Review: Wolfgang Tillmans retrospective in Berlin

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Review: Wolfgang Tillmans retrospective in Berlin
Photo: DPA

Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof museum for contemporary art might be honouring German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans with a retrospective, but Daniel Miller isn’t buying into the hype.


Wolfgang Tillmans was the first non-UK artist to win Britain's illustrious Turner Prize. And as the only photographer and the youngest artist ever to be so honoured, the Reimscheid-born, London-based snapper is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation.

A huge new retrospective at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof presents a unique opportunity to take in a broad selection of his work. It’s the most extensive Tillmans exhibition ever on German soil, including some two hundred photos taken from every aspect and period of his varied career.

Of course, much of Tillmans’ vast reputation rests on his eclecticism. He’s not simply a fashion snapper, but also an abstractionist. He’s not just an abstractionist, but also a landscaper. He’s not only a landscaper, but also a portrait artist. Tillmans is a genre-bending magpie behind the lens.

This stands in marked contrast to his compatriot Andreas Gursky, whose trademark vast pictures are instantly recognizable. Instead, Tillmans has built a career on consistently defying stylistic expectations. This latest exhibition in Berlin drives that point home, sprinkling minimalist colour fields in amongst pictures of penises, reconstructing the 2000 Turner Prize-winning room in its entirety, and stressing the value of Tillman's post 9-11 political table installation “Truth Study Centre” along the other major veins of his work.

All of this heralded diversity should really add-up to something. Sadly, it doesn’t. Across all of his many styles and forms, Tillmans comes across in his own retrospective as an extremely unexceptional artist.

Two or three of his pictures shine with exceptional quality, but the bulk of the rest is stunningly average, and a significant part recalls (unhappily) sentimentalized backdrops for smoothie ads. Despite Tillmans's fascination with details, telling details always seem to elude him. As a result, visitors can end up wandering the exhibition for hours never without encounter a truly arresting image.

Of course, Tillmans began his career working for style magazines like i-D and The Face, publications blurring the boundary between PR and culture in the same way that Tillmans's own technique-less aesthetic blur the boundaries between artful amateurism and simple incompetence.

More than likely, it is this “anybody could do it” populist take which lies at the heart of Tillmans's mainstream appeal. The Hamburger Bahnhof was packed to its rafters during the opening weekend and it doubtlessly will remain so for the coming weeks and months.

Wolfgang Tillmans

"Lighter" at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof

21 March-24 Aug 2008


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