In 2003 the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans installed a selection of his Silver works—a body of abstract, nuanced, monochromic surfaces—together with ten almost identical editions of his Arctic works, images depicting the Arctic landscapes photographed from above. The result was a grid of unframed works appearing as mundane, monochromic yet meditative surfaces that changed and moved. The reflective play between the abstract and the representational, between media, matter, and nature, suggests that Tillmans’s abstractions take photography into a lively dialogue with the affective and diagrammatic means of image production and constellating. This essay takes Silver and the way in which those pieces were installed together with the Arctic works in the paradigmatic exhibition if one thing matters, everything matters at Tate Britain in 2003, as the place of departure for a closer inspection of Tillmans’s abstract work, connecting the history of photography with artistic practices of the historical avant-garde inevitably concerned with the formal forces of colors, light, and other matter. My inquiry revolves around questions of processes and relations, or, to be more precise, how the abstract and representational images at Tate Britain were less concerned with representation or the familiar 1990s concept of indexicality, than with processes of mediations evolving between matter, bodies, technologies, and the natural world. My assertion is that the Silver and Arctic works as constellated in one of seven rooms at Tate Britain in 2003 attest to how photography provoked new understandings of materiality and ecology in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while gesturing toward a politicization of “nature” and challenges to the anthropocentric worldview.
In the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans’s extensive 2003 exhibition if one thing matters, everything matters at Tate Britain, London, abstract photography made a peculiar yet familiar appearance in the realm of contemporary art. Containing more than two hundred photographic works unconventionally organized across seven galleries—some framed, some taped directly to the wall—the exhibition was one of Tillmans’s largest museum constellations to date.1 It also marked one of the very first times Tillmans showed his Silver works (1998–present). On the right-hand side of one of the main walls of Room 6 at Tate Britain, the viewer encountered two straight lines of nineteen small unframed works, including nine Silver works: Silver 22, 21, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30, 27, and 23 (all 2003).
The works were small abstract surfaces almost entirely covered in pale colors including white, beige, gray, light green and pink, and pale gold—monochronic pictures depicting nothing but thick yet almost invisible vertical and horizontal layers of the slightest color differences on the abstract surface. Boring at first glance, yet the surfaces of the works are almost meditative after a prolonged encounter as the nuanced layers of pastel colors appear to move and transform.
In if one thing matters, everything matters, abstract photography was installed together with representational photographs: images of human bodies and nature—a deep, red lake; male genitalia zipped out onto an American Airlines tray; Tillmans’s former boyfriend Jochen taking a bath; an entire room of portraits from 1990’s club scenes and subcultures; a grid of flying Concordes; and a dead tomato plant to name only a few—dominated the exhibition, and in Room 6, Tillmans sensibly hung the Silver works alongside ten unframed analog photographs of the Arctic landscape. The way in which the abstract monochronic Silver works were constellated with representational works depicting the polar region of the Arctic at Tate Britain forged certain strange material tensions in the gallery space, gesturing toward the formal forces of the image objects. As I aim to establish here, in if one thing matters, photography emerges as a means to create transformative relationships between bodies and surfaces, form and matter, while demonstrating how contemporary art contributed to a politics of nature in the 1990s and early 2000s, years before the concept of the Anthropocene was popularized, and before the tendency of contemporary art production and discourse to engage with environmental crisis, including the melting of the Arctic ice. Drawing on largely overlooked archival materials, my inquiry revolves around questions of processes and relations, or, to be more precise, how the Silver and Arctic installation at Tate Britain was less concerned with representation, photography’s link to the real, or with content than with processes of mediations. Tillmans’s complex exhibition at the Tate in 2003 arguably attests to how photography evoked a rethinking of materiality and ecology in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the medium entered its digital mode of existence, while gesturing toward a politicization of “nature” and challenges to the anthropocentric worldview.
Silver began around 1998 when Tillmans—then known for his collaborations with the fashion magazine i-D; still lifes; intimate portraits; and unconventional installations of analog photographs, magazine sheets, and photocopies in the exhibition space, a method he had partly developed in his first exhibition at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne in 1993—set some of his image technologies aside.2 Since the mid-1980s, he had explored various photographic technologies, such as analog cameras, inkjet printers, Bubble Jet printers, VHS recorders, and the first digital laser photocopy machine, used in the making of his first body of work, the 1987–88 Approach series. Perhaps less well known is that in the making of Silver, one of his early bodies of work (or “families” as he defines them), Tillmans experimented in the darkroom with color compositions, electric light, and light-sensitive paper in the making of new image objects—some photographic processes then new to him.3
Silver is a body of work in which photosensitive paper is sometimes unexposed and sometimes exposed to various sources of light—processes that create different color nuances on the surface. As seen in if one thing matters, everything matters, while some of the Silver surfaces at Tate Britain were white, gray, or light pink, others were slightly green, pale blue, or yellow. These works are chemograms—an amalgam of “chemistry,” “optic,” and gramma (Greek for “written” or “drawn”)—a technique used when a photographic image is first processed in the darkroom by light being recorded directly onto photo paper to create colors on the image surface. Tillmans uses stock colors from various color photo paper manufacturers and mixes colored lights in the darkroom; a predictive process of angling paper and using different light achieves certain gradients on the surface.4 To finish the Silver works, Tillmans feeds his exposed surfaces through a manual processing machine in which water, dirt, and traces of used developing chemicals, particularly silver nitrate (as indicated in the series’ title), leave marks on the paper.
