Meet Karl. Karl likes swimming, exercise and travel. He enjoys a soda, the odd cigarette and glass of white wine (nothing too fancy, maybe a Pinot Grigio). He likes comfortable sportswear: hoodies and tank tops in faded, not-too-bright colours. He might even like speedcore music. His hair is rabbity brown on his close-cropped dome, while he has a light white down on his ears. A darker brown of hair runs down in a line from his belly button, while a slightly lighter shade nestles in his armpits.
This much we can tell from Wolfgang Tillmans’s Central Nervous System. Following on from years of hang-anywhere, self-reflexive installations that would jump between images of quickly caught instances and concrete colour tests with photographic paper, here Tillmans returns to the body. A body: 30 photographs from 2008 to 2013 of just Karl, his feet, neck, eyes and determined mouth.
A step back from his more sculptural examinations of the mechanisms of photography, the exhibition is pitched as a less conscious return ‘to square one’. A slick conservatism rules the show, with a linear hang and several of the photos smartly framed underneath nonreflective glass. Many make a conscious effort to approach classical portraiture, with the Renaissance profile view in Leonardo (2013), Karl reaching a long index finger up to touch his neck, or the more relaxed, impressionistic sunlight dapples playing on his chest as he lounges in the park in Karl Arles II (2013).
In the closeup of Karl’s eye in Augenlicht (Eyesight, 2013), more than the details of his retina we see the reflection of the world around him: a window with a sunny garden, the kitchen that he’s standing in and the shirtless photographer capturing the scene. The works obviously mirror Tillmans’s affection for the man, whatever the relationship may be, but Karl’s flat Teutonic demeanour also turns him into a sort of generic everyman. We might as well be looking at anybody, making the focus of the exhibition, if we’re being generous, the gaze itself: sustained, close and curious. More than the actual content, it is the doting quietude of the assembled portraits that is touching; these are nonmoments, revelling in just looking at someone while events pass by.
While on the surface this provides more focus than Tillmans’s usual catchall humanism, there’s a double edge to the earnest intimacy invoked here. Lacking a sense of criticality, these works can be seen in the light of Tillmans’s role over the past few decades in promoting a style of photography (along with Terry Richardson, Juergen Teller and spawn like Ryan McGinley) that’s become the standard in cooler-than-thou ‘lifestyle’ magazines across the world. Looking at his demure downturned eyes as he apparently waits around in the Colombian city streets in a camouflage parka jacket in Karl, Bogotá (2012), you get the creeping feeling of how that same intense gaze can be turned to commodify your nearest and dearest.
This article was first published in the January & February 2014 issue.