Strength, reality shine in ‘Fragile’ by Wolfgang Tillmans at Joburg Art Gallery

The exhibition 'Fragile' is an extensive look at the multi-faceted work of Tillmans ranging from large-scale prints to sculptural objects, video projections, music and curational work.

An art lover observes Wolfgang Tillmans's art exhibition 'Fragile' at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Picture: Goethe-Institut South Africa

JOHANNESBURG - German artist Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition Fragile has opened at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).

It is an extensive look at his multi-faceted work ranging from large-scale prints to sculptural objects, video projections, music and curational work.

Tillmans (right) among visitors at the opening of his exhibition in Johannesburg.

Before coming to South Africa, Tillmans showcased his work in Kinshasa and Nairobi and he told EWN that bringing Fragile to the country seemed like it was the best next step.

“I love making exhibitions. My work, on the one hand, is taking photographs and then selecting, enlarging and printing them. But really, it all becomes complete when I install them and hang them in exhibition spaces. So making an exhibition is like communicating with an audience. And I really enjoy travelling with my work. First I had a European tour, then a North American and Latin America one. And so it felt like a natural continuation to start exhibiting on the African continent.”

Tillmans’s work is showing at JAG’s nine big galleries. He says it takes up to seven days to install a huge exhibition such as this.

"So I travel with three assistants. And there was support on the ground here and it was a beautiful process.”

His biggest picture is six metres wide and three metres tall. And the smallest one is postcard-size.

“And to see them all at play and come out of the crates and boxes and tubes is a beautiful process. It’s also time that I can spend with my own work.”

Wolfgang Tillmans: Lutz, Alex, Suzanne & Christoph on beach, 1993.

He says his interest in art has always been that it tells a story about the time it's from and at the same time it is universal.

“I found that with the camera I am able to make work that speaks about the here and now, which at the same time can be timeless. I think photography is such a powerful medium because it speaks to people directly and we can all relate to it.

“And at the same time, pictures are not reality, there is always a translation. In real life how I translate them onto paper on my photographic prints, there is always an act of interpretation and act of playing involved. And I have not got tired in the past 30 years in the potential of making pictures with and without the camera.”

The exhibition features images of items from everyday life, such as a box filled with bottles and containers of pills, to a car in the workshop and faces of both young and old, black and white, that seem to see right through you.

So what influences what he sees as art and worth capturing?

“I like to live my life with my eyes and when I have understood something I briefly put my camera between it and my eyes. And the variety of subject matter, such as a little weed that somebody would pick up in their garden, I have that blown up in a four-metre-tall picture. And then this car headlight next to it, and then the pillbox – they are all there for a particular understanding of the whole, but you cannot depict everything and what it feels like to be alive in its entirety.

"But as an artist, you have to have the courage to make a selection and pick a particular moment and trust that in that, everything is included somehow because everything is also connected."

Why name the exhibition Fragile?

“Fragile is a word I could recognise in myself from an early age. And I didn’t see that as a weakness. I saw that as an acceptance of reality because I observed that I found people the least interesting when they thought they were really strong and invincible. But people who are in touch with their fragility and have a sense of their own vulnerability, I found much more interesting and ultimately stronger.

“You know we always have to prepare for our own weakness, for our own failure, for our ultimate death – of course – and so to be in denial of that is not strong, it’s not realistic. Paper is a thin, fragile material and on the other hand, it lasts. So it’s this play between calling something negative, but it’s also not negative if you embrace it," Tillmans said.

This exhibition is on until 30 September.