However, in the Silver works, the few motifs like abstract lines resembling thick paint on a colored surface or straight gray, white, yellow, and black lines resembling technical processes and noise are quite difficult to identify. The layering of light and color, like the almost invisible white and light gray lines embedded in the cold, light blue of the atmospheric Silver 30, suggests movement upon further engagement with the work. The experience of viewing becomes hypnotic and meditative, evoking a sense of openness despite the work’s small size and, at first appearance, flatness. Silver 25 affords a similar feeling: a pale golden surface against a silver-like layer warms the viewer’s perception of an unknown void. Importantly, and thanks to the peculiar characteristics of Silver’s materials, Tillmans’s abstract surfaces actually evolve: “Because there are remnants of chemicals, diluted more or less with water in the machine, the photo paper continues to develop, though only partially, over time.”5 Hence, the surfaces are not stagnant or fixed like a dried painting or traditional photographic image. Silver 30 evokes a sense of movement as its motifs continually change due to material reactions between paper, chemicals, and water, bringing about a sense of hypnotic, dilative sensation through the simplest alchemy.6
Art historian Johanna Burton has written that the visibility of these traces in the Silver images is meaningful.7 Emphasizing that Tillmans’s chemograms “produce a kind of image akin to endurance in performance work,” she interprets them as artworks where the process of making seems more important than the result. Stressing the different layers of the image surface as valuable, she concludes that the Silver works are “exhausted, literally, counterparts to the euphoric Blushes and Freischwimmer”—two other series of Tillmans’s abstract works (2000–14 and 2003–12, respectively), slightly different from Silver as they present visual motifs created by playing with various different lights and torches in the darkroom, of what appears as blood vessels, bodily fluids, or muscle fiber.8 The visible and invisible material processes behind the works are certainly more important than the result, but more than simply being “exhausted” surfaces, I propose that Tillmans’s abstractions place the construction of images into a more lively dialogue with the materiality of abstract photography. Like the movement and sensation created by the colors in Mark Rothko’s early abstract paintings, the changing color nuances in Tillmans’s Silver chemograms lend each image a formal and material structure. In each mundane yet changing work, material relations pulsate through light and color. According to art historian Tom Holert, these images “are endlessly nuanced in their morphology and give a vivid account of the phenomenon (and the process) of becoming a photographic image.”9 As I will discuss here, the Silver works are not singular art objects with the purpose of functioning as picture planes par excellence or resembling traces as remnants. Instead, the works function as dynamic forms in their becoming, a creation of bodily sensation and material relations. The works in the Silver series play with technical and material processes to create unknown and even sensational realities, accumulating new abstract surfaces and probing the essential feature of Tillmans’s oeuvre: his investment in form and matter and the mediating aspect of photography, its relational and diagrammatic means.
By the processes of their making, the Silver works articulate abstraction specifically and photography generally in process philosophical terms, pointing to a visible world understood as diagrams or mediations rather than as representations of reality. This implies a photographic conceptualization of the world as a place where matter and forces, and not humans exclusively, can partake and create alliances. According to Gilles Deleuze, the “diagram” is no longer a visual archive but a map, a cartography, that is “defined by its informal functions and matter and in terms of form makes no distinction between content and expression, a discursive formation and non-discursive formation.”10 It is constantly evolving, unstable and fluid, and it “never functions in order to represent a persisting reality but produces a new kind of reality.”11 In Foucault, Deleuze argues that form and matter and bodies and matter cannot be separated into two different realms but are essentially bonded in new ways that discourse and language cannot fully explain.12 Deleuze clarifies that the essential concepts for understanding our material and perceptual relation to the world are the diagram and affect, concepts that define human and nonhuman bodies in terms of their forceful, transformative encounters and alliances with other forces and bodies, whether living or not.13 Deleuze’s perspective resonates with 1950s and ’60s interest in the aesthetics and objecthood of technology that was inspired, among others, by Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of the genesis of the individual, particularly his study of how the individual (whether living, mental, or technical) never arrives in advance but must be produced and come into being by ongoing processes.14 He introduces the idea of “individuation” to underpin the very processes in which machines, bodies, and other materials—even the simplest (such as an atom)—become autonomous through interactions with their milieus, a process that can be considered as “mediation.”15
At a time when poststructuralist criticism and artists exerted pressure on conceptions of representation and documentaries’ insistence on evidentiary capacity, Tillmans arguably turned to form and material processes in Silver to evolve mediations between mind and matter and between machines and nature. As the curator Michael Kerkmann, who worked closely with Tillmans at Galerie Buchholz between 2002 and 2015, writes, the Silver works “stem from an interplay between mechanical procedure and a natural mineral-chemical process” and are the “result of an observation of nature.”16 Tillmans himself has described the body of work as a “study of nature.”17 An alternative vision or study of nature, it seems, is at stake here. The mechanical processes of light exposure and the dirt of the manual developer have a material effect on the natural minerals and chemical materials deposited on the paper surface by the processing machine, and vice versa. It is apparent that Tillmans wanted to convey an interplay that continues in a never-ending process. One particular detail is worth noting: in making Silver, Tillmans ensures that natural objects and elements are embedded in and on the image surface. “The picture here develops both traditionally in the emulsion and on the surface of the image in the form of deposits of salts, silver derivatives, and chalk and algae,” he explains.18 A curious conflation of matter is implied in this concept, complicating the more obvious claim of the indissoluble indexicality of a photograph with its direct link to a trace of time (whether abstract or figurative). My assertion is that Tillmans’s abstract works—like the light golden surface in Silver 25 on which light silver and gray are embedded, diagrammed, beneath and within a gold texture that recalls a thickly painted canvas—collapse any meaningful distinctions between the technical and the natural, between matter and form, and between bodies and matter. This process discards the memento mori of the photograph, what Roland Barthes explained as a “flat Death” (emphasis original).19 Each Silver image is at once an abstract, almost blank surface showing nothing at all, but conveying the material composition of its making and sheer material life that flows between natural and artificial materials and between surface and sensation (human perception).
