Wolfgang Tillmans, Iguazu 2010, © Wolfgang Tillmans

Artist Adam Grüning was awarded a Micro Bursary to carry out research at Tate Modern exhibitions Wolfgang Tillmans and Media Networks. He reflects on his visit and its relevance to his practice below.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Iguazu 2010, © Wolfgang Tillmans

For me looking at a photograph is the closest thing to looking at the sky on a clear night, both have the ability to make you feel the enormity of time and to think about what reality means. More and more when I look at a photograph I feel as though I’m trying to find a truth rather than see an image, and I think about how that truth then sits in reality. This connection between the two can move with time and context, but Wolfgang Tillmans’ truth sits very much in the present, as you may expect from a show with “2017” in the title.

The show in its entirety is 14 rooms, hundreds of images, tables of news articles and books, 1 video piece, one room playing tracks from Colourbox and although its scale and superficial variety of work feels like one, it’s definitely not a retrospective (it even says so in the hand-out, just in case you weren’t sure.) The work spans from 2003, three years after Tillmans’ Turner Prize win, to the present day, so it’s easy to make this mistake. It’s been difficult to ignore the show; it’s felt as though every other post on my Instagram feed since its opening has been from the exhibition. I don’t know whether this helped or hindered my perspective on the show but it was certainly a factor that drew me closer to Tillmans’ work and to see a connection between his approach and how I have been working more recently.

The complex, messy connections between the images have a kind of poetic quality that is maintained in each room; it is gentle, tender and gives you a strange sense of being held whilst you walk through the space. It took me a week from seeing the show to fully appreciate this. I usually take two trips around an exhibition and it was the second trip I felt this more. Initially it felt a mass of independent research and evidence all at once, like clicking open all tabs on an amateur detective’s browsing history. There was a point too when I was alone in a darkened room watching a larger than life video of Tillmans jump around in his underpants thinking “why am I alone in a darkened room watching Tillmans jump around in his underpants”, but after a second pass it all made sense … more or less.

There is an element of preaching to the choir about the show, the gentle reminders about assumed truth, how the future is written from today’s actions and the bigger role we (both as individuals and as a larger collective) play in the world channeled most notably through Tillmans’ anti-Brexit campaign. That being said, it is more than just a reminder, it is the connections made that say most; from the headlights image, the oceans (both literal and of Frank) the still lives and the tables of information, it is looking through Tillmans’ eyes on a world right now putting his perspective on it all and the subtle links between everything and everyone. Maybe there is a sense of being spoken down to or of pointing out the obvious, depending on your view. The exhibition has split opinion quite dramatically but the images and information speak beyond current climates, which is where its greater successes lie.

Whether the Tate is the right venue for the exhibition, I’m unsure. It certainly has the space and status to house Tillmans’ idea but I couldn’t help feel that the white cube style environment did nothing for the work, and that the room Colourbox was playing in provided a more engaging sensibility overall with its blue walls and generally less stale environment.

There was an overwhelming sense of finding comfort and beauty in the work, and although I can see the eyebrows of previous lecturers frowning on me for saying it was beautiful, there was an undoubted sense of ‘this is beautiful’ in an unexpected way. Maybe it was the perception of gravity that kept me circling the exhibit that weighted it in time, in the moment, that made me feel beauty. It was something more than all of its parts. Although I kept being told that the display was original, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before, no one image particularly stood out, no one article or print out said more than another but together it demonstrated the workings of something, a perception, an understanding and an insight into someone who cares. It repeatedly moved outside of the gallery for context, which I found unusual for a Tate exhibition, and repeatedly moved me.

Image: Adam Grüning

In terms of my own practice, I’ve struggled with balancing how I work and feeling a disconnection between all the parts that make up my practice; the exhibition has been a positive influence on this. It has made me feel more comfortable with how I work and allowed me to see the connections between all the things I do, seeing they are much closer together than I initially realised. Maybe comfortable is the wrong word but it brought a calmness, making me see things more as a whole rather than as so disjointed.

Whilst at Tate Modern I was interested in seeing the Media Networks exhibition too. Although not my primary reason for visiting, the exhibition displayed artists’ responses to media and technology over the past 100 years which is something that has always returned in my work. Although the show was fine, if a little dry, the work of Louise Lawler stood out massively. Her composition, value, commodification and critique alongside Tillmans’ seemingly insignificant images and information hoarding, both balanced together and felt important to my practice right now, not one more than the other but a connection between them both. Overall, the show was not what I expected, not that it turned out better or worse, but it highlighted to me things I didn’t anticipate. Rather than research or theory or practical understandings, I need to address my perception of myself as an artist and to encourage work I’ve maybe been denying myself from producing because of this.


Artist Adam Grüning was awarded a Micro Bursary to carry out research at Tate Modern exhibitions Wolfgang Tillmans and Media Networks. He reflects on his visit and its relevance to his practice.