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August 13 2012

Olympics 2012 in art: Wolfgang Tillmans's twist on the Olympic rings

For the last in our series of exclusive artworks responding to the Games, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who started out shooting London street life, steps into the ring to celebrate the end of the Games – by capturing one of the disliked dedicated traffic lanes on the way to the Olympic park

August 12 2012

London 2012: Team arts go for gold

David Hockney fumed at the opening, Gillian Wearing captured Bolt, and Susan Philipsz mashed up some anthems . . . but what else happened when we challenged artists to respond to the Games?

Opening ceremony

David Hockney
The painter and committed smoker was inspired by a detail in Danny Boyle's spectacular that passed others by: Isambard Kingdom Brunel's unlit cigar – and this in spite of belching chimneys and live soldering. Hockney's iPad painting appeared in last week's g2, and read: "I noticed there was a lot of smoke from fireworks but none from Brunel's cigar. Does this mean that the BBC sees art as directive (unlit) and not reflective (lit)? Debate." People did (look up the comments).

Day three

Olafur Eliasson
The artist who put an artificial sun into Tate Modern's Turbine Hall used one of his own-design solar lamps to pay tribute to the Olympians' speed and dynamism. He wrote: "For me, the Games are about being together, about sharing attention and ideals. They are about feeling connected to people from all over the world, physical engagement and energy. Light generates action: it is as physical as anything you will see in the Olympics."

Day four

Mark Titchner
The Turner 2006 nominee picked up on the anxious mood of the early days, before the medal rush. One layer of text in his artwork quotes from the tabloid press ("Historic bronze for our brilliant gymnasts, but please can we have just one gold. Any sport"); the other layer pays tribute to Team GB's eventing horses: Lionheart, Opposition Buzz, High Kingdom, Miners Frolic, Imperial Cavalier ("Do they get medals, too?").

Day five

Richard Wentworth
The sculptor, curator and lecturer took a break from a camping trip (location undisclosed) to watch Bradley Wiggins take gold in the time trial. He wrote: "The 30-year habit of summer camping sets me apart from world events. Catching sight of televisions in bars is the kind of glimpsing I enjoy – images, languages and events all arbitrarily associated with time and displacement. The latch on this door will remind me of the warm domestic afternoon in early August 2012 when our friends invited us to watch London as a site of Olympic spectacle. An odd thing if you know the city well, but much stranger if you are camping a long way away."

Day six

Michael Rosen
The poet and former children's laureate performed his own new poem about gold medal anxiety – still an issue even at this stage, with Team GB behind France. "I love sport," Rosen said, "but become uneasy when it is overly shackled to nation, corporate grabbing and only-first-will-do-ism. All three and I'm nearly out of here. Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try." Here's an extract from his Olympic poem:

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis
Day 1 day 2 day 3 day 4
you was down I was on the floor
feeling such a failure
would I finish below Australia?
Then from the heavens came day 5
I discovered the reasons I am alive
better than when I met Christopher Biggins
Glover, Stanning and Bradley Wiggins.

I've got gold medal anxiety, gold medal neurosis
doctor doctor give me a diagnosis

Then before I came to grief
came the moment of pure relief
as the afternoon began to unfold
I ... won ... double gold.
And yet I had cause to fret
there were silvers for me to regret
I gave the medal table a glance:
Horrors! ... Above Brand GB ... France!
• Read the poem in full

Day nine

Gillian Wearing
The Turner prize 2007 winner was in the Olympic stadium on Sunday 5 August as Usain Bolt crossed the 100m finish line, and took this image (right). She said: "I got into track and field through watching Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett's memorable races against each other at the Moscow 1980 Olympics. After that, I have never missed the opportunity to be a couch Olympics supporter. I was in row 48 of the stadium, quite high up, but just above the finishing line. This image is just after the 100m final. Both Chris Gatlin and Usain Bolt have cameras trained on them. In the corner of the image, Yohan Blake, the silver medal winner, congratulates Gatlin on his bronze."

Day 11

Jackie Kay
The poet and novelist read three new poems, a kind of writer's triathlon, inspired by the Brownlee brothers' medal success in that event, as well as Team GB performances in javelin and cycling. She wrote: "I was struck by the idea that sharing somebody's disappointment is as intense and intimate as sharing their success. I used to be a long-distance runner, a Scottish schoolgirl champion, until I broke my leg and didn't walk properly for a year and a half. So I was thinking about that, too. How quickly we move into our unfit futures!" Here's the final leg of her poem, Point of View:

Farewell Victoria Pendleton
It was a day of drama in the velodrome
As you watched agog, OMG,
As Trott took the omnium
Against the odds of a collapsed lung
Coming home, coming home.
Not one but two golds to her name.
You saw the photo of not so long ago
With young Laura and her Bradley hero.
Not long later, you watched Victoria
Who rode as close to her rival
As a synchronised swimmer
And all the drama was in the lane error
Where the line was crossed in the velodrome
As close as step to pets; palindromes,
The Mearest of lines, the closing line.

So, farewell Victoria dearest, you say.
You salute her. She runs her last lap, and bows.
The last time I'm going to go through that, she says.
And even her brave coach is in bits.
We knew it would end in tears, the TV says.
And they roll down your cheeks too – your armchair, you.
The greatest ever theatre – sport's soap opera.
Victoria. Oh Victoria. Collect your silver!
Your ordeal is over: take your seat on the throne.
Read the poem in full

Day 13

Cornelia Parker
The sculptor and installation artist took this image of her own living room, explaining: "I haven't been able to focus on art since the Olympics started, not quite managing to peel my eyes away from the TV. After too many days of viewing, gorged with patriotism and pride, I starting to behave oddly … too much information perhaps, too much success. Now I find myself draping my daughter's union flag over the TV in a feeble attempt to blot it out – but in the process I manage to cause a minor marital rift as my enraged husband misses a crucial bit of action."