This emphasizes how Tillmans’s recording of light and play with abstraction were not intended to reproduce a visible known world but, rather, to materialize and investigate the effect of electronic light signals—what media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst has called “microtemporalities”—and the potential of light and other materials to escape human intentions, indicating that material forces (and not only humans and animals) can form alliances and relationships.20 Photography’s digital evolution meant, among other things, that the quality of the image intensified and the quantity of images multiplied everywhere; the visual world, as Tillmans’s himself addresses in the exhibition catalog of if one thing matters, became “over-saturated.”21 The ambition of inventing new images into the world seemingly led him to re-theorize questions of photography’s affect and materiality some forty years after avant-garde artists like El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray, among others, turned to photographic abstraction. In the early twentieth century, Moholy-Nagy strived to remove the artist’s hand from photography to explore, as Louis Kaplan puts it, the “signature effect” of machines, exploring sensitivity of the camera apparatus’s bromide plate and the technology of matters such as light, lenses, liquids, and crystals.22 Through abstraction, he challenged the production of subjectivity by producing new types of relationships, visions, and unseen worlds through the interplay of process and light, which Moholy-Nagy characterized as an absolutely necessary part of human life in 1937.23 It was, as art historian Ina Blom writes, a matter of an investigation of the “becoming effect” of electronic light signals.24 Tillmans’s nature study occurred about a century after Anna Atkin experimented with camera-less photography—a process in which chemicals and electric or sometimes natural light (including moonlight) are exposed on light-sensitive paper material—in the making of her cyanotypes that interwove natural materials, algae, and plants into the becoming of the image surface (such as in her 1843 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions). These early experiments may nevertheless have served Tillmans’s investigations of the potentiality of abstraction and light signals to evolve new types of mediations between humans and the material world, an instance of what Lyle Rexer has called the “novel seeing” of abstraction, one that implies not a looking at but a looking with.25 Though most of the Silver surfaces in if one thing matters are cold and small, the colors begin to move through an intimate experience evolving between the human eye, mind, and the material surface.
Photographic abstraction offered a precedent for Tillmans to explore the potentiality of chemical and natural materials painted not by the human hand but by technical mediation, subverting the agency of human invention the moment light hits the photosensitive paper. While the deep color surfaces of Silver in if one thing matters—such as the plain white, almost pink or skin-looking monochronic surface of Silver 21—share the visual properties of Rothko’s color fields, Tillmans’s compositions (like Atkin’s botanical cyanotypes and Moholy-Nagy’s photograms) do not extend but rather replace the human hand with the mechanical process of light and chemical reaction. Silver 21 materializes an automatic presence and self-inscription of light. Such a method recalls the operation of photography in Henry Fox Talbot’s 1844 text The Pencil of Nature: it registers, as Ernst puts it, physical (optical) reality in a way no longer performed by the painterly hand but by machines. Talbot introduced the notion of the “pencil of nature” to emphasize that photographic illustrations were produced solely by optical and chemical means, without the aid of any human—the photographic “light tracing” nature.26
Despite the one hundred fifty years separating them, Atkin’s and Tillmans’s works are instances of the same technical emergence, a work produced beyond the human-focused world. The life of media machines and materials (even in a form as simple as light) in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Tillmans set up if one thing matters meant he could create realer, brighter, and more detailed—more “living”—motifs due to the enormous resolution of the digital camera, but the Silver motifs are not at all digital. In fact, Tillmans does not take on the digital camera until 2009.27 Even so, Tillmans’s simple surfaces are paradigmatic, generative works that seem to exist in dialogue with new digital realities and various new forms of connectivity at work in the construction of images. The formal forces that bring technical and natural things, human perception, and matter together in new diagrams recall the processes explored in conceptual art practices in the 1960s—the “dematerialization” of the object of art, as Lucy Lippard famously called it in 1968.28 Tillmans’s work, like many artists who in the 1960s and early ’70s began working with photography and image technologies (such as Robert Smithson, Ana Mendieta, and Robert Morris), and directly with light itself as a medium (James Turrell and Larry Bell, for example)—is concerned with form, matter, and perception as well as the questions of what a contemporary art object could be and do.
