Euphony of visual poetics are the first words that come to mind as I meander through the Johannesburg Art Gallery, pushed and pulled by unframed artworks fashioned in non-linear layout and spatial composition by leading artist Wolfgang Tillmans. A signature of his exhibitions. Tillmans is fastidiously editing his exhibition Fragile ahead of its opening July 9 at the gallery. I am granted a preview of his first touring exhibition in the continent concluding in Johannesburg, previously exhibited in Kinshasa and Nairobi as part of Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen cultural exchange and dialogue.
The exhibition attempts to show fragility as strength, not a weakness, taking its titular references from Tillmans music band in the 1990s. The selection for this exhibition comprises more than 200 works spanning over two decades including large-scale photography, portraits, publications and video installation.
Speaking on the nature of the exhibition, Tillmans says “It’s an unusual project because there isn’t really a precedent like it. Big contemporary artist solo exhibition touring through different countries on the continent. I tried not to preemptively predict the audiences might know or not know but to instead do the exhibition that I really would like to see, myself. And trust in the universal language of my work. If it does something to me, it should be working in Los Angeles or Kinshasa in some way or other. I went to great extent to take my work in all its formats and materiality which would not be possible for many artists due to the climate conditions”.
The exhibition explores many themes narrating the artists philosophy – a curiosity through objects, textures and materiality. Whether it be body, architecture or the sculptural folding of materials, the artist begins a conversation between himself and the audience. One of openness and connection drawn not only to the grandeur and gravitas of large-scale abstract photographs but equally to the intimacy, familiarity of the portraits. The work is fragmented, always searching for connection but captures touching moments of tenderness.
“I see that as moments of solidarity between people, that we have shared humanity and we have a sense of what [it] is like in this skin of the other… There are common threads, I feel. Funnily enough when I think that I found something new in my work I often realize that I did that 25 years ago. There is precedent already for this sentiment or this feeling on a subject matter. I feel like there is a great continuity running through my work which over time helps because there are overarching connections that can bring pictures together that are 25 years apart. For example how we feel in our bodies and how we carry ourselves and the inability to understand how someone else feels in their body and the desire to connect and to bridge that has been of interest” says Tillmans.
Yearning for freedom and rooted connection in a moment is something emblematic in Tillmans visual poetry and language as the photographs evoke familiarity, empathy, friendship and intimacies through a playful yet sensitive gaze.
Fragile by Wolfgang Tillmans opened on July 9 and runs until September 30 at Johannesburg Art Gallery.
The exhibition is presented by Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) in collaboration with Wolfgang Tillmans and the Goethe-Institut.