– Spring/Summer 2007

Network and Community: Strolling the Wolfgang Tillmans Salon

Lane Relyea

It is remarkable how many pictures we have [...] of informal and spontaneous
sociability, of breakfasts, picnics, promenades, boating trips, holidays and
vacation travel. These urban idylls
[...] presuppose the cultivation of these
pleasures as the highest field of freedom for an enlightened bourgeois
detached from the official beliefs of his class. In enjoying realistic pictures
of his surroundings as a spectacle of traffic and changing atmospheres, the
cultivated rentier was experiencing in its phenomenal aspects that mobility of
the environment, the market and of industry to which he owes his income and
his freedom.
[...] As the contexts of bourgeois sociability shifted
from community, family and church to commercialised or privately improvised
forms - the streets, the cafés and resorts - the resulting consciousness of
individual freedom involved more and more an estrangement from older
ties; and those imaginative members of the middle class who accepted the
norms of freedom, but lacked the economic means to attain them, were
spiritually torn by a sense of helpless isolation in an anonymous
indifferent mass.

Pull open the door to one of Wolfgang Tillmans's exhibitions, such as the recent one at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and you find yourself literally engulfed by an enormous, book-length and building-sized photo-essay. 2 The arrangement of pictures is aggressively art directed, with the four edges of the museum's rectangular walls - nay, of whole rectangular rooms - used to anchor dynamic compositions. Exposed white space around and between photographs appears no longer 'neutral' but aesthetically activated; doorways, windows, even thermostats and fire extinguishers get enlisted as graphic elements. Squint and

  1. Carol Kino, 'Welcome to the Museum of My Stuff', The New York Times, 18 February 2007, p.30.

  2. Lane Relyea, 'Photography's Everyday Life and the Ends of Abstraction', in J. Ault et al., Wolfgang Tillmans, op. cit., pp.88-117. Tellingly, Tillmans's installation 'Freedom from the Known', his 2006 show at New York's P.S.1 which included almost exclusively abstract works, was remarkably conventional, for the most part sequencing pictures one at a time, left to right, at eye level. Tillmans's abstractions are by far his most Mallarméan efforts.

  3. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 20 March-13 August 2006.

  4. Roland Barthes, 'The Structuralist Activity', Critical Essays, Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 1972, p.215. See Howard Singerman, 'Noncompositional Effects, or the Process of Painting in 1970', Oxford Art Journal, vol.26, no.1, 2003, pp.133-34, for a discussion of this quote in relation to arguments over composition in art in the 1960s.

  5. Harrison C. White and Cynthia A. White, Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p.2.

  6. Quoted in Russell Ferguson, 'Faces in the Crowd', in Julie Ault et al., Wolfgang Tillmans, Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art and Los Angeles: UCLA Hammer Museum, 2006, p.75.

  7. Michael Fried, 'Anthony Caro and Kenneth Noland: Some Notes on Not Composing', Lugano Review, vol.1, no.3-4, 1965, p.205.

  8. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1984, p.173.

  9. Quoted in Daniel Birnbaum, 'A New Visual Register for Our Perceptual Apparatus', in J. Ault et al., Wolfgang Tillmans, op. cit., pp.17-18.

  10. Quoted in R. Ferguson, 'Faces in the Crowd', op. cit.

  11. Meyer Schapiro, 'The Nature of Abstract Art', Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, New York: George Braziller, 1979, p.193.

  12. Harrison C. White, Chains of Opportunity: System Models of Mobility in Organizations, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1970; Mark S. Gronovetter, 'The Strength of Weak Ties', American Journal of Sociology, vol.78, no.6, May 1973, pp.1360-80.

  13. Richard Florida, 'The Rise of the Creative Class', Washington Monthly, vol.34, no.5, May 2002, pp.17-18.

  14. R. Florida, 'Cities and the Creative Class', City & Community, vol.2, no.1, March 2003. Florida's arguments render a service in today's art world if only because they match so closely the language used to promote much 'social' or 'relational' art while unmasking the direct tie between that language and current neo-liberal policy and its cheerleading for a renewal of 'entrepreneurial spirit'. What's lacking in Florida's account, of course, is the scepticism found in, say, Meyer Schapiro's account of Impressionism with which this essay opened. For a rare instance of more recent scepticism, see Claire Bishop, 'Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics', October, vol.110, Fall 2004. But beside a passing reference to B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore's The Experience Economy (1999), Bishop's argument fails to mention rising entrepreneurialist propaganda and policy, and worries that the socialising currently fetishised by the art world is overly homogenous, its ties too strong rather than too weak - which, however, interestingly does not invalidate antagonism as a counter-measure.

  15. André Malraux, The Voices of Silence, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p.21.

  16. Oliver Wendell Holmes, 'The Stereoscope and the Stereograph', in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete's Island Books, 1980, p.81.

  17. Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, 'Photography', in ibid., pp.41 and 52.

  18. Quoted in Johanna Neuman, 'A Museum with a Patented History', Los Angeles Times, vol.3, July 2005, p.E36.

  19. Hal Foster, 'Archives of Modern Art', October, vol.99, Winter 2002, p.81. In a related article Foster proposes the 'archival art' of Tacita Dean, Sam Durant and Thomas Hirschhorn as a form of post-canon ruin more oppositional than the database, one more 'fragmentary [...] than fungible', too 'recalcitrantly material' to be easily picked through ('An Archival Impulse', October, vol.110, Fall 2004, p.5). Foster's contrast between the material conditions of the database and those of the archive can perhaps be set parallel to the social conditions of what I've been calling networks and those underlying what Bill Readings has called 'dissensus', which he describes as a means of 'dwelling in the ruins' - that is, of conducting social life and conversation in a post-national, post-cultural situation; see The University in Ruins, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1996. Readings's 'dissensus' occurs in a ruins, not a matrix; its conduct follows the logic of opacity and obligation rather than advertisement and availability; its participants are not subjects or identities but singularities which are resistant, not available or 'fungible', to network transactions, to the market demand of infinite exchangeability.