As the World’s Turners

Two shows by honorees of Britain's prestigious Turner Prize are currently on display in Chelsea. Tracey Emin—1999 Turner shortlist nominee—is exhibiting I Followed You To The Sun at Lehmann Maupin, and Wolfgang Tillmans—2000 Turner winner—has Neue Welt at Andrea Rosen Gallery. Both artists gained early recognition by plying the personal in their work. Yet both turn more outwards in these works. Because of this history, I couldn't help but to look for those characteristics reflected in the new pieces and, as if inevitably, I couldn’t help but to find them. Well, them and John Waters.

The Personal is Tangible: Tracey Emin at Lehmann Maupin

The work that earned Emin a spot on the Turner shortlist, My Bed, exemplifies the personal-is-political exhibitionism that gave her notoriety around Britain. She was a jolt of sentimentality in an increasingly theory-suffocated art world. Her famous 1995 work, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, gave exactly what its title promises: the names of everyone she had slept with to that time, embroidered on a tent where one could crawl inside and sleep in (theoretically, at least). “Intimate” became a buzz word for her supporters."Inane,” on the other hand, was the cry of her critics.

"Guide Star" Photo by C. Robinson

These new works are less of a confession, however. Emin has been recently insisting in interviews  that she is an artist, after all—and there is an argument for that here. The most significant new works in the show are the casts in the center of the gallery. Small figures—finely-detailed animals and roughly-crafted women—sit atop white blocks with classically Eminesque slogans scrawled on them (“I Whisper To My Past Do I Have Another Choice” or “You Have No Idea How Safe You Make Me Feel”). The literal weight of these objects lends a feeling of concreteness to the emotive words and poses they portray (even moreso than the neons she has worked with for a while). “Primitive” is too insulting a word for them, yet I was brought to a very basic wonderment, reminded of how amazing it is that mere objects can convey these human feelings—the very stuff of art.

Global Networking: Wolfgang Tillmans at Andrea Rosen Gallery

Wolfgang Tillmans, unlike Tracey Emin, has long insisted on the theoretical rigor of his work. Yet many of his photographs seem to emanate from the same muses of intimacy and ordinariness as Emin. Like her post-feminist cult status, Tillmans, too, has garnered a large post-AIDS gay following for his unapologetically queer photographs (NSFW). Before and after winning the Turner, his work could be seen everywhere from the pink pages of BUTT to the walls of the Berghain techno club to a solo exhibition in the Tate. The profundity of everyday life is not just at issue in his photographs, but also in how they are presented and disseminated.

"I Followed You To The Sun." Photo by C. Robinson

Globalization is a theme. There is a view of Kilimanjaro, a nice morning and afternoon pairing in Addis Abeba, a storm drain in Buenos Aires, and lots of fruit. While before Tillmans’ images of London, Berlin, Paris, and New York would be shown together in a sort of pan-Western suturing, now this geographic grouping threatens its own coherence. What kind of connections are made by placing urban East Africa alongside urban South America? What sort of differences are ignored? What does it say about the Western viewer–about the photographer, even–that these images do or don’t cohere culturally?

Photo by C. Robinson

The most jarring – most non-Tillmans-like – photograph of the show, was the large image of a computer screen seen when one first enters the gallery. Although plenty of mechanical things have been in his images before (notably, in his Concorde series, few have felt this imposing, this impersonal. It is a melancholic centerpoint for the show: yes, network culture allows easy global access, but instead of the human portraits that were so Tillmanesque before, we get portraits of machines while humans, like accessories, remain further from the lens. The show is challenging, but maybe very honest too.

WWJWD: Follow the Pope of Filth

The real takeaway from all of this is that John Waters was at both artists’ openings. Shouldn’t you want to do whatever John Waters does? I certainly do. He mucks about in the most vulgar parts of humankind and still emerges like a gentleman in Comme des Garçons. And that was true here: both artists present uncomfortable but candid revelations of their experience (and he wore Comme des Garçons to see them). Tillmans once said that “photography always lies about what is in front of the camera but never lies about what is behind”–and rarely is that effect more visible in all art than in both of these artists’ work.

Lehmann Maupin – “I Followed You To The Sun” by Tracey Emin – May 2nd to June 22nd, 2013 – Tue-Sat: 10am-6pm [Price range of works: $10,000 – $99,999]

Andrea Rosen Gallery – “Neue Welt” by Wolfgang Tillmans – May 4th to June 22, 2013 – Tue-Sat: 10am-6pm [Prices Upon Request]

Article by Christopher Robinson