Day 14

Wolfgang Tillmans
The artist and photographer, newly returned to London from Berlin, took this photograph of an Olympic traffic lane in east London. The lanes are now suspended but will come back into force for the start of the Paralympics. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 24 2012

The new Scottish colourists

Charles Rennie Mackintosh spattered with paint, a diamond forged in the UK riots, and a bouncy Stonehenge: Adrian Searle has a ball in Glasgow

'Make art so bad they turn away from it, turn back to life," wrote the US artist Paul Thek in one of his notebooks. There's a lesson there, but it's a strategy that could easily backfire. Thek's sketchbooks and drawings fill vitrine after vitrine at the Modern Institute in Glasgow. You could spend all day poring over them, with their landscape watercolours and drawings, bits of bodies, Christ as an erect penis, pages of poems, thoughts on art and religious sentiment. Thek died in 1988. Having been a leading – if not cult – figure in US art in the 1960s and 70s, he ended up disillusioned and marginalised, but clung on to art even as Aids claimed him. His posthumous career is only now gaining ground.

This quiet, essentially archival show is the most surprising thing in this year's Glasgow Festival of Visual Art, though Wolfgang Tillmans at the Common Guild is captivating, too. Displayed in casually elegant arrays, in odd corners and on the stairs, Tillmans' images take us from total photographic abstraction to a tiny black-and-white image of bare trees, from a colourful closeup of a car's headlight to a portrait of an onion.

Tillmans' sense of display – the jumps in scale, the shifts in subject and focus in works that are hung high and low across the walls – echoes our own drifts in concentration. Richard Wright's drawings on paper at Kelvingrove art gallery attempt something similar. There are even some up by the air vents and over the doorways. Architectural fantasies and echoes of Islamic calligraphy, mad whorls and symmetry buried in chaos: Wright makes you wonder how he works with such feverish concentration for so many hours, days, months. Rhythm and pace hold it all together.

The same is true of a couple of shows at the Centre for Contemporary Arts. Rob Kennedy is as much curator as artist, and has insinuated weird, enigmatic films into the workshop areas and storage spaces of the CCA, as well as in the main galleries. He's even balanced monitors in piles of rubbish amassed from the dismantled walls of previous shows. Amid it all hangs a dark Walter Sickert painting from 1907, called Jack the Ripper's Bedroom. Sickert's landlady suggested the ripper might have been her previous tenant. It is a haunted, evil painting, bad enough to make you want to turn back to life, as Thek suggested – or at least go outdoors.

What I like best at the CCA is the small installation upstairs by Charlotte Prodger. A big 1970s boom-box plays Prodger's descriptions of visiting a gay club in Berlin, her thoughts on dance music (she's also a DJ), space, light and being in the world. Thek might have approved. On monitors, little films ripped from YouTube show a young man carefully cutting up trainers and swapping another pair with his boyfriend. It's all very queer: a space of dangerous liaisons, splices and cuts. It has something to do with Prodger's love-hate relationship with structuralist film-making, she says, which provides a sort of bass line to her art.

On a makeshift platform in the Mackintosh Gallery at the Glasgow School of Art, sculptures of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, made by Dutch artist Folkert de Jong, look down on the school's plastercasts of Michelangelo's slaves, and at other De Jong sculptures. These include William of Orange and a woman dragged from the Seine in the 19th century and brought back to life.

De Jong's figures often have weird coloured splats on their faces, while their clothes are spattered with drools of quick-setting resin. The casts of Michelangelo's slaves, and of the ancient Nike of Samothrace, loom over many of his Styrofoam people with their fluorescing, noxious colour. The festive and the grim, the lively and the dead – all have their place.

At Tramway, California artist Kelly Nipper's Black Forest has live, masked dancers going through movements devised by modern dance pioneer Rudolf Laban. You want to take off your shoes and join in, or take a nap. It's a nice space to inhabit, with huge curtains and patterns everywhere. Nothing much happens. Then again, I didn't really want it to.

Up at the new Glasgow Sculpture Studios, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles talks about the murders (especially of women), drug wars and corruption that blight the city of Juárez, across the border from El Paso in Texas. Her best work is a slide show presenting photographs of Juárez in the 1970s and 80s: family events, wrestling matches, political rallies, public and private celebration. The images parade across the wall, without commentary.

Less successful is her attempt to comment on last year's UK riots. Collecting burnt detritus from the aftermath, Margolles had it turned into a diamond. It sits in a wall-mounted box. The words "A Diamond for the Crown" are carved on another wall. What links the riots with the horrors of Juárez? It's capitalism, dummy. To reinforce the point, Margolles has covered a billboard with filthy bits of sacking, stained from Mexican crime scenes. Apparently, they're soiled with blood and shit, death and dust. There is no doubting her seriousness; the obviousness of much of her work is deliberate, a punch in the gut.

Karla Black, at the Gallery of Modern Art, does her best to entertain. Swags of cellophane festoon the ground floor hall, with its high windows, ornate ceiling and Corinthian columns. This is lightness versus gravity, a foil to the building's pompous decoration. As a centrepiece, Black has installed an enormous slab of compressed sawdust, running the length of the gallery. It's like a giant mattress, or the world's biggest tiramisu, with its strata of different-coloured sawdust. There are lots of finnicky details and the magic drains away as you look. The cellophane swags would have been enough.

Time to turn back to life. Dozens of schoolkids are careening about on Jeremy Deller's full-scale inflatable Stonehenge on Glasgow Green, bouncing into and around the stones. Deller's work is a cheery take on heritage and the Cultural Olympiad. Celebratory, interactive and possibly even educational, it ticks all the public art boxes. On the other hand, Deller might be pointing out that our greatest and most solemn monuments have all become sites of entertainment nowadays. Hooray for our increasingly infantilised culture. No wonder his work is called Sacrilege, even if only druids will take offence. This is not bad art; it's life. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 21 2012

Glasgow international festival of visual art

A liberating spirit of openness and local involvement – and free lunch – make the city's 2012 art festival winner

In Glasgow, in the marble grandeur of the Mitchell Library, you can borrow a work of art with your books. The librarians will help you choose between a Korean watercolour and a Russian abstract. They don't just stamp your card, or fine you when the art is overdue, they will come to your home and mount Alec Finlay's beautiful word work on the wall or install Henna-Riikka Halonen's marvellous underwater film on your DVD so that you can watch the swimmers perform what amounts to a satirical ballet-cum-circus at any hour of the day or night. The librarians are, of course, artists in disguise.

