1x1 ON WOLFGANG TILLMANS: TO LOOK WITHOUT FEAR
indian corn & pomme granate, 1994
It would be too much to say that the husk of this gleaming ear of dried corn is peeled away like quickly-shed clothing, but the flash photo does have a kind of sexy luster, its ruby and blood reds flattened in the emulsion. Tillmans’s knee just barely touches the table’s edge. The bird’s-eye view renders everything a bit strangely.
I am missing the point. The point is that at first I could not distinguish the corn from the pomegranate. It was all an ordered length flowing into a pool of red, and I imagined the incipient swipe of the knife would dispense more of the same into the bowl, and all would be in order. But, staring at that full expanse, it becomes clear that there are different species, different textures of red.
Everything is predicated on the divide between light and dark; not just the edge of the table bisecting the frame, but what catches the flash and what falls short. That axis organizes the picture into evidence and conjecture. A discerning eye could tell if the cropped liquor bottle contains tequila or rum, and which brand. But that maroon shape in the twilight at top left? There isn’t enough information to say.
I am transfixed by the pink-tinged bowl at the picture’s center. It so strongly resembles a fifteenth-century painting by Giovanni di Paolo, where God almost seems to throw the red-ringed world at Adam and Eve to chase them out of Paradise. Its fragile tempera is cracked across the wood, and the fruits and flowers of Eden compete with the general noise of that network—a chance grid, a necessity of the material.
Tillmans names his subject “indian” corn, as opposed to barley corn or wheat corn, as crops were known centuries ago. Corn has an old sense as a verb in English, meaning to granulate—it is a neat metaphor for photographing, dividing a scene into particles. And the separation of “pomme granate” in the title only furthers this sense of language and image as devices operating toward fiction. Rather than clarifying meaning, etymology reveals the confusion of continents and biology, the designating of newness as a mere variation of the familiar.
As with all still lifes, Tillmans’s is a study in difference, except difference here is generative. In the budding red, corn’s ordered geometry comes alive. Its nascent anthropomorphism is disturbing—it feels like being seen, the way the flash collects in the bowl and bounces back to leave a visual stutter. That language fails precisely because of its specialization, that every classification here is almost an act of violence—all of that is secondary because those red grains glint like bug eyes looking in every direction. Before the photograph is even printed or affixed to the wall, those menacing, longing eyes call attention to a certain truth: to make an image is to build a world and seal it off. That Tillmans is uneasy with this order, and that his vision of the world insists on looking back, is an act of generosity.