1x1 ON WOLFGANG TILLMANS: TO LOOK WITHOUT FEAR
The Blue Oyster Bar, Saint Petersburg, 2014
Many of Wolfgang Tillmans’s photographs picture intimacy directly: bodies pressing up against bodies, skin made vulnerable to the feeling of another’s touch. Yet in this picture, taken at a bar in St. Petersburg, intimacy is figured not through convergence, but through distance. The connection between these two bodies is found in the electric space that lies between them, in the tantalizing proximity between one pair of bent legs and another, between a blurred hand and a billowing hem.
It is an image of relative calm in comparison to the images that typically come to mind when we imagine a photograph of a bar by Wolfgang Tillmans. It’s not a picture that we would necessarily call frenzied. The bar is not teeming with bodies, nor with the disordered residue of a night prior. There are just two here in the placid darkness of the room. In the background, we can make out a few chairs, but no one sits in them. The shadow of a third body just barely registers in the sliver of red at the top middle of the photograph. The arrangement of space is clearly defined, modest: the tiered structure that they stand on gives our eye an easy path along which we can navigate this scene. And yet, it is the relative constraint of this image, its subtle but intentional power, that makes it so charged.
The space between these bodies is filled with a surplus of potential energy: a few inches or feet of distance from which we can anticipate a future tense. The space between them asks what kind of gesture that blurred hand might be in the midst of making, or what might happen when those red sneakers lift or land on the ground. We can’t ignore the movement in this image, but what makes the movement so striking is that it is suspended, on the verge, tense. This is no drama of explosive motion, but rather it is an image of the friction of anticipation.
Tillmans has denied us the satisfaction of having faces to look at. The image teases us with that defiant sense of incompleteness that makes Tillman’s work so challenging. Perhaps in the moment this photo was taken, they were looking at each other with joy in their eyes, or melancholy, or love. Perhaps they weren’t looking at each other at all, so rapt in the rush of bodily movement. We can’t know any of this, and I for one don’t want to. I don’t want to lose the bewildering mystery of this image, for it is the mystery that allows me to get lost in the shapes that their bodies make, the pools of light shining on this metal surface they stand on, the flash of a hand moving up, away, and fast.
Instead of giving us a picture of faces, Tillmans gives us a picture of photography. This is a picture of the tension of an immediate moment, of the speed of a digital shutter as it simultaneously freezes and fails to freeze time.