At Transmission Gallery, artist-run since 1983, they are reading Finnegans Wake every lunchtime in solidarity with reading groups from Antwerp to New Mexico who have been reciting that stupendous novel (sometimes from memory) for decades. On the walls are works that have no market price, since they are simply gifts exchanged between the artists themselves; nor are the names of these artists declared. Anyone can spot Alasdair Gray's mordant two-part graphic sequence, but who made this alarming moss-covered mask or that fantastical curved landscape?

Interpretation, context, value: all are undisclosed. Visitors will have to make up their own minds purely by taking a good old-fashioned look at the actual art.

Leaving with your free CD of Gogol's The Overcoat, you might cross the Clyde to the Tramway, where dancers in Russian costumes shaped like letters of the alphabet are cutting and sculpting that cavernous white space with their disciplined sweeps and arabesques. You can join in, if sufficiently high on the hypnotic black-and-white patterns that progress in geometric series across the wall, and not too afraid of your own nervous laughter.

This multimedia environment, by the Los Angeles artist Kelly Nipper, looks like a cross between Merce Cunningham, Peter Greenaway and the dynamic art of the Russian constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. It is meant to draw you into its all-embracing structure, make you a component of its grand design. And it works. Some of us hung back among the alphabet cushions, but others were soon losing themselves on the dance floor.

Openness – that's the spirit of this year's Glasgow international festival of visual art; openness, involvement and an honest directness. It's what you might expect of the city itself, with its famous warmth, but it is characteristic of the art scene too. Transmission may be the oldest, but it is by no means the only artists' co-operative. Of the 50 or so venues in this year's festival, almost half are run by artists, or writers, or writers who are also artists.

Go to their flat at 83 Hill Street and John Shankie and Andrew Miller will give you lunch in exchange for your conversation; food for thought. Go to the house of the painters Merlin James and Carol Rhodes, at 42 Carlton Place, and you will see an extraordinary miscellany, including paintings by Sickert and Derain, to make one ponder how (and when) contemporary art becomes the art of the past. The Turner prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is showing new work in the house of the Turner prize-winning film artist Douglas Gordon.

And the oldest of all the city parks, Glasgow Green, has been handed to Jeremy Deller for the installation of an exact facsimile of Stonehenge in inflatable form. Everyone is welcome to leap to their heart's content among these precious stones, this sacred site, no need to be confined (or charged) by English Heritage. The tinge of sacrilege enhances the free-for-all.

GI, as they call it, has a better balance of the local and the international than any other art festival in Britain. Perhaps that is because in Glasgow they so often amount to the same thing. Many of the most prominent shows this year are by artists born or based in Glasgow who have a huge following overseas, such as Richard Wright, Karla Black and Rosalind Nashashibi.

Black has filled the Gallery of Modern Art with 17 tons of sawdust, layered in shades of chocolate and vanilla like a gargantuan block of tiramisu. She calls it, in her increasingly sententious way, Empty Now. Tiny incidents involving makeup are taking place on its crumbling surface, while smaller breakaway events occur on the floor – miniature trees seem to grow back, reconstituted, as it were, from the sawdust. And above it all, colossal swags of polythene and sticky tape dangle like Spanish moss from the ceiling, turning the Corinthian columns into a forest of tree trunks.

The associations run free: cakes, classical arenas, spit-and-sawdust pubs, glossy spiders' webs connecting the ruins of some enchanted wood, baroque, rococo, Carl Andre, Richard Serra (she's always nudging at art history). But that is all. Black is simply delivering enormous hints, and huge headaches for the gallery guards. Her whimsical confections are beginning to seem too much like a trademark.

I loved Nashashibi's 16mm film, Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies), a work of outstanding empathy and grace. It shows members of the Scottish Ballet rehearsing scenes from Sleeping Beauty, in turn observed by members of the public. A quartet of old ladies is charmed. A child is surprised. A grandmother is so guilelessly receptive that the camera cannot stop watching her eyes.

The film has no obvious narrative, no climactic incident; its only action, as it were, is the twining of two strands – the dancers, straining, diligent, often apologetic, and the way in which the rehearsal is slowly becoming a performance. So subtle is this convergence that when the pale winter's light traces the profile of two principals towards the end, it is a revelation to see who they really are. The camera glides down to the handcuffs at their waist: two amazed Gorbals policemen.

I'd like to think they might turn up at the Tramway too, for today's chance to be an extra in The Making of Us, a collaboration between artist Graham Fagen, theatre director Graham Eatough and photography director Michael McDonough which, from its dress rehearsal, seems tantalising in its every possible outcome. And there are many, for the scenes of an actor's life and the moral choices he makes to get to the top will be performed in promenade like a medieval mystery play (a noose awaits) while simultaneously filmed from many angles to incorporate the extras' spontaneous responses, then edited accordingly. It's a conceit of real ingenuity, turning the film (and the film industry) inside out. The result will be screened, with further surprises, exactly where it was filmed in the Tramway.

Art festivals throw up hundreds of images and ideas all at once, too many for the mind to carry forever, or even just for the days spent in that city. Sometimes the experience is more burdensome than fulfilling. But this year's GI feels rich, dense, organic, inspiring. I shan't forget the testimonies of the last surviving members of Glasgow's socialist Sunday schools, assembled in Ruth Ewan's celebration of that singular movement which educated so many poor children, nor the images of their May Day parades (Leningrad on Sauchiehall Street, as one recalled).