The mediations apparent in Silver—between bodies and surfaces, and between forms and matter—exist not only in the processes of the individual works but also in how Tillmans displays them alongside his representational work from the early 2000s and onward. As previously mentioned, the remaining ten works installed with the Silver works in Room 6 of if one thing matters were Tillmans’s Arctic works: Arctic 9, 3, 4, 5, 2, 1, 7, unnumbered, 8, and 6. Arctic was a body of images all developed from one analog aerial photograph taken by Tillmans with a 35 mm Contax camera as he flew over the titular landmass and Arctic Ocean in 2002. The photographs depict endless vistas of Arctic ice and a clear blue sky on the horizon. In each Arctic, the blue color of the sky is sharp and detailed (due to the focus of the lens). It feels intensified and far away from Earth, consisting of nothing but abstract crystal-clear ice and a layer of white, slightly purple snow. The image’s composition of blue sky and white surface with no other motifs visible (except a few wind marks in the snow) makes the image appear almost like an abstract surface even though it is a representational photograph of the Arctic landscape. These monochromic surfaces of horizontal layers and lines resemble the layers in the Silver pieces, such as the composed layers seen in Silver 22, or, even more so, the bright colors that form a landscape in James Welling’s related abstract photograph #5 (Degradé) (2001). However, the difference between the abstract and the representational seems far less important than the material relations and the seeing conceptualized in the constellation at the Tate. Tillmans himself stresses this importance a few years after if one thing matters: “To be honest, I don’t like this talk about categories, such as representational/non-representational, because our linguistic compulsion to make distinctions runs contrary to my approach.”29 According to Tillmans, then, the distinction between representational and abstract photography, and the strong human desire to define the world by language impedes the mechanisms evolving in his work and the rethinking of the materiality of photography evoked in his art. He is more interested in what the representational and the abstract have “in common.”30
Tillmans’s call for abstract mediation cannot be understood without taking seriously the fact that we encounter in if one thing matters ten Arctic images—ten prints of the same photonegative—each providing an identical view of the Arctic landscape. Like many of Tillmans’s typographical grids, the repetition of Arctic may appear to indicate photography’s ability to preserve and document natural formations and landscapes, as if the Arctic Ocean and permafrost were stable and timeless or even mundane. But the installation’s repetition implies new forms of mediations between color compositions and images that were then-new tools of artistic practice. In fact, each Arctic view is differentiated by the slightest of darkroom interventions of material processes (the operations we also see in Silver). The Arctic works above all demonstrate Tillmans’s artistic approach to the emergent mode of image surfaces and the camera’s dialogue with nature—here, the Arctic landscape—however abstract it may appear. Importantly however, Arctic and associated works, like Michael Snow’s Atlantic (1967), do not articulate such existence in terms of artistic approaches to representation or visualizations of the world, which provided the drama of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas as exhibited at Documenta 10 in Kassel in 1997, a work described by art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh as an “anomic archive.”31 Like many ecologies, the artworks rather exemplify the shift in the formal force of images, what the art historian David Joselit describes as their emergent behavior, a relational perspective of relevance here as it challenges the singular autonomy of an image and a chronological reading of images.32 If anything, Arctic evokes the processual means of photography as the camera captures planetary life—snow, water, sunlight—in the making of the monochronic layers of color of the slightest difference, a photographic process that media scholar Joanna Zylinska defines as ontological and world-making abilities of photography, beyond that of traditional humanism.33 For what emerges is a process of life, and a novel seeing that unfolds in the monochromic layers of blue and white—manifesting a sense of hypnosis from the photograph’s movement and nuances as meditative as Silver and Rothko’s color fields—and the interaction between many forces emerging in the abstract and representational images Tillmans hung at the Tate.
These paradigmatic qualities of emergence come to the fore in a 2003 conversation with art historian Mary Horlock published in the exhibition catalog for if one thing matters, where Tillmans states that his desire to exhibit (and archive) images foregrounded his idea of “creating and mapping a world.”34 Since the mid-1980s, the artist has produced a large number of images using a range of different technologies that are eventually stored in an archive and categorized in a rather complex way. The archive has expanded quite dramatically since its beginning to include more categories and techniques. By the early 2000s, a new category had been introduced into the archive: “Abstract,” consisting of various abstract works that were carefully selected among the other images—more than two thousand in total, as he planned his exhibitions.35 Accordingly, Tillmans’s mapping strategies were influenced primarily by the archiving and exhibiting methods of Kurt Schwitters and Hanna Darboven, artists associated with Dada and conceptual art.36 With similarities and differences, Schwitters and Darboven both systematically collected large quantities of images and materials and experimented with them in the exhibition space, or the collage—an artistic sensitivity invested in interrelations and processes, which media scholar Matthew Fuller has referred to as an ecological approach to materiality.37
Given the unique way to constellate images that Tillmans’s bolsters in if one thing matters, his world-mapping desire corresponds with this ecological approach to images, pointing to them as entities that can create relations and systems. In 2007, four years after if one thing matters, Tillmans evoked his fascination with relations in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, specifying that he understood each of his images as a “self-sufficient entity.”38 By incorporating the “self-sufficient” image into an installation with other images, he continually challenges and tests its “singularity.”39 This is, I argue, an innovative concept of the image that arguably holds broader implications for understanding photography’s autonomy not in terms of representation or the traditional art theoretical understanding of autonomy—such as Clement Greenberg’s formalist flatness of the “pure” single artwork, challenged by the conceptual art in the 1960s—but in processual, becoming terms that resonate with the genesis of the individual, the study of how a living, technical, or physical being becomes autonomous and meaningful through its dynamic interaction with other beings.40
