It’s almost like Wolfgang Tillmans has a problem with photography. Everything the Turner Prize-winning German artist does kicks against the traditional view of the camera as a tool for documenting the world. It’s a nice idea, but it’s a total failure. Because this sweeping, in-depth show is the ultimate form of art as documentary: it’s a massive, sprawling visual diary, it’s the artist’s life laid bare as an exhibition. Though individual works may fight against the tide, this is a career as a single snapshot of a person.
He tries to throw you off the scent, though. There are no wall texts and each room’s vague theme overlaps with the next. But his aesthetic is immediate. His photographs – whether of an African street scene, a close-up of a man’s anus or a gushing waterfall – are crisp, neat, clear and sensual. His composition and eye for strip-lit colour saturation are uniquely and beautifully Tillmans.
The show opens with photos of printers and Sunset Boulevard. Then his camera takes you into the studio, then through a room of travel photography, and then you’re whizzed past tables loaded with articles from the internet about post-truth and Brexit alongside abstract photographs and intimate images of men and more dusty street scenes. And that’s before you even get to the room of photos of smoky nightclubs and lovers with their hands thrust down each other’s pants.
It’s a rush – there’s so much to digest, so many gorgeous images, so many overlapping ideas. Each room is a like a mini-photo essay, full of big images, tiny images, and concepts for you to untangle.
The ‘playback room’ that follows is weak: a bunch of chairs facing big speakers so you can hear studio-quality music in perfect definition. All it shows is that Tillmans is interested in music and curation. So what, who isn’t? It’s a pointless addition that tells you nothing and gives you nothing. The next room is full of his exhibition catalogues, which are interesting and important to his work, but boy does it stretch your patience. It’s all just too indulgent.
The rooms that follow are better, filled with portraiture, a series of images about borders and a video of Wolfie dancing in his Y-fronts. There are hundreds of pictures in this show, and Tillmans doesn’t make it easy. it's complex, confusing and multi-layered. But he’s pleading with you to follow him on a powerfully personal journey. Everything here is a moment of his life: his lovers, his youth, his obsessions, his fears, his art, his politics. It’s brutal, and the images are so fragile, held on the wall with crocodile clips or sticky tape – they’re out there, exposed.
There are great works here – the static-charged abstracts and folded pieces, the painfully intimate sexual snapshots – and some not so great works. But it’s honest. Its peaks are high and its troughs are truthful, just like life: what more could you ask for from an artist?