Nor the belated realisation that Richard Wright's abrupt and delicate drawings, at Kelvingrove, are far more powerful in their epigrammatic way than the wall-sized works that won him the Turner prize.

In Tillmans's show I saw the night sky over Kilimanjaro in a magnificent photograph that beggars belief, as the stars appear to twinkle in front of the distant peak; a poetic truth in that the mountain came after the stars.

And in the grounds of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's House for an Art Lover I had the true festival joy of stumbling on something new: Henry Coombes's coruscatingly zany black- and-white film I Am the Architect, This is Not Happening, This is Unacceptable, in which architecture fights art to a thrilling soundtrack and overtones of Fritz Lang, Francis Picabia and those Russian constructivists. Hard to say in all the wild invention, but I think art won. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 09 2012

The top visual arts picks for spring

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, Yoko Ono and a welcome re-evaluation of Edvard Munch

Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art

Interactive art by Jeremy Deller, Wolfgang Tillmans photographs, Richard Wright drawings, LA-based installationist Kelly Nipper at Tramway, a new film co-commissioned with Scottish Ballet by Rosalind Nashashibi and much more in Scotland's funkiest city. What's not to like? Various venues, 20 April to 7 May.

Bauhaus: Art as Life

The Bauhaus was key to architecture, design, furniture, textiles, painting, sculpture, photography and so on – not just what art you hung on your walls, but the walls themselves, and a whole sense of what it is to be modern. A huge number of artworks and artefacts by its international roster of participants will inhabit a specially designed series of dramatic and intimate spaces. Barbican, London EC2, 3 May to 12 August.

Documenta 13

Documenta is the five-yearly keynote show of contemporary art worldwide, held in the German town of Kassel. Polemical, always controversial and frequently baffling, "this exhibition speaks about the uniqueness of our relationship with objects and our fascination with them," says its website – which could mean anything. Documenta depends on its invited curators, led this time by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Kassel, Germany, 9 June to 16 September.

Yoko Ono

How substantial an artist Yoko Ono is remains a question, though her impact on contemporary art has been described as enormous. She remains an enigmatic, annoying, captivating and charismatic figure, as this exhibition will doubtless confirm. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, 020-7402 6075, 19 June to 9 September.

Turner Monet Twombly

JMW Turner and American abstractionist Cy Twombly seem to be shoehorned into all sorts of iffy confrontations these days. Here their late work appears with Monet's. Late Twombly still seems over-rated to me, but the showing of late Monet water lily paintings will be worth the visit alone. Tate Liverpool, 22 June to 28 October.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye (Critic's choice)

Sixty paintings, many from the Munch Museum in Oslo, and a rare showing of the artist's photography and film works, in a welcome exhibition intended to recast Munch not as symbolist depressive or Norway's Mr Scream, but as a quintessentially 20th-century artist attuned to his times. We are apt to forget that Munch lived until 1944. Tate Modern, London SE1, 28 June to 14 October. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 18 2011

Wolfgang Tillmans's best shot

'This small black disc was Venus crossing the sun in 2004'

A "transit of Venus" happens when the sun, Venus and Earth are in perfect alignment. From Earth, you can observe a small black disc – Venus – slowly wandering over the sun over the course of several hours. This happens in a pattern that repeats every 243 years: there's a gap of 122 years, then a pair of transits spaced eight years apart, then a gap of 105 years, then another pair. On 8 June 2004 the most recent transit happened – the first time any human being then alive could have seen it.

In the 18th and 19th century the phenomenon had huge importance. Scientists would time the passage of Venus from several vantage points on Earth. It was the only way to establish our own exact position in relation to the sun, and hence the universe around us.

Observing the 2004 transit through my telescope, which I still have from my astronomy-obsessed teenage days, had no scientific value, but it was moving to see the mechanics of the sky. To see a planet actually move in front of another gave me a visual sense of my location in space. Occasionally, I exchanged the eyepiece of the telescope with a camera adaptor for my 35mm SLR. To make it safe, the light of the sun has to be reduced so much that the exposure time is a quarter of a second. Given the high magnification of the telescope it is difficult to avoid shakes. In all, I managed to take seven good pictures. The pink tint is the colour of the mylar filter I used.

In those years I was mostly involving myself with abstract pictures I made purely with light on photo paper in the darkroom. Those pictures are often soft in feel while the Venus Transit pictures are hard-edged, but equally they seem somehow abstract, when in fact they are totally representational, depicting the celestial body that is the source of light on Earth. I have often shown them with the abstract works. They highlight the fact that all photographs are made, never just taken. They are colour on paper and at the same time evoke a sense of reality no other medium can achieve.


Born: Remscheid, Germany, 1968.

Studied: Bournemouth and Poole college of art and design.

Influences: Kurt Schwitters, Andy Warhol, early i-D magazine, New Order record covers.

High point: Last year's Serpentine gallery show.

Low point: Losing a camera card with pictures of Kelis, who I love, at Lovebox.

Top tip: Learn about optics.I only ever use two focal lengths. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 30 2010

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet

There's plenty to love about British Art Show 7 – from veterans like Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans to some newer faces

The British Art Show, a snapshot of contemporary art that takes place every five years, is now in its seventh edition. It has survived most of the early outcry – too partial, or English or painting-minded, too big, or small, or smitten with video – and outlived several artists from the first show. It is unimpeachably venerable.

But it is also an unexceptional fixture by now, given the advent of the Tate Triennial, the Glasgow, Liverpool, Whitstable and Folkestone Biennials, the Turner prize and Charles Saatchi's new British art shows. And the common ground expands. Consider the crossover between this year's British Art Show and last year's Tate Triennial – Spartacus Chetwynd, Charles Avery, Nathaniel Mellors, David Noonan, Matthew Darbyshire, Olivia Plender and the Otolith Group (also shortlisted for the 2010 Turner prize). You would hardly think there was enough art to go round.