The specificity of the exhibition’s title, if one thing matters, everything matters, notably reveals this process ontological worldview. When entering the galleries, the viewer was provided an exhibition guide that aided navigation of the large number of works by number and title. The first page encourages a reading of the exhibition as “collages of images using the entire gallery space,” indicating connections among the hundreds of images on display. Tom Morton of Frieze wrote that “Tate Britain wanted to show us the world,” and the show transformed “Tillmans’ oeuvre into a semi-transparent portal through which our planet’s every drama, every humdrum domestic detail, might be glimpsed.”41 The exhibition, however, not only offered glimpses of the world but showed what Daniel Birnbaum poetically described in 2006 as the “new visual register for our perceptual apparatus” that are created in Tillmans’s abstract works and installations.42 The exhibition can be read as an image universe in which each thing, each atom or cell in the exhibited photographs mattered, indicating what art historian Julie Ault explains as the “fluidity and relational associations” inevitably vital in Tillmans’s exhibitions.43 Yet this could only be apparent if all things mattered, a reference to the transformative encounters taking place between form and matter, and things and bodies in each image and the constellation as a whole ecology in if one thing matters. With compositional sophistication, Tillmans maps plants, portraits of queer lovers and friends, landscapes, coffee cups, nude body parts, and abstract forms to create a world with a different sense of belonging and autonomy, a remaking of the self and the collective beyond language and modern dichotomies. An alternative vision of materiality and subjectivity is at work here, and it is apparent that if one thing matters conveys a world in which diagrammatic relations between bodies and forces (whether human or not) take place “‘not above’ but within the very tissue of the assemblage they produce,” as Deleuze puts it.44
It is significant that Tillmans’s 2003 grouping of Silver and Arctic at the Tate advanced the intensities of this ontology into new environmental domains, a decade or so before contemporary art’s turn toward the “Anthropocene” and its attendant profound ecological and environmental interests.45 In if one thing matters, Tillmans mapped images to create an ecology in which the chemical and technical processes, electric and natural light, and the snow of the Arctic region evolve material relations. Though Tillmans does not explicitly mention the environmental crisis in the exhibition literature, his photographic investigation of nature and Earth as processual and aggregating suggests that his Arctic and Silver constellation provokes what Bruno Latour recently had defined as a “political ecology”—a framework enabling collective thinking—of climate change, particularly global warming as it is evinced by the melting of Arctic ice.46 In fact, Arctic was installed in a unique historical moment when climate change was widely and intensively debated. In December 1997, the United Nations organized the Kyoto Conference, one of the largest events of the last decade of the twentieth century, to discuss a global strategy for climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. The protocols stressed that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride, affect the energy balance of the global atmosphere and lead to an overall increase in global temperature averages. Some long-term effects of global warming are sea level rise, the possible disappearance of some island states, and the melting of glaciers, sea ice, and Arctic permafrost, a conclusion formalized at the Kyoto Conference.47
Notably, however, the Arctic and Silver constellation does not articulate the existence of climate change through modern notions of nature. In the aftermath of Kyoto, a strong impulse against the division of nature and modern society emerged as a criticism by environmental activists, scholars, and artists of the conference’s failure to put politics and science together into a larger assembly, the resonance of which can be perceived in Tillmans’s work. In Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (2004), Latour rejected the historical division between the natural and the social and proposed a “third house” that could bring the assemblies of scientists and politicians together in a new house, “bigger, broader, more organic, more synthetic, more holistic, and more complex.”48 His desire was to deal with Earth as a whole and to strive toward a “political ecology” in which exchanges and planetary relations between the human and nonhuman and the relations between humans and their environment, beyond the Western dichotomies of nature-culture, subject-object, and active-passive merit serious consideration.49 Extending Latour’s work, Donna J. Haraway has defined nature as inseparable from culture, challenging how Western thought has figured human individuals and societies—the Modern Man—as the predominant species in human history and offering the “Chthulucene” as an alternative and resistant concept for the Anthropocene.50 Tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, technology, and more, in ways that more productively account for the dynamics of bodies, technologies, and matter, the Chthulucene is comprised of ongoing multispecies stories, diverse players, and practices of becoming-with.51 The Chthulucene aims to reknit the order: it “entangles myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages—including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus.”52
This is a perspective of the world that promotes matter in ecological terms, in which the builders of the world are not only human beings—a perceptual shift that becomes apparent in the alliances between the unframed image surfaces of Arctic and Silver. In the Chthulucene, photography is no longer interpreted exclusively through the poststructuralist lens that dominated photographic discourses in the 1980s and early ’90s but rather in terms of the emergent realities that are produced between different species and matter and between mind (sensation) and media by ongoing differences and interactions. Here, it is constructive to refer to Tillmans’s understanding of planetary relations as they were formulated in the early 2010s in Neue Welt, an exhibition catalog in which his Silver works were constellated with representational glossy and tactile photographs of animals, urban landscapes, humans, plants, and technologies taken in Ethiopia, Tasmania, Saudi Arabia, and the European Southern Observatory in Chile, to name but a few of the places Tillmans traveled.53 In a conversation with Beatrix Ruf on this “new” world, Tillmans challenges the Western knowledge of an ontological split between nature and culture:
“We live on the earth,” “We populate the earth,” and “Save the planet!” just isn’t so, because we are the planet; all of us are the formation of these conditions and, for that reason, only the expression of an astrogeological concoction. The same is inherent in the juxtaposition of people, plants, constructions, and technologies: Everything is matter continually renewing itself and transforming from one aggregate state into another.54
For Tillmans, earth is not a place of disconnected ecologies that separate human life from other species or from its environments. Rather, relations most effectively emerge through transformative encounters, the relations and collaborations that Haraway later defines as “tentacular” and “sympoietic” that evolve between different types of ecologies in a damaged but still ongoing living world.55
My posit is that Tillmans’s intention is to decenter the human “we” by mixing humans, plants, and technologies in a thick, complex assemblage—to merge, juxtapose, and connect bodies, systems, ecologies, and things, rather than attempt to withhold a serene distinction between living and nonliving matter, between humans and their environment. The materials and objects seen in Tillmans’s constellations (such as if one thing matters and Neue Welt) then contend with the material traces of associated photographic works from the 1990s and early 2000s like Gabriel Orozco’s tactile photographs My Hands Are My Heart (1991) and Pinched Ball (Pelota ponchada, 1993).56 One detail in particular is worth noting: Tillmans always presents abstraction together with representational photographs.57 This arguably creates tense relations, detachments and attachments, between abstraction and figuration, between the inner and the outer, between different worlds of tactility, matter, and visions, evolving between the changing Silver works and the representational elements of tactile human and animal skin, bodily organs, intimate portraits, glossy shopping malls, cars, and animals seen and layered as strata in Neue Welt. The work tells a different narrative of the world, challenging what Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd sensibly calls out as “the hegemonic tendencies of a universalizing paradigm like the Anthropocene”—that is, the Western human-centric and Eurocentric framings of the Anthropocene.58 Tillmans’s “new” world of concoction offers alternative stories of geologies, bodies, histories, and lands.
