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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Around the World in 41 Minutes
Wolfgang Tillmans
Book for Architects
R. Wayne Parsons
Photo by Wolfgang Tillmans . Source:
Wolfgang Tillmans, "Book for Architects - Two-channel video installation." 2014

“Book for Architects” by Wolfgang Tillmans is a show atypical of the Met: it is the first photography exhibition at the museum, that I can recall, consisting entirely of a digital slide show. It’s an imposing precedent, with 450 photos spanning 41 minutes for the entire cycle.

The title, “Book for Architects,” is misleading in two respects. First, it’s not a book in a literal sense, but, as noted, a slide show existing only in this genre. Slide shows have the advantage of allowing a large number of images to be displayed in relatively little space. But unless the viewer can control the pace of the show, pause, go back etc. she has no opportunity to examine more closely an image of interest (unless, of course, she sticks around for 41 minutes for another ten-second look.) Secondly, this work appears aimed at the general public rather than professional architects, who will probably not find much of interest in the exhibition.

Photo by Wolfgang Tillmans . Source:
Wolfgang Tillmans, "Book for Architects - Two-channel video installation." 2014

Tillmans travelled to 37 countries over a period of ten years gathering material for this project. In his own words, Tillmans’s goal was “to show a sequence and an arrangement of images that echo what examples of the built environment look and feel like to me.” His words point to the strength of this show: the careful and intelligent way the images are sequenced and displayed. The most obvious format for a slide show is to project single images on a screen at fixed intervals – gets the job done, but rather boring. Tillmans has a more flexible approach. Two projectors are used, focusing on two wall-size screens abutting one another at a right angle in a large darkened space – the “book” of the title. The projections change simultaneously every ten seconds. However, both screens are not necessarily used at the same time. Sometimes only one screen contains imagery, sometimes the other, sometimes both; the number of images projected at any one time varies from only one to as many as eight. The presentation is similar to that a good graphic designer might use in the layout of two facing pages of a printed book – a further allusion to “book”. This strategy gives the show a dynamic feel far surpassing that of the usual experience of images projected one at a time, though the limitation is that the viewer has only a few seconds to attend to any one photo when several are shown simultaneously.

As implied by Tillmans’ words quoted above, the selection is personal and idiosyncratic. This is in no way a comprehensive review of architectural styles and practices, and it is clear that Tillmans does not intend the work to be so. The emphasis is on residential and commercial architecture of the last 100 years or so, mostly in industrialized countries. There is little emphasis on architectural masterpieces; Tillmans wants to direct out attention to the mundane run-of-the-mill vernacular architecture that characterizes most of what we encounter in the modern metropolis. There is a lot of emphasis, arguably too much and too repetitive, on architectural detail: pipes emerging from walls, electrical wires, staircases (especially staircases!), sterile interior corridors, segments of banisters, windows, walls meeting at corners, etc. etc. etc. He also includes a good many facades and interiors of office buildings (usually recent). He gives us an ample measure of street photography of people doing the things people do on busy urban streets and in public spaces. And, occasionally, a few aerial shots of dense urban environments.

Photo by Partobject on Instagram . Source:
photo by PartObject on instagram, "Still from ‘Book for Architects’ by Wolfgang Tillmans" 2015

Omissions are notable; there are no churches or other religious structures; no police stations, no strip malls, no gas stations; no ranch houses, indeed, not a single detached house with a grassy lawn. We see no industrial architecture such as electrical power plants or substations, auto plants, or microchip assembly lines; hardly any elaborate architecture of the classical or beaux arts school. The few examples of architecture from third-world countries seem out of place in view of the emphasis on the developed world. While there are multiple shots of airports, we don’t see any of the stunning train stations that so well define public architecture in major European and American cities. While Tillmans certainly has the right to choose those structures that interest him, we can’t help feeling that we would gladly relinquish a few shots of staircases or elevator doors in return for a sewage treatment plant, a hospital operating room, or even a gothic cathedral. Granted, there is beauty and energy in the kaleidoscope that is defined by the modern built environment. But the viewer may well feel that it is ill advised to eliminate so much that adds to the variety of the urban setting. Another limitation: if the viewer wants to know what he is looking at and where, sorry – no explanatory captions whatsoever.

The Met’s publicity for the show notes that “Tillmans presents a personal portrait of contemporary architecture that will be familiar to everyone.” That touches - unwittingly, no doubt - on the show’s major failing: we’ve seen it all before. There is nothing new here, either in content or photographic style. Anyone who has spent time in an urban setting will think “déjà vu” and will no doubt wander off to some other exhibition in the museum in search of something less predictable and more challenging. These photos, while well done technically and compositionally, are no more than what we would expect from a good amateur travel photographer with a fondness, albeit limited, for the built environment.

Wolfgang Tillmans
Book for Architects

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