Or perhaps consensus has hardened into orthodoxy. Here are the top British (or British-based) artists at work today; watch closely and you will see one or more of them appear on next year's Turner prize shortlist. That is certainly how it might appear. But what is valuable about this British Art Show – apart from the individual artists, and the show's immense reach through four cities, 11 venues and more than 12 months of national touring – is precisely that it breaks the chain.

There are new names (to me, at least) as well as veterans like Alasdair Gray, Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans. The selection feels independent, broad-minded, sensitive. The curators have not attempted to be definitive (how could they be?). They are not punting any themes or trends (what would they be in our all-embracing wide-world culture?). If there is a particular taste at work, it is for the comic, historic, poetic.

Elizabeth Price, for instance, has made a wonderfully droll black-and-white film that achieves all three. A seamless blend of B-movie melodrama, French critical theory and cold-war menace, with a gleeful hint of Antiques Roadshow, it centres on a series of objects revolving on an LP turntable. Coffee pots, cups, kitsch ashtrays, an LP itself ("a mirror of the terrible 20th century" according to the scathing on-screen script) it matches one kind of bric-a-brac with another, sending up all kinds of rhetoric from computer etiquette to management deadspeak. And all this with a terrific soundtrack and some very deft editing that made me think of Fernand Léger's dynamic 1924 film Ballet mécanique.

The American artist Christian Marclay is showing The Clock, one of those anthologies of film clips so prevalent in recent years, this time featuring clocks, watches and movie characters reacting to both. The alarm goes off, the office clock clicks agonisingly slowly towards the hour, the hero consults his Rolex. Time rushes in the underground, stalls at the top of the skyscraper, terrifies, oppresses, infuriates.

And Marclay has made a 24-hour marvel out of these fragments, somehow managing to find a clip for every minute, even the empty and overlooked. Robert De Niro glances up at 2.03pm. It is six minutes after midnight in Sunset Boulevard.

Each narrative is established for a moment or two, then replaced with the next. Enthralled by these miniature scenarios, amazed at the visual drama, you forget the time but are constantly reminded of it on screen. And Marclay has synchronised the art-life clocks, so to speak: every second on screen is passing away at exactly the same time in real life too.

There is a painter here, Maaike Schoorel, whose extraordinarily fugitive self-portraits seem to shift in time. You stare into the blanched surfaces of her canvases, noticing a whisper of a form that is not quite audible, become distracted by another notation – a bright pupil, a trace of water – and the picture changes. Looking becomes an event.

There is another painter whose portrait heads have overtones of Arcimboldo: hybrids of faces and masks and unidentified objects, something like hooks or postbox slots. Milena Dragicevic is a Serb born in what is now Croatia, and one senses a pressure of horrifying history in these "Supplicants", as she calls them. They have a mysterious force of personality.

It is excellent to be introduced to the work of these artists and others. Karin Ruggaber's Relief No 90 is an array of small painted sculptures, or sculpted paintings, each with it s imprecise suggestion of a form – palettes, clogs, violins, crescent moons – hints from the real world and with the real world carried in their surfaces, from tree bark to pebble and moss. Dancing across the wall, they invoke small objects in rhythm and yet at the same time the turning world itself, the ground beneath one's feet; as beautifully ordered as the words in a sonnet.

I've taken good care to avoid the much-touted performances of Spartacus Chetwynd, whose moniker says it all, but here she has produced a very strong work. With its rickety scaffolding and high platform above, and its vast lunette windows on wheels below, The Folding House conjures the tumbrels en route to the guillotine (though the catalogue, it should be said, refers to modernist architecture). What a macabre name that would have been for the scaffold.

Sarah Lucas is also at her best here, in a quasi-classical phase of not-quite figures – of something like limbs, in fact. Writhing, twining, inter-penetrating, these nameless forms are fashioned out of nylon stuffed with kapok, the resemblance to flesh a lesson learned long ago from Louise Bourgeois. But how perfectly Lucas deploys them here to suggest both ecstasy and rapacity; think of John Donne's hands roving "behind, before, above, between, below".

There are 39 artists here and the ratio of good to forgettable is strikingly high. This may be to do with the curators, Tom Morton and Lisa Le Feuvre, who are clearly passionate about art that can speak for itself; and to the eye, not just the mind. But it must also have something to do with the state of contemporary art too, about which they rightly do not generalise.

For any theory that can be made to stretch all the way from Nathaniel Mellors's Rabelaisian language games to Ian Kiaer's super-refined abstract installations can hardly be of much ultimate value. Yet there is one point of connection, it seems to me – intelligence. We are a long way now from the wilful crassness of Britart.

Indeed the high point of this show is quite possibly the subtlest thing in it: Luke Fowler and Lee Patterson's beautiful sound-and-vision project. A walnut in flame, its incandescent energy releasing in high-pitched song; the sound of raindrops on biblically dark water, increasing to apocalyptic thunder: one artist films the places where the other records sound, the material is separately edited then played in parallel.

The convergences are sublime: the corrugated surfaces of gigantic containers on the Clyde rise like organ pipes to the sound of thrumming vibrations in the air. The screen fills with tiny silver lights that seem to quiver like tiny bells: both artists are intent upon a coiled silver spring, quivering in the darkness. Sound poems, poetic visions, these miniature masterpieces present the perpetual son et lumière of the overlooked world. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 09 2010

The month in photography

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – inlcuding works by Sebastião Salgado, Sally Mann and Wolfgang Tillmans

June 25 2010

The lightness of being

Wolfgang Tillmans shot to fame in the 1990s with his photographs of friends, everyday images and the club scene. Since then, his work has become more abstract. Liz Jobey meets the artist on the eve of his first solo show in Britain for seven years

The artist Wolfgang Tillmans, who was born in Germany but has lived for most of the past 20 years in London, won the Turner prize in 2000. It was the first time the prize had been won by an artist who worked principally with photographs, and though by this time the debate about whether photography was art was over in all but the most sclerotic circles, Tillmans raised other concerns. For most of the 1990s he had used magazines, particularly the street-style magazine i-D, as one of the outlets for his pictures, at the same time as he was exhibiting them in contemporary art galleries in London, New York and Cologne and in museums round the world. Most young artists would have shunned the first in order to be taken seriously by the second, but Tillmans saw them as equal platforms for his work. His love of street and club culture, of techno music, his support for the peace movement and his involvement in gay rights situated him at the centre of the recession-led rave culture of the early 90s. Its thrift-shop style was quickly translated into a "look" by mainstream fashion magazines, and though he was never a fashion photographer and always refused advertising work, that assumption is one that even now Tillmans sometimes has to counter.

