to look without fear

July 27, 2023

The first time I heard of Wolfgang Tillmans was in my early 20s when I happened upon a photograph of his in Vogue. An editor had singled out “Sandcastle” as her favourite photograph, adding that it was the hopefulness of the image that she was most drawn to, “that we build them, even though we know the tide will wash them away.” There’s nothing remarkable about the image, but it’s what it represented to her that made it meaningful. It resonated with me and so I tore out the page and stuck it in a scrapbook. And up until recently, my only association with Tillmans was that one sandcastle and the uplifting ideas that came with it. I knew that he was enourmously prolific, and that his work was raw and real, but I hadn’t looked further than this one image. So, when I walked through The Tillmans show at the AGO recently, it came to me, somewhere between the black and white salacious club scenes and still lives of mangled crab legs that, “to look without fear” means to see the whole picture, better yet, to look beyond the picture and see that it’s rarely as frightening as we think it is. Just as significant as seeing the light, is seeing the shadows cast when something gets in its way. “I want to invite the audience to approach my work without fear but also to not be afraid of their own eyes and how they see,” says Tillmans. The show is a shining example of how seemingly unremarkable moments, when strung together over time, can tell a story that is as painful and complicated as it is beautiful and celebratory. His images, some 4 x 4 snap shots, are stuck to the walls with clear tape like one might see in a student dorm. It’s so crude and quotidian. So brilliant. The mundanity of it all. The gritty, tender, miraculous mundanity of it all.

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