Wolfgang Tillmans at the Échangeur
by Patrick Mudekereza
It is said that an exhibition which manages to find many museums to host it ''works well''. It is also said that a museum which hosts many exhibitions ''works well''. Yet among the dynamic networks of these ''good workers'' parasitic connections can emerge, disruptive breaks which question the relationship between an institution’s cultural offer and its wider ecosystem, links which invite us to stop for a moment and interrogate our surroundings. By engaging with them, such connections can shed light on reforms which cultural institutions need not just to ''work well'' but also to ensure that the public becomes a driving part of an institution’s outlook and development.
In this context, exhibiting Wolfgang Tillmans at the Échangeur Museum in Kinshasa presents an interesting challenge. On the one hand, because Tillmans is an insider, which allows him to share in the power of the institution; on the other, because his artistic practice points to a kind of interior or everyday dimension that undermines the image of a ''spectacular'' exhibition and brings it back to the realm of the individual and the quotidian, thereby encouraging a crucial political debate. In other words, because his institutional status, which may at first appear as an unlikely, perhaps risky, factor, contains the germ of an ambition able to arouse bold effects.
Going Where Travelling Exhibitions Do Not
The globalisation of contemporary art is often praised for bringing to light regions of the world little represented until recently. Despite this, travelling exhibitions have remained concentrated in Europe and North America. What forays into China and Asia, and to some extent Brazil, do exist, have done so mostly because the latter countries have taken on the museums of the former. The 2007 exhibition Africa Remix, The Contemporary Art of a Continent was thus very proud to land at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa. The 2015 exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid, put on in Munich two years later, was originally presented at Museum Africa, also in South Africa. To my knowledge, the experiences of these two Johannesburg museums constitute the only African stopovers of such travelling mega-exhibitions. However, it is also the case that these dealt exclusively with Africa. One of the exhibition commissioners would later explain to me that this was above all due to the cost of insuring individual works, each coming close to the annual budget of one of our museums. One might have added that museums in Africa face a struggle for survival and may therefore have other, perhaps more pressing, priorities.
Parallel to this, large African capitals such as Lagos and Kinshasa, as well as their respective countries, have become important sites of experimentation for contemporary artists, whether new or established. From very controversial projects, such as that of Renzo Martens, quite rightly described by the French urbanist Tristan Guilloux as representing a ''cynical turn'', to the constant featuring of Belgian, Swiss, German, or French artists, there has been no shortage of contemporary artistic production on the subject of Congo. Nevertheless, few artists have ''dared'' to engage with the very public that makes it possible for them to display their projects in the form of an actual exhibition. The example of the rather stormy discussion at the Goma cinema festival on the occasion of the presentation of the photo and video installation exhibition The Enclave by the Irish artist Richard Mosse was notable in its rarity. What would the kinois have made of the distortions in meaning in the translation of the song Soki Lelo Okeyi by Papa Wemba, icon of Congolese song deceased in 2014, in Carsten Höller's video installation Fara Fara at the 2015 Venice Biennale?
Congo seems to make for great cultural exports, but exhibitions do not necessarily return there. There is, in this sense, a form of content extraction very similar to that of the mining industry, but without the return of manufactured products for domestic consumption to compensate.
The Échangeur Museum: The Unfinished Extraordinary
Yet Kinshasa does have a Museum of Contemporary Art and Multimedia installed in a very special building: the Échangeur Tower. This architectural project, built at the behest of president Mobutu Sese Seko at the peak of his glory in the early 1970s, was first conceived to house the Museum of the Zairean Nation, and assigned to Olivier-Clément Cacoub, a Franco-Tunisian architect who had already designed the gardens of the presidential park at Mont Ngaliema where the Institute of National Museums was located. Cacoub seems to have been in the favour of the president, who had already asked him to build his Gbadolite palace in his native region of Équateur. For the Échangeur, he envisioned a tall tower that would be ''the highest monumental spire in the world'', with various associated urban planning projects, such as facilitating the flow of traffic into the capital.
Cacoub was the architect of several ambitious projects: the building of the Houphouët-Boigny Foundation for Peace Research, the presidential palaces at Yaoundé and Yamoussoukro, and so on. He was also known for other controversial projects, some of which were never completed. This was the case with the Échangeur, which was to remain unfinished and make the traffic worse rather than facilitating it. Mobutu and Cacoub's project, which was supposed to celebrate the ''Zairean nation'' in all its magnificence, never materialised. After the death of the architect, the disappearance of the Cacoub archives made the resalvaging of the project difficult. Only a few entrepreneurs who had worked on the site were still there to testify for the original plans. While Korean aid later made possible the rebuilding of the Lumumba statue in 2001, the other sites would have to wait for small-scale redevelopment by a Chinese company to appear less run down. Egyptian aid, offered on the occasion of the Francophone summit hosted in Kinshasa in 2012, added projector equipment to screen a film about the Nile, considered a cousin of the Congo river which flows only a few kilometres away. With this latter acquisition, and some canvases from the modern and contemporary art collection of the National Museums Institute of Congo, the project's ''museum'' phase was launched. Other cooperation institutions began