Three years after winning the Turner, he had a solo show at Tate Britain. While other photographers were making pictures that seemed to rival the monumentality of traditional history paintings, Tillmans's pictures, by contrast, were casual-seeming in both their subject matter and their dispensation around the walls: some small, some large, some close together in linear runs, some mounted high up, low down and, occasionally, printed large and given solitary prominence. As in a musical score, the spaces in between the pictures became as important an element in their exhibition as the pictures themselves. There was a plurality of subject matter, just as there was in the style of the installation: a still-life on a windowsill, a pair of combat trousers drying on a radiator, an aerial view of the Arctic, a swirling stain of rose-coloured pigment, a portrait of Kate Moss, Concorde in flight, a man with a backpack in a barren landscape seemingly communicating with a small deer. Comparisons were made with magazine layouts (accurately, since he'd laid out his own stories in i-D, and cites it as one of the places where he began to learn about spatial relationships); some people made reference to teenage bedroom walls, which, in the seemingly ad hoc positioning, the shifts between genres and the inclusion of portraits of friends and the occasional music or fashion celebrity, also seemed pertinent. The title of the show reflected this spirit of inclusion: If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters.

That, too, caused some inevitable questioning. Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian: "If everything matters, then perhaps nothing matters more than anything else. Does it mean that everything has the same value – both as an image and as an event?" In what was a mostly positive review, he answered his own question just as ambiguously: yes and no. Other critics, even if they were unsure of the lasting relevance, were willing to give Tillmans the benefit of the doubt. But Matthew Collings, who had covered the rise of young British artists in his 1997 book Blimey, had lost his passion for youth. Contemplating the Turner prize shortlist, he had "no idea why Tillmans is supposed to be an artist. If he wins, the message will be that the Tate . . . wants to get down and boogie in an embarrassing way with youthful airheads who read the Face." Years later, appearing on Have I Got News for You, he identified Tillmans as "Man who won Turner prize . . . takes photographs of anything".

If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters had a catalogue designed by Tillmans, which took the form of a chronological archive of more than 2,400 pictures, all reproduced at 6cm x 4cm, including most of those he had published or exhibited and a lot more that he said were important to him, starting with those he had made of the moon at the age of 10, by putting the camera against the eye of his telescope. In their profusion, they fostered the impression that Tillmans was bent on collecting every picture he'd ever taken. His intention, he explains now, was not that at all. "I don't mean it as everything is the same, but that everything has the potential to be something, and that one should not close one's eyes, just because we have preformed ideas about a value system – this is higher, this is lower. One shouldn't use it in reverse, as 'anything goes'."

He works from a building near Bethnal Green, where, since 2006, he has used the ground floor as a small gallery, Between Bridges, where he shows work that interests him, from artists such as the American David Wojnarowicz, or the German artist Isa Genzken, or the photographs from the Center for Land Use Interpretation in California, or the slogans of Jenny Holzer, one of the first artists he admired. A Holzer-like slogan that often makes its appearance in his own work is: "What's wrong with redistribution?"

Upstairs is his large, cluttered studio, parts of which are familiar from his photograph. When I visited a week ago, the walls were principally hung with abstract paper works, that are exhibited under the collective title, Lighter. These are made without a camera, or a lens, or any additional coloured liquids, but by the effects of light on photosensitive paper as it passes through a colour processor. This is something he has been exploring for over a decade: a purist approach to colour and form that acts as a counterpoint to his figurative pictures. In isolation they are quite hard to compute. The glossy rectangles in a range of extraordinary colours for which there are few accurate names are creased along straight lines, or crumpled, to give them a three-dimensional shape, then framed in plexiglass box-frames, like small sculptures. From across the studio, with the sunlight falling on them from above, they look like the jewel-coloured windows of a white-walled church.

This was a quality referred to by the critic and curator Daniel Birnbaum, who has been a supporter of Tillmans since the early 1990s. He distinguishes Tillmans from the two influential groupings that grew up around him in the 90s: the young British artists and the Dusseldorf school of photographic artists, including Andreas Gursky. "He has nothing to do with the Düsseldorf artists," Birnbaum says. "As for the YBAs – although he wasn't part of that group from Goldsmiths, he emerged at a time when London suddenly became so important for art. He was at the right place. He is a key person in certain networks, so he is linked to that generation. But he found his path between these prominent groups. I don't think what Wolfgang does comes out of studying. It comes more out of his own intuition."

"When I was growing up," Tillmans says, "all the art that touched me was lens-generated, like Gerhard Richter, or Polke, Rauschenberg, Warhol. Those were the first artists I saw in the Museum Ludwig [in Cologne] and in Düsseldorf when I was 14, 15, 16. But it wasn't pop art that started this whole thing of taking photo-based images into art – there was, of course, Dada and Kurt Schwitters – he was a bit of a passion of mine. I was seeing art that touched me made out of cut-up newspapers. In Cologne or Düsseldorf you had all photo-based pictures, whether it was a painted Richter picture, or a double Elvis by Warhol, and at the same time I was at the breakfast table with my parents looking at the pictures in the Frankfurter Allgemeine and feeling that same buzz."