The Silver and Arctic constellation, too, puts emphasis not on the symbolism of photographic images but on the inevitably diagrammatic, becoming, forces of photography, and the making of alternative imaginaries. The monochromic images of Arctic are aesthetically appealing, rendering the snow and sky as clean, untouched, and beautiful. In Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (2017), art historian T. J. Demos argues that Western visual imaginary has historically rendered the world through an “ideal image” perfect for an “antipolitical neo-humanist culture.” However, as he continues, today Anthropocene images overemphasize the human mastery of the planet, a tendency that consequently avoids the “politicization of ecology.”59 While some artistic practices provide an alternative rhetoric to the Anthropocene, photography still tends to “naturalize petrocapitalism” and “environmental toxicity” into visual splendor—beautiful images.60 Here Demos refers particularly to Edward Burtynsky’s aerial photographs of California oil fields, large-scale prints of industry—monumental photographs of environmental violence—that aestheticize petrocapitalism in a disturbing way.61 But in if one thing matters, photography no longer attempts to dramatize via the monumental or to portray the human impact on earth in a critical or beautiful way, but to transcend reality, to aggregate a new piece of reality. By breaking with representationalism and creating radical new vistas of the world in Room 6 at the Tate, Arctic and Silver evoke a sense of Earth but do so with a more complex relational and material means rather than monumental depth. In line with the Chthulucene, the works should be defined as ecological components in the becoming of a large open-ended reality that aids a meditative looking with rather than looking at: the materiality of the continuous snow and blue sky that affectively holds the nine Arctic images together, via the forces of water, electric light, silver nitrate, and dirt in the Silver works.62
More precisely, the works hung together indicate the agency of the natural and the technical worlds of electronic light, snow, water, and dirt and their mutual ability as images to engender change, difference. To reiterate Simondon, the different natural and technical materials involved in these works (light and dirt) formally and conceptually modify their connections, forming an environment or a milieu in which strange relations evolve. Arctic and Silver create a dynamic world where the matter of the natural world—the ice of the Arctic—individuates electronic light sources, sunlight, dirt, and chemicals (as in the Silver works). There is no representation here of nature or the environmental crisis in the symbolic sense; there are only material processes taking place in nature and in machines; they mediate alongside one another on the museum’s wall. At Tate Britain, the distant ice of the open space of the Arctic seen in Arctic indicates ocean water and ice as dynamic, inevitably attached to the becoming of matter responsible for changing Earth’s environmental conditions. In if one thing matters, such mediation is layered in each singular work and in the image constellation: the white, light pink and blue, and gray surfaces circle the golden, warm sun surface in the center that keeps the ecology alive and hot.
Tillmans’s intent was not to aestheticize the toxic environment but to create other perspectives of a world where individuation occurs on Earth between nature and technologies, bodies and matter, and where the emergent capacities of images and matter evolve. Arctic’s bright blue and white color fields, tense with matte and dirty-looking textures, strive to connect to the Silver works through chemical marks, light, and dirt that are materialized on the works’ surfaces and depicted snow. In this constellation, the white snow and blocks of ice are not sufficient on their own as they are neither isolated nor static. Instead, textural and material tensions evolve between the sleek white Arctic snow and the green, gold, and pink Silver surfaces, bringing about an emergence of each individual unit and their milieu, in a Simondonian sense. In this process, the creation of an environment takes place in which the bright white snow, blue sky, and the changing materials and lines and patterns in Silver become: they change and transform (both materially and visually as one gazes at the works from different angles), organizing a dynamic world that melts and moves due to the blue sky and golden sun surface in the center. This compels the viewer to negotiate with the environmental crisis beyond traditional humanist terms. Rejecting symbolism and the difference between the abstract and representational, the constellation triggers questions of technical and living individuation: Tillmans here insists that Silver and Arctic could not exist without each other. The works create a living environment, an ongoing rush of mediations imposed via the formal layers of color and materials—certainly beautiful but primarily political. The two lines of images create mediations between the living (snow and water) and the manual developer’s dirt, and electric light through their togetherness.
