Wolfgang Tillmans: PCR at David Zwirner

Wolfgang Tillmans, watermelon still life, 2012. Courtesy David Zwirner

Wolfgang Tillmans, watermelon still life, 2012. Courtesy David Zwirner

The more than 100 photographs in Wolfgang Tillmans’s sprawling exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery through October 24 are so idiosyncratic and disconnected that they shouldn’t cohere into a meaningful whole. There are portraits, still lifes, cameraless abstractions, photographs of concerts and protests. They range in size from snapshots to an 83 5/8 by 57 ¼-inch close up of a man’s scrotum. The work is arranged, as his exhibitions often are, with an almost musical rhythm: chords here, single notes there. It shouldn’t add up to anything, but it does.

PCR, the title of the show, is short for “polymerase chain reaction,” a technology in molecular biology by which a strand of DNA is amplified to generate thousands of copies. Perhaps the title is a metaphor for the nearly infinite number of images made possible by technology; perhaps it’s a metaphor for the idea that all of these seemingly unrelated photographs are, in fact, parts of a larger, lovelier whole. Either way, the ambiguity fits with Tillmans’s playfully democratic approach to the medium.

Wolfgang Tillmans, still life, Calle Real, II, 2014. Courtesy David Zwirner

Wolfgang Tillmans, still life, Calle Real, II, 2014. Courtesy David Zwirner

“Photography always lies about what’s in front of the camera, but never about what’s behind it,” he said to a crowd gathered at the exhibition’s opening. He was referring to the photographer’s intention, and Tillman’s has always been, at least in part, to collapse the walls between fine art and the commercial, magazine world. Some of the photographs were exhibited as magazine pages pinned to the wall, others as framed prints behind glass. Occasionally he printed the same image in different sizes, emphasizing different relationships with the neighboring images.

Tillmans, who started out as a photographer for the British style and youth culture magazine i-D, is serious about the importance of play, in terms of what he photographs – clubbing, dancing, and nightlife – but also in the freeform way he organizes his shows, using the gallery space as a lab in which to experiment rather than as a white cube to decorate.

As nonchalant as his photographs can seem, they point to a deep engagement with the everyday. Despite the sea of images we drown in daily, Tillmans’s photographs allow for the possibility of transcendence in a pile of laundry or the dried juice from a watermelon