Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Wolfgang Tillmans at David Zwirner

A review of PCR, Wolfgang Tillmans’ first exhibition with David Zwirner Gallery, by Gabriel H. Sanchez.

 - October 23, 2015


PCR, Wolfgang Tillmans’s first exhibition with David Zwirner Gallery, captures a sensibility fixed on examining the pliability and immediacy of a photographic document. Its title is taken from a procedure in molecular biology called “polymerase chain reaction,” which in a manner similar to a photographic process is capable of amplifying a single strand of DNA into millions of identical copies. The show taps into themes Tillmans has explored since the early 1990s–vibrant images of bustling nightclubs, casual snapshots of friends, the obscurity of his surroundings, and the ephemeral moments only a photograph is capable of documenting– rendered still with a swift, voyeuristic perspective. Among these images are abstractions and photograms from his Table Works, (2005-ongoing), and Silver series, (1998-ongoing), that also demonstrate how his practice has evolved over the years to encompass a more self-referential approach to his photography.


Through both of Zwirner’s gallery spaces, seemingly disparate photographic elements of his output­–abstractions, personal snapshots, sculptural gestures, and even magazine cutouts–are hung in Tillmans’s recognizable and erratic style across the gallery walls. The manner in which they are shown invites viewers to contemplate images as objects in their own right, a reoccurring theme in Tillmans’s work that has become increasingly poignant as more and more of today’s digital images lack any physical form at all. In the same way that digital images now roam today’s social web without any context or intention, Tillmans creates a mosaic of subject matter­ without any form of observable reason. For instance, a forceful and sensual encounter with a lover in arms and legs, 2014, receives the same treatment and reverence as a seemingly benign encounter with weeds budding from between cracks in the sidewalk in Weed, 2014.

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Among the over one hundred works on view, we also find several unexpected curiosities that demonstrate how Tillmans has continued to broaden his practice. A new multipart sculpture titled, I refuse to be your enemy, 2015, takes an ultra-reductive approach in acknowledging the physical nature of photography. The installation consists of eight wooden tables with neatly laid rows of blank sheets of paper laid on top: here, Tillmans bring our focus to the slight differences of the papers’ varying size, color, and opacity. One could read each of these sheets of paper as the shell of an image, the physical form left behind as photographs are digitalized and continue to transcend their material form.


In a darkened room of the gallery, a new multi-channel video called Instrument, 2015, shows a man a dancing in a repetitive ritualistic fashion, wearing nothing but pair of briefs. The right channel of this nearly six-minute film reveals the man’s bouncing shadow reflecting on an adjacent wall within the video. For audio, Tillmans has put the repetitive tapping of the man’s feet though a digital feedback-loop, continuously building on itself until it becomes a droning dance track. The effect reflects the cyclical, and at times willfully repetitive, nature of Tillmans’s presentation. With that, each channel appears gritty and framed with minimal production value, which once again steers towards a sensibility fixated on documenting reality, or at least what appears to be real.


From this video to the cascade of images throughout the gallery, it can be difficult not to feel completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of images–photographs that were once invariably chained to their context stripped of meaning. But with that, Tillmans reassess the value of his subjects. A picture of budding sprouts from his garden, is allowed the same attention as a political protest against Boko Haram in Berlin; while still lifes of fruit and foliage are valued with the same respect given to the dirty laundry shown in Wäscheberg, 2012. Several pictures are found replicated in various sizes in the gallery, as if balancing the scales to any hierarchies that might develop. With that, PCR illustrates the complex networks of images on today’s Internet, our unprecedented documentation of the world around us, and our concession to forfeit context in favor of distribution.

PCR is on view at David Zwirner through October 24.