With Arctic, the question arises of the dynamic relationships between the natural and the technical. A technical machine, human body, or an individual ice crystal is not self-sufficient, autonomous, on its own (to return to Tillmans’s concepts of self-sufficiency). Snow is, however, a metamorphic material. It consists of individual ice crystals—crystalline water—that expand within clouds in the atmosphere. As it falls, it undergoes further changes: it melts, sublimates away, or, as in the Arctic region, freeze-thaws. With Arctic, the technology of photography, too, emerges as a kind of living being able to interact with other beings: it individuates and produces milieus between units and beings in order to exist, to become, similar to water and its metamorphoses. The signal of the analog camera foregrounds a connection with the white surface of the focused snow, becoming as the motifs are produced, conveying itself as a being connecting its internal environment with the external world. Arctic demonstrates the connection between photography and water and natural light as media and how a self-sufficiency is played with and through the device of the camera—a play in which the self is a production, an idiosyncratic process brought into existence by sets of unexpected relations between different kinds of beings and processes. As individual works and as a constellation, the self-sufficient image in Arctic and Silver invokes a shared reality, the Chthulucene’s insistence on “worlding-with” nature and human bodies rather than self-making, which Tillmans practices in dialogue with his various machines and materials.63
Examining Wolfgang Tillmans’s passage to abstract photography in the early 2000s, and his play with light in the darkroom in the making of Silver, reveals how his abstract works create unexpected alliances, image ecologies, via systematic exploration with the materials of photography, humans, technology, and the natural world. In Tillmans’s methods of making and constellating photography, including his installation of his abstract works with representations of nature and matter, the modern idea of nature is insufficient to explain the image mediations visually and materially emerging between human perception and the color surfaces, between technologies, bodies, and materials in his works. In his constellations, matter in nature and machines—snow, air, light, dirt, and chemicals—is played with to point to problematic connections evolving in our overheated world. The exhibition if one thing matters shows how in the early 2000s, Tillmans innovatively played with the self-sufficient image, with tensions between the representational and the abstract, the singular and the relational, emphasizing the diagrammatic aspects of photography to produce mediations between matter, nature and technologies, and human bodies and hypnotic surfaces. This play disputes modern distinctions between nature and culture and nature and technologies, recapturing the transformative encounters between living and nonliving matter and between body and mind. Here, photography presents itself as an eco-critical medium that looks beyond the molar semiotics of subjects and objects and nature and culture, implying instances of mediations and new ways of seeing through its world-making beyond the Anthropocene.
The author acknowledges the support of the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity: Image Space Material” funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy - EXC 2025 - 390648296.
The exhibition if one thing matters, everything matters was on view June 6–September 4, 2003. This was the first time Tate Britain devoted a solo exhibition to the work of a photographer.
The exhibition dates for Tillmans’s first show with the gallery were January 22–February 20, 1993. The gallery was then known as Buchholz + Buchholz.
The first abstract works Tillmans made were his Parkett Edition (1992–98), an edition of sixty unique images on color-negative photographic paper. The sixty images were a collection of mistakes that happened in the darkroom. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he also started to make Freischwimmer and Blushes, some pieces of which were included in if one thing matters.
Wolfgang Tillmans, “Artist’s Writings,” in Wolfgang Tillmans, ed. Jan Verwoert, Halley, Midori Matsui, and Johanna Burton (London: Phaidon, 2014/2002), 161.
Tillmans, “Artist’s Writings,” 157–61.
Tillmans thinks of these works as related to alchemy in how the dirt and silver particles settle on the surface, and indeed, many of the Silver works suggest the colors and textures of precious metals like gold and silver. Tillmans, “Artist’s Writings,” 161.
Johanna Burton, “Pictures in the Present Tense,” in Wolfgang Tillmans, 181–85.
Burton, “Pictures in the Present Tense,” 181–85.
Tom Holert, “The Unforeseen: On the Production of the New, and Other Movements in the Work of Wolfgang Tillmans,” in Wolfgang Tillmans, ed. Tillmans, PDF part of exhibition catalog (Stockholm: Moderna Museet; Düsseldorf: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 2013), 15–16.
Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seán Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 35.
Deleuze, Foucault, 34–35.
Gilbert Simondon, “The Genesis of the Individual,” in Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 297–319.
In What is Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue that painting, sculpture, and other forms of art go beyond the intention of the artist, and define an artwork as a means that could produce affect beyond human sensation and emotions. Sensations, percepts, and affects, what they define as a “bloc of sensations,” are “beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived” (emphasis original). Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 164.
Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual,” 301.
Simondon, “Genesis of the Individual,” 305–6.
Michael Kerkmann, “Silver,” Galerie Daniel Buchholz, 2013–14, press release, www.galeriebuchholz.de/exhibitions/wolfgang-tillmans-2013-berlin.
Tillmans, “Artist’s Writings,” 161.
Wolfgang Tillmans quoted in Holert, “Unforeseen,” 16.
What Roland Barthes referred to as the “flat Death” was the “click” of the analog camera as the producer of an image, which he interpreted as an “abrupt dive to literal death.” For Barthes, photography and its ability to take images produced an asymbolic Death (outside of religion and the ritual) while trying to preserve life. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 92.
Wolfgang Ernst has noted that machines have a form of agency to act outside of human intentions, and that they too (and not only humans and animals) can enter into and form new relations. In machines, this is based on electronic signals, the micro-temporalities that make our technologies operative. Ernst, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” in Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2013), 55–81.
When discussing his fascination of collecting and archiving with Mary Horlock in if one thing matters, everything matters, Tillmans says that the core of what he does lays in the process of finding and shaping subject matter and discovering solutions to the “challenge of inventing new images in an already over-saturated visual world.” One of these solutions, it seems, was a turn to abstraction. Wolfgang Tillmans in Mary Horlock, “Wolfgang Tillmans in Conversation with Mary Horlock” in if one thing matters, everything matters, exhibition catalog, ed. Wolfgang Tillmans (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), 307.
Louis Kaplan, László Moholy-Nagy: Biographical Writings (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 50–51.
László Moholy-Nagy, “Light Painting,” in Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, ed. Leslie Martin, Ben Nicholson, and Naum Gabo (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1937), 245–47.
