Wolfgang Tillmans: Book for Architects @Met

JTF (just the facts): A site-specific, two-channel video installation (duration 40 min 55 sec) projected onto perpendicular walls in a darkened room with artist designed bleacher seating. The video cycles through 450 still photographs (taken in the past 10 years in 37 different countries), arranged as single images or clusters of images. There is no sound. This work was first shown at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we think broadly about the genre of architectural photography, images of great buildings are what first comes to mind, and in particular, those pictures where the flair of the photographer has matched the essence of a notable structure. Both the Bauhaus artists and the Modernists brought their own aesthetic interests in line, form, and volume to the buildings they documented, while photographers like Julius Shulman infused famous houses and buildings with the stylish vitality of life. But the vast majority of architectural imagery is much more straightforward – workmanlike views of important buildings, showing off the key architectural features with a minimum of distraction. In these photographs, the artistic balance tilts all the way back toward the architect, and the photographer might just as well be invisible.

Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographs of architecture buck the usual norms of this genre with a kind of effortless disregard. His interest lies not with eye catching visual signatures of celebrity architects or the well known landmarks in major cities around the globe; instead, he has consistently pointed his camera at what we might call “everyday architecture”, the mix of forgettable and largely anonymous buildings that provides the jumbled framework for most urban areas, where the constant recycling of old and new has led to a chaotic blend of competing styles and approaches. It is this overlooked world that has caught his attention again and again over the past decade, and which forms the basis of this exhibit.

Tillmans’ recent gallery shows (reviewed here in 2013, here in 2011, and here in 2010) have increasingly revolved around a nuanced investigation of the effects of globalization – on culture, on business, on living, and on aspirations – as seen with the artist’s casually formal eye. That during his many trips he was also shooting countless images of found architecture (from the street level, with attention to human scale and proportion) is of no particular surprise, as the contrasts (and implications) of building forms have consistently been one facet of his internationalization story. But what’s different here is that in this particular show, Tillmans has taken a core sample of the architectural imagery in his vast archive and in effect repurposed it, narrowing the context to a deeper and more meticulous study of architectural spaces large and small, and by massaging the presentation style, allowed for a clearer view of the thematic and visual parallels he has discovered.

While Book for Architects is effectively a two screen slide show, it more recognizably feels like a modified digital photobook. The two screens have become the two facing “pages” of the book, and the sequencing of the photographs allows the “spreads” to encompass visual ideas that echo across the pages. Pictures float against the black background, either as single images or as clusters of overlapped pictures of various sizes, and the timing has been set for certain images or groups of images to appear and disappear at specific moments. Tillmans uses these transitions like the turns of a physical page, controlling our experience of the content.

In some 450 images, the artist covers a vast space of architectural ground, from up close shots of mundane details and interiors to vast vistas and aerials of cityscapes. We wander through service areas, hotel hallways, office stairwells, alleys, and airshafts, dazzled by eerily harsh fluorescent lights, but drawn into studies of light and shadow, the line of an isolated handrail, or the curve of a pipe fixture. We examine the linear patterns of brick and tile, the arcs of ribbing, and the geometries of interlocked ironwork. We are pulled apart by the diversity of stick shanties and steel and glass skyscrapers, or forced into incongruous overlapping combinations of new and old, where peeling, rotting decay is matched with sleek perfection, pyramids with fancy rooftops, tents with astonishing urban density. We sit in airport lounges, stand in security lines, watch passing trains, always aware of the incongruities, the overlapping layers of architectural features that seem to weave together the clashing elements of jutting and leaning. Tillmans’ world of man-in-the-street architecture is in flux, obviously arranged but also undeniably unraveling and impermanent, the elegant lines of escalators and elevator doors juxtaposed with the frightened flight of a bat caught inside.

Seen across the passing time of the video, Tillmans’ aggregation of architectural photographs becomes a slowly building meditative experience, a skyscraper seen across different moments of night and day offering the poetry of active attention, and the intense observation of bridges, or play structures, or drainpipes suddenly becoming a thoughtful process of continuous questioning. His images are often deceptively unpretentious and unassuming, but no less active or immediate in their analytical thinking. They remind us that architecture is much more than just the simplicity of seeing a building in isolation; it is an ever evolving exercise in spatial complexity, a process where time passes, perspectives change, and inadvertent imperfections and unexpected patterns have their own kind of reflective beauty.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Wolfgang Tillmans is represented by David Zwirner in New York (here), Maureen Paley in London (here), Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris (here), and Galerie Buchholz in Cologne/Berlin (here). His work is routinely available in the secondary markets; recent prices have generally ranged between $2000 and $90000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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