‘In my lens-based paper drop images I made the photographic paper itself my subject matter, creating images that are figurative and abstract at the same time. I liken them to mathematical functions. I can’t calculate them, but a mathematician could describe exactly how their shapes happened through the tension of the paper and gravity. They are almost like scientific illustrations’
‘There is this looking at the world as shapes and patterns and colours that have meaning, and you can’t deny the superficial because the superficial is what meets the eye. The content can never be disconnected from the surface, and this active interest in surface can never be disregarded from the good art that we admire’
Paper Drop (Star) (2006) is an exquisite example of Wolfgang Tillmans’s ‘paper drop’ series, in which he plays a beautiful and compelling game with abstraction, figuration and the photographic process. Spanning a monumental two metres in width, the image depicts a sheet of photo paper, folded over to create a teardrop-shaped aperture when viewed from the side. Tillmans captures this form using a shallow depth of field, so that its interior shadows and glints form an astral, painterly abstract haze penned in by the sharp edges of the paper. The unfocused background consists of similar neutral tones, with light and dark shimmering dreamily into one another to offer only the barest hint of setting. With the subject transformed not only by this selective focus but also by the print’s immense scale, it is not immediately clear what we are seeing – whether the picture is abstract, or figurative, or even a photograph at all – and Tillmans delights in this playful uncertainty, foregrounding the complex objecthood of photography and its relationship to the three-dimensional world. By taking photographic paper as his subject, he trains the lens directly on the material of his own practice. As he recalls of the first ‘paper drop’ work, conceived in 2001, ‘for the first time I turned the interest in the object itself, the photo as an object, into a photo of a photo’ (W. Tillmans, artist’s talk at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Munich, 27 October 2011, unpublished). As with all of Tillmans’s work, Paper Drop (Star) marries irresistible visual appeal to a sophisticated inquest into the very nature, purpose and significance of photography as a medium.
Tillmans’s ontological approach to this series is no empty formalist exercise. He harnesses the ambiguous power of photography to embody his own uniquely perceptive way of seeing the world, and his sensual outlook on the experience of life itself. Although abstract works such as Paper Drop (Star) may seem to have little in common with Tillmans’s iconic images of his friends, lovers and the European house music scene, all are born of the same lively visual curiosity. ‘The mobility of the eye is such a fundamental treasure that we have,’ he enthuses, ‘and that coexists with sensation. On the dance floor, you are totally in reality, while also experiencing this dream imagery of changing colours and wet surfaces of skin. Sometimes it’s the shadow outline in the strobe light, and in another moment it’s the closeup of an armpit that you’re looking into. I’m not photographing all the time, but it’s something that I actually see all the time, and not just on the dance floor. It’s this ongoing coexistence which makes life sensational. The eyes have this ability to flip around what they see from one second to another, to see something as an object, and then as a design. That’s really liberating, and I try to convey that in my work, that your eyes are free and you are free to use them’ (W. Tillmans, quoted in B. Nickas, ‘Wolfgang Tillmans’, Interview, September 2011). Paper Drop (Star) is a direct celebration of this perceptual freedom, oscillating between ‘design’ and ‘object’ with the endless pleasure of optical illusion. What ultimately drives Tillmans is a desire to constantly see things in new ways: much as in his exhibitions he continually restages old and new work together to create shifting visual relationships and configurations of meaning, with photographs like Paper Drop (Star) he takes a fresh and surprising look at the very material basis of his practice.
In its radical portrayal of folded paper, Paper Drop (Star) also represents a development of another important body of work by Tillmans: his photographs of clothing. Electric with the tension of implied romantic encounters, longing and loss, his close-up images of jeans, underwear and t-shirts are among his most poignant and emotionally charged works. Yet they, like Paper Drop (Star), are also informed by a careful consideration of the photographic interplay between flatness, depth, and surface. The allure is as conceptual as it is physical. As Tillmans explains, ‘this relation between material, folding, and surface and then again the translation of this folded surface into a two-dimensional image is something that has been with me since 1991 and that I never get tired of’ (W. Tillmans in conversation with F. Wagner, 2010: ‘ÜBER ALLES’, Weissensee Kunsthochschule Berlin, 29 November 2012, unpublished). In another layer of ‘translation’, he also regards his own finished photographs as objects: though they may have a ‘depth’ of less than a millimetre, they are nonetheless real presences in the world. ‘I never thought of a picture as being bodiless,’ he says, ‘but rather as existing as a process of transformation from three dimensions to two – a conceptual activity … We think and perceive in three dimensions, and then convert things to two dimensions. In a way, this piece of paper here has an extension and it’s an object … That’s why it doesn’t require narrative justification, nor justification as an art object. It’s about the transformation that conceptual photography and conceptual art have in common: the transformation of an idea’ (W. Tillmans, quoted in H. U. Obrist, ‘Interview II – Serpentine Gallery, 2007’, in Wolfgang Tillmans – Hans Ulrich Obrist (The Conversation Series, 6), Cologne 2007, p. 114).
The ‘paper drop’ series can be seen as something of a homecoming to Tillmans’s foundational concern with images’ physical creation – a fascination that began with his very earliest works, made with a Xerox photocopier in the mid-1980s. Created in the maturity of Tillmans’s career, Paper Drop (Star) is a serene, meditative composition, a space for pause and reflection in the midst of his diverse and prolific output. ‘The original interest in making pictures that don’t directly depict came around ’97 or ’98,’ he says, ‘when I felt there was such an acceleration of images in the world, and that was before Flickr and so on. So I felt a need to slow down how one consumes photographs. With the abstract pictures, I was engaged in trying to find new images, but in practice, it was a bit like throwing a wrench in the spokes. The omnipresence of photography is at a level that it has never been in the history of the world. I feel really curious to now reengage and see what the camera can do for me’ (W. Tillmans, quoted in B. Nickas, ‘Wolfgang Tillmans’, Interview, September 2011). Equipped with nothing but camera, printer and photographic paper, in Paper Drop (Star) Tillmans pushes photography to new frontiers of beauty and conceptual depth, and arrives at a radiant statement of pure joy in the subjectivity of seeing.