Ina Blom, On the Style Site. Art, Sociality, and Media Culture (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2007), 48.
In insisting that “the photograph itself is a piece of performance art, and the performer is light,” Lyle Rexer’s rereading of the traditional reading of photography as about traces of light reveals an ontological take on abstraction. In fact, Rexer, too, revisits Tillmans’s exhibition if one thing matters at Tate Britain, arguing that Tillmans’s abstract works (he looks primarily at the Mental Pictures) “operate as a constant comment on other modalities.” Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (New York: Aperture, 2009), 11 and 183.
See Wolfgang Ernst, “Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines” in Digital Memory, 42. Holert has, before me, associated Silver with Talbot’s “pencil of nature.” Holert, “Unforeseen,” 16.
It should, however, be mentioned that he takes on other digital technologies of photography from the 1980s and onward, digital laser copiers, Bubble Jet printers, and digital inkjet printers, to name a few.
Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” 1968, in Conceptual Art, ed. Peter Osborne (London: Phaidon, 2002), 218. See also Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, in which Alexander Alberro stresses how Conceptual artists of the 1960s played with electric signals and other material means to investigate what he defines as “art as information” (read art as information technologies). Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2003).
Tillmans in Hans Ulrich Obrist, Wolfgang Tillmans: The Conversation Series 6 (Cologne: Walther König, 2007), 92.
Tillmans in Obrist, Wolfgang Tillmans, 92–93.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas”: The Anomic Archive,” October 88 (Spring 1999): 117–45.
Under the influence of the assemblage theory of Bruno Latour, David Joselit makes an analogy between digital images and bees making a swarm to argue that images have emergent behaviors, are generative, and create systems and assemblages with one another. Writing that “Buzz indicates a moment of becoming—a threshold at which coherence emerges” he indicates that the agency of an image can first and foremost come into existence in contact with those others. Joselit, After Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 17–18.
Joanna Zylinska, “Photography After the Human,” photographies 9, no. 2 (2016): 176–79.
Wolfgang Tillmans in Horlock, “Conversation,” 307.
To date, the images are indexed into five main categories in his inventory: Portrait, Still life, Landscape, Abstract, Other, and video. I thank Lena Zimmermann at Galerie Buchholz, Berlin for assistance with the archive.
Wolfgang Tillmans in Horlock, “Conversation,” 306.
Matthew Fuller is here in particular referring to Kurt Schwitter’s collages and merzbilder. Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 1–4.
Tillmans in Obrist, Tillmans, 93.
Tillmans in Obrist, Tillmans, 93.
See Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Art in Theory 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 754–60.
Tom Morton, “Wolfgang Tillmans,” Frieze 78 (October 2003), https://frieze.com/article/wolfgang-tillmans-0.
Writing particularly on Tillmans’s abstract works Blushes and Freischwimmer, Daniel Birnbaum then notes that his darkroom processes “bring forth images that do not depict reality but create their own abstract realities.” Birnbaum, “A New Visual Register for Our Perceptual Apparatus,” in Wolfgang Tillmans, ed. Julie Ault, Daniel Birnbaum, Russel Ferguson, Dominic Molon, Lane Relyea, and Mark Wigley, exhibition catalog (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 18 and 24.
Ault, “The Subject Is Exhibition,” in Wolfgang Tillmans, 127–31.
Deleuze, Foucault, 37.
The term “Anthropocene” unofficially describes our current geological age and the environmental impact that human activities have on the planet. It was popularized in 2000 when Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer published the article “The ‘Anthropocene’” in the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. In the early 2010s, the term came to be discussed in the realm of contemporary art through works, publications, and exhibitions that strived to tackle climate crisis in new ways. The Anthropocene Project at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2013–14 is paradigmatic—a large project with the aim, as Bernd M. Scherer writes in the text for the exhibition report, to shift from postmodern discourse to “material interconnections and processes” as a method to understand cause and effect of the ecological crisis. See Crutzen and Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000), 17, and Bernd M. Scherer, “The Anthropocene Project: A Report on a Two-Year Endeavor,” in The Anthropocene Project: A Report (Berlin: HKW, 2014), 4–13.
Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 1–49.
See John P. Rafferty, ed., The Living Earth: Climate and Climate Change (New York: Britannica Education Publishing, 2011).
Latour, Politics of Nature, 56.
Latour, Politics of Nature, 1–49.
Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 30–58.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 55.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 101.
Neue Welt, ed. Wolfgang Tillmans, exhibition catalog (Kunsthalle Zürich: Taschen, 2012).
Wolfgang Tillmans in conversation with Beatrix Ruf, “New World/Life is astronomical,” in Neue Welt, unpaginated.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 33.
For an extensive reading of the tactility and material indexicality in the work of Gabriel Orozco, see Claire Grace, “Notes on Diffraction,” Art Journal 78, no. 2 (Summer 2019): 68–85.
There are, however, a few exceptions to this. In his 2013–14 exhibition Silver at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin, Tillmans showed a selection of his Silver works only.
According to Zoe Todd, the framing of the Anthropocene thesis “blunts the distinctions between the people, nations, and collectives who drive the fossil-fuel economy and those who do not.” Todd, “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” in Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, ed., Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 244 and 252.
T. J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 20–21.
Demos, Against the Anthropocene, 65–70.
Demos, Against the Anthropocene, 65–70.
Looking at contemporary artworks explicitly dealing with, among other subjects, sex ecology and eco-activism, Demos too argues that the Chthulucene is an effective concept to explore the ways in which certain artists challenge the Anthropocene thesis. Demos, Against the Anthropocene, 85–95.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 58.