There's a New Labour tang to 'if one thing matters, everything matters', the title of Tate Britain's Wolfgang Tillmans retrospective. Perhaps it's the Third Way fuzziness, or the pseudo-self-effacing, very 1990s, lower-case letters, or perhaps it's the lip-service it pays to equality. It seems to suggest that the show's a visual democracy in which every photograph (old or new, fine art or fashion, quotidian or quite flash) has equal value, that each one is a distinctive voice contributing towards, if not harmony, then the kind of happy discord made by things that are free. The instrument of this freedom, of course, is Tillmans' lens, although - like New Labour - it's less egalitarian than it at first appears.
Cornucopia seemed to be the curatorial buzzword here. The walls were a heaving buffet of over 300 photographs, with the smaller works hung in tight clusters or else abandoned in Siberias of white space, their nearest neighbours distant, ceiling-tall prints. There's little that's new about this presentational gambit (indeed, one wall was a straight reproduction of the 'hang' at Tillmans' 1993 show at the Daniel Buchholz Gallery in Cologne) but, being a retrospective, it had a totalizing aspect absent from previous exhibitions of the artist's work. Tate Britain wanted to show us the world, to transform a cross-section of Tillmans' oeuvre into a semi-transparent portal through which our planet's every drama, every humdrum domestic detail, might be glimpsed. Like a list-heavy passage in a John Updike novel, the show piled motif upon motif (planes, political protests, dishes, aubergines, lovers, drying laundry ... ) in the hope that its mass, its very density of information, might amount to something meaningful. It succeeded, but not as a document of our times. (Tillmans' eye is too partisan, too in love with beauty for that.) Rather, 'if one thing matters, everything matters' was a luminous illustration of how and why we pay attention to the visual world.
Cameras don't take photos, people take them, and, despite their demotic subject matter and seemingly offhand, point-and-click execution, there's nothing arbitrary about Tillmans' shots. His U-Bahn Sitz (Metro Seat, 1995) is a case in point. On the face of things, it's a picture of a plastic metro seat, messily patterned to disguise the burger drips and piss stains of Saturday night travel. It's the kind of thing that usually slips beneath our visual radar, but in Tillmans' photo it becomes fabulous, a De Stijl design fed through a fizzing TV signal. Other shots of everyday stuff were spiced with the unexpected, including AA Breakfast (1995), in which a faceless man flops his penis into his airline meal, his glans as greasy as buttered toast. It's at such moments that the show's title started to pose questions: if the man's cock matters, so must his cup of weak tea and the colour of his trousers, the tilt of his tray and the way his polo-necked foreskin is echoed by the collared lids of the complimentary preserves. We're tugged between narrative, formal and biographical concerns (Tillmans, after all, took the shot from the neighbouring seat), unable to pull them apart or collapse them into a single, satisfying whole.
Exhibited at Tate Britain, Tillmans' well-known shots of Concorde look more and more like key works each time I see them. They speak of the desire to capture sensory experience (the supersonic jet eludes our hearing, and almost our sight), a theme that's played out across the show. Here, sweat beads on the brows of ugly-beautiful boys, a pile of post-dinner detritus, achieves a pleasing tonal range, and the damp earth in a window-box seems to reek of basil. Tillmans, through his attention to these small-time sense-impressions, transforms the facts of the world into feelings.
This mediation - the beating heart of Tillmans' practice - was absent from the 'abstract' photos in the show: darkroom-derived images that charted the effects of dye or developing fluid on light-sensitive paper. These pieces, such as Peaches VI (2001), resembled close-ups of raw skin, pricked with armpit hair or other, more worrying growths. It's as though the photographic process itself had tired of the visible world and was seeking to remake it in its own perverse image. The results are pretty, sure, and conceptually sound, but they bypass what makes Tillman's best work sing: the ability, through looking a little, and loving a little, to turn events in our visual lives into vivid, everyday poetry, with all the pleasure and knotty exegesis that implies. It's a small thing, but - as Tillmans might say - it matters.
First published in Issue 78