working-class male. At weekends City bankers go to clubs dressed as working class skinheads; countless men fetishise cheap sportswear and the attire of builders and road diggers. Masculinity, held up for obsessive glorification, is thought by many to be most potent in the man who has the poorest paid occupation.

Yet this image is as thinly drawn as the fair and lovely Duke’s daughter. In another room of the exhibition one wall is dominated by the huge black and white work, Empire (Punk) (2005). The piece is an enlarged fax of one of Tillmans’s early photographs. It is a fitting metaphor for the punk movement; the modern punk does not respond to the same pressures and conflicts of the first punks. They are a reproduction of the image, applying themselves to specific fetishised objects in the same way that the Orangeman wears the bowler hat.

On another wall of this room a small photograph of a market trader at his stall, Cameron (2007). Handsome, almost provocatively cruising the viewer, thumb by the broad beans, ‘Red Oak Lettuce £1’. Everything’s for sale.

This room is displayed with other works depicting people working; most strikingly is William Hamo Thornycroft’s life-size bronze The Mower (1894). It is a staggeringly homoerotic work. Shirtless, save for a leather strap, one thumb enticingly lowering the waist of his trousers, the sculpture is a bucolic fantasy of the farm labourer as a sexually potent symbol of health and happiness. He is not engaged in work but is relaxed in leisure. He enjoys the sun upon his muscular chest. He does not suffer from the physical deformities common to his class at this time, he seems unmarked by the long workless winter that has gone before – he does not, in fact, look poor at all.

In ‘The Village’ Crabbe writes of the artist’s portrayal of working class figures in this way:

From this chief cause these idle praises spring,
That themes so easy few forbear to sing;
For no deep thought the trifling subjects ask;
To sing of shepherds is an easy task:
The happy youth assumes the common strain,
A nymph his mistress, and himself a swain;
With no sad scenes he clouds his tuneful prayer,
But all, to look like her, is painted fair.
I grant indeed that fields and flocks have charms
For him that grazes or for him that farms;
But when amid such pleasing scenes I trace
The poor laborious natives of the place,
And see the mid-day sun, with fervid ray,
On their bare heads and dewy temples play;
While some, with feebler heads and fainter hearts,
Deplore their fortune, yet sustain their parts
Then shall I dare these real ills to hide
In tinsel trappings of poetic pride?

Crabbe was concerned with the fact that labourers were not the ‘happy youths’, ‘nymphs’ and ‘swains’ that poetry supposed them to be. Such works ignore the social injustices that shape these figures, and to some extent are complicit in their oppression.

Tillmans’s images continue this tradition of the pastoral fantasy, though in a post-industrial age the shepherd has been replaced by the scally. They are problematic subjects, made more so by the exhibition’s assumption that its visitors will have, and should have to have, £1.50 to spend on a guide.

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