It’s a searingly hot day summer’s day. Pale, oiled bodies wander along the beach, which leads from Hove past the singed skeleton of the West Pier to Brighton Pier, with its funfair rides and new space-age viewing tower that ascends slowly into the sun. There was a time when England’s seaside resorts seemed to have been fading into history, but the strangeness of this past year has brought with it a revival of sorts, or at least a renewed appreciation for these cities’ kitsch, gritty charm. In the context of Wolfgang Tillmans’ latest exhibition, this might all seem like irrelevant detail, but I find his photographs evoke a similar sense of longing: at times quietly nostalgic, and at others, fiercely sensual.
Morena di Luna is Tillmans’ pet name for his UK gallerist Maureen Paley, translating roughly to “Dark-haired One of the Moon”. In turn, she borrowed the title for her Hove-based gallery that sits just back from the sea in a startlingly white Regency crescent. Inside the gallery, Tillmans’ photographs weave through the rooms, right up the walls, to the edges of the ceiling, between the panelling and above the line of the skirting board, stuck down with sellotape or hanging by bulldog clips. It appears spontaneous, casual, and homely, but in reality, Tillmans plans meticulously and makes a model of every space he exhibits in to create a very precise spatial encounter.
In the past, I’d only seen his photographs in isolation at art fairs or as part of a wider collection, but as I move now between the rooms (the exhibition begins in the hall as soon as you walk through the door), I realise that to really appreciate his work, it needs to be experienced en masse. Each photograph is like a line of poetry: it can be startling on its own, but it gains a new, resounding purpose when it is part of a whole.
Many of the photographs are taken at night: faces and limbs are illuminated by a deep midnight blue or a strange orange glow, evoking the feeling of early mornings wandering home as the sun rises and the city emerges from the shadows. Photography always freezes time, but the stillness Tillmans captures is swollen, fraught, and trembling: the seconds before or after something has occurred. Standing in front of an image of dried sweat, crusting on a t-shirt, I can taste the salt.
In the first room, on the shelves of a cabinet, there's a display of astronomy annuals, arranged in chronological order from 1978 to 2021 – Tillmans has been collecting them since he was ten years old – amongst back copies of National Geographic and other objects from his childhood. These serve to emphasise the passage of time and create a sense of intimacy; it feels a little like peering through windows into the artist's bedroom. Meanwhile, behind glass doors of the adjacent vitrine, there are photographs of food – Waitrose yoghurts, Walkers crisps, Japanese cucumbers; salad, soup, sandwiches; cheese cake, rhubarb – and a portrait of a man gesticulating with a can in one hand. It’s almost hilariously prosaic, and while there is always comfort to be found in the familiar, there’s also something a little bit off, an underlying darkness that steadily accumulates. Tacked onto one wall, for example, is a print out of Tillmans’ interview from i-D Magazine with LGBTQIA+ Ugandans who fled their home after the country passed an Anti-Homosexuality law that led to waves of homophobic violence.
Tillmans has the boundless ability to find beauty in even the most painful of places and as such, his work is deeply humanising and generous. His images invite you in rather than slamming the door on your face. In three of the accompanying portraits of the Ugandan interviewees, for example, their backs are turned away from the camera — presumably to protect their identity — and while a visible sadness clings to their bodies, the images are also gentle and tender, denying a typically sensationalist media perspective.
In this show especially, there’s a powerful sense of time and distance collapsing. His lens moves from the vast expanse of the night sky to a man crawling naked across a beach, to the roots of trees winding through industrial piping to the pixels of a computer screen. At the centre of it all is the moon: a tiny, luminous crest and a huge, yellow orb, its underside a slither of brilliant, blinding light. Patterns begin to emerge, or at least, a feeling of interconnectedness. Nothing is forced or over-explained, and amidst the relentless flood of everyday imagery, it comes as an immense relief and joy to experience photography in this way.