His first pictures were torn from newspapers and reproduced on a digital photocopier, which could enlarge them by 400%. He was living in Hamburg, doing community service in lieu of military service after school, and he became part of the club scene. He was in love with British bands such as Bronksi Beat, and with Peter Saville's album covers for Joy Division and New Order. As a gay teenager growing up in the 1980s, he identified with the music of the time in a profound way. "I had my first sexual experiences in 1984–85 and my first big Aids panic was in 1985, so the tragedy of a disco song, which others would see as superficial or as just trash music, runs very deep. It's very real, the narrow line between a night danced away and the potential of death around the corner. This sense of what others consider superficial has been a fundamental experience. It is something that anyone growing up gay is aware of from a very early age."

In Hamburg he bought a cheap camera and took club pictures which he sent to i-D, where they were published. In 1990 he began a two-year course at Bournemouth College of Art and Design, and in 1992 he moved to London. For a while he acted as what Terry Jones, the founder of i-D, calls the "eye" of the magazine. He suggested stories. He took pictures of his friends and used them as models. He began to make still-life photographs of his own discarded clothes, battered and crumpled and suggestively sexual, as if they still held the scent and warmth of the person who had worn them. Looking at the Lighter works, it's easy to see a direct link.

In 1992 he made a group of images that have become his best known: Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees, Lutz and Alex holding cock, Lutz and Alex holding each other. Lutz and Alex were two of his oldest friends. Like their names, they were androgynous: it was sometimes hard to tell them apart. Alex had cropped hair and a tough kind of beauty. Lutz was shaven-headed. They were almost the same height and build, and in the photographs they are often semi-naked. In the tree picture, Lutz is on a lower bough, wearing only a red PVC coat, which is hanging open. Alex is perched on a bough above him, naked under an olive-green parka, wide open down the front. The rest of the picture is a haze of foliage. As a couple they look naive yet knowing, an Adam and Eve for the ecstasy generation. Though it was a set-up picture, it didn't replicate an "everyday moment"; it created one that was both utopian and unlikely. Questioned about the level of reality in his pictures, Tillmans says firmly: "The reality was there and it was put there."

He showed the pictures to the London gallery owner Maureen Paley, whom he had first met in the late 80s, in Hamburg. She decided to take Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees to the Unfair, a fair for emerging artists, in Cologne in 1992. He made a large ink-jet print and hung it, unframed, with a pair of bulldog clips. From then things happened quickly. He was taken on by the Daniel Buchholz gallery in Cologne, and not long afterwards by Paley's Interim Art in London. He made his first book, which was published by Taschen in 1993. It has since sold more 50,000 copies. In 1994 he was taken on by the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, and in 1995 his work was included at a show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Promoted as a new way to make art accessible by removing the barriers between exhibition and mass consumption, it was criticised for turning art into a "jumble sale". Fifteen years on, however, it is often seen as groundbreaking, and Obrist – now the Serpentine's co-director of exhibitions – has invited Tillmans to install a new solo show, taking over the whole gallery, which opens today.

The last time the public saw Tillmans's work was seven years ago at Tate Britain. But if it seemed that he might continue to add pictures to his archive at his previous rate, it was a misconception. He had already started to slow down, to concentrate on abstract work. These images have taken on a spectacular and seductive presence in his installations, enlarged into enormous inkjet prints, pinned to the wall or framed, like the works of a latter-day abstract expressionist. He nods at the comparison, but denies any attempt to make surrogate paintings: "I'm trying to make a picture that could only be made now." Urgency III (2006) is a predominantly crimson burst of colour that suggests the dispersal of ink or paint or blood into a swirl of water. In Freischwimmer (2004), thin skeins of colour drift and curve, misting into dense clouds of pigment before unravelling and dissolving across the surface of the image.

If one aspect of his early work developed towards abstraction, another took a more political route. In 2005, at Paley's gallery, he showed a new work made up of groups of photographs, cuttings from newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, advertisements, all kinds of printed matter, which he presented not on the wall but under glass on narrow custom-made wooden tables. Under the collective title Truth Study Center, they drew attention to the exercise of power behind the ideologies of Islamic fundamentalism, Catholicism, capitalism. He has subsequently included a version in various installations, adapting the subjects depending on the venue. "I know that this won't change the world," he says. "But then again, I think the most important thing is to start doing something. Nothing makes me more mad than when people say: 'Oh, I don't vote because it doesn't count, anyway.' You just have to do it. I want to instil reactions in the visitor which hopefully will trigger the question 'Why am I reacting this way?' It's a shared concern and a responsibility I feel. On the one hand I follow a vocation because I have an ability that I should exercise, but I want to use it for a reason, because I don't see that the freedoms that I enjoy are God-given realities. So I have a very healthy, activist general tension in me which feels that no, this is not gratuitous, it is important to keep this in focus."

At the Serpentine, where he is showing – with a few exceptions – work that has been made in the past six years, he will include a version of the Truth Study Center on three subjects: space, food and religion. "Even though, in one way, London is very well informed," he says, "I think there are certain things that haven't been seen here. Because I had a strong showing here in the 90s, it's often difficult for people to change their perceptions."

These days his installations have become artworks in themselves. Collectors have bought complete walls or, in some cases, an entire show, along with a precise plan of how to reassemble it. His most recent book – a catalogue of his last big museum show, Lighter, in Berlin in 2008 – collects photographs of the installations he has made over the past 20 years. It's instructive to see how they have matured, how spare they have become. Rather than mixing so many works together, he has grown confident in separating them, grouping them into discrete rooms and giving them space to breathe.

Over the last couple of years, he has felt a desire "to rethink my whole picture-taking with a camera". In 2009, he took a year out to travel outside Europe: "To China to see a total solar eclipse, then to the Philippines, then to India, Bangkok and Dubai and Lampedusa, to Israel and Tunisia and South America . . . literally doing what other people did when they were 20."

Some of the results reflect a hard-edged, automated world, full of the gadgets and gizmos we have come to rely on, including oddities such as the computerised screen on which hymn numbers are now delivered during mass at the cathedral in Venice. Others reflect contentious political divisions: a Jerusalem landscape showing the wall that separates Palestinians and Israelis; the security operation at the US/Mexican border; the wreckage of fishing boats taken from the sea off Lampedusa. And then there are giant images of foliage and flowers; party pictures, and a familiar black and white portrait from 2004, called Anders pulling splinter from his foot.

This ability to absorb visual, cultural and political stimuli and transmute them into art has something of the superhuman about it. In the past few weeks I've begun – as sometimes happens after you've been exposed to the work of particular artist – to see the world as a series of Tillmans photographs: the balcony opposite, for example, where the man who lives there hangs out a line of washing nearly every day – work clothes, usually, dun-coloured trousers and T-shirts and jeans, and towels that flap among the climbing plants he grows in pots. Or the planes that fly behind the towers of the Barbican against a cloudy blue sky; even the notebooks on the floor of my workroom, which stand out as coloured rectangles against the floor. It is, of course, the easiest thing in the world to be pretentious about such things. But that ability to make connections between the details of our lives, to give them an aesthetic, and often emotional presence, is something Tillmans intends us to share. As he says, it's important not to be despairing.

Wolfgang Tillmans is at the Serpentine Gallery, London from 26 June-19 September. Tel 020 7402 6075 or go to © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 24 2010

Worlds of difference

Wolfgang Tillmans's Serpentine show teems with bewildering variety

June 23 2010

Wolfgang Tillmans: Everything and nothing

Botched haircuts, still lifes, the planet Venus – artist Wolfgang Tillmans shoots the world and beyond. But does it all hang together? Adrian Searle finds out at a major new retrospective

Wolfgang Tillmans's new show is a world of differences: bodies and buildings, trays of eggs and vernacular Tunisian houses, pictures of the world and pictures of nothing. There are on-the-hoof shots and darkroom experiments; large photographs and small; intimacies and distances. There is a photograph of a young man's ear, caught by the clippers while having his hair cut; there is a shot of a forest in Tierra del Fuego, the trees blitzed by light and shade.

All this might be bewildering: the jumps in scale, the sheer variety of Tillmans's subject matter, his different means of presentation (huge sheets of photographic paper hung from bulldog clips, other things taped directly on to the wall, work sitting in Perspex boxes). But it is all orchestrated with a sense of rhythm, pace and surprise.

For Tillmans, photography can be a record, something observed or something never seen before. It can also be painting by other means: pinkish fields with sudden judderings that recall skin seen close up; strange abstractions generated by the random dirt on the silver drum of Tillmans's printer (and which recall the squeegeed abstractions of Gerhard Richter, whose art is also much concerned with the relationship between painting and photography, intention and meaninglessness). Some of his photographs are near-monochromes, recalling thin shadows crossing the walls in a pale room, or the acid lighting on a highway at night. Sometimes it is hard not to think of paintings by Ellsworth Kelly or Raoul de Keyser.

Here is a still life, an accumulation of little objects on a window sill: a conker, an acorn, a key, some lenses, a number of stainless steel sex toys for stretching your balls. (At least that's what I thought they were. When I asked him, Tillmans called me a pervert. He was right.) Elsewhere, there is a small image of a naked man on his knees. He might be praying. Weirdly, it looks more like a pallid ink drawing or a water-colour than a photograph. In fact, it is a faded fax, a degenerated thermal image of a photograph now fixed for ever on the verge of disappearance.

Somehow everything makes a kind of sense. The cumulative effect of Tillmans's art may be puzzling, but it isn't a puzzle. Its logic lies in process rather than in the production of telling images. The differences in his work are themselves the point: from his coloured rectangles dancing on the Serpentine gallery's white walls (they make your eyes dance, too) to the wonky, knocked-together tables that stand in the middle of one room, laden with cargoes of text, newspaper pages, printed ephemera. Here is an article on religion by Polly Toynbee, commissioned by Tillmans for an edition of Die Zeit he guest-edited; there is a piteous image of two young men – little more than boys – about to be hanged in public for the crime of homosexuality in Iran; here is an article by Tillmans himself, a keen amateur astronomer, on the 2004 transit of Venus. What is the carpet tile doing among all this stuff, on one of the tables, a blank square of pixellated industrial flooring?

If art can talk about the world, the big question is where to stop. What do you include and what do you exclude? Sometimes, and especially in photography shows, you can end up going from one damn thing to another, driven by the hope of finding something salacious, erotic or just plain peculiar. Tillmans does his best to call a halt to such aimless gawping by constantly giving us things that need to be approached and looked at in different ways – as images, as constellations of pictures, as objects.

For some artists, doing one thing well is enough. But photography – perhaps more so than painting – allows for many different kinds of incidents and singularities. The great pleasure of this exhibition is its orchestration of different registers and voices. The last big Tillmans show I saw, in Berlin in 2008, was called Lighter. Walking through it, I felt heavier and heavier: it was so full of stuff, it was hard to hold the logic of it all in one's head. Retrospectives often fall into this trap. The smallness of the Serpentine gallery demands much tighter editing; the space edits the work as much as the artist.

Tillmans's show was hung and finished two days ago, but late on Tuesday night the artist decided to rearrange part of the hang. Things aren't right until they're right, and rightness seems to be a big issue for the artist. The big problem, of course, is what happens when the crowds pour in. You lose all those perfect sightlines.

The extreme variety of Tillmans's work, with its different printing techniques and technologies, makes for a fascinating show on many levels. There are luscious photographs and dirty faxes, photocopies that accentuate the dismal Edinburgh light and glossy prints that bring out the unpleasant glamour of Shanghai by night; there is a vivid cyan blue invented in the darkroom and too artificial to be the sky. It is all here. These could, of course, all be exercises in style: I can do this, and this, and this; you can have it this way or that. You want abstract? I can do abstract. You want gritty, or sexy? Well, here they are. But there is more to Tillmans's work than formal intelligence. He wants it all, and why not?

Wolfgang Tillmans is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, from Saturday until 19 September. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 06 2010

A month in photography

A guide to the 20 best photographic exhibitions and books, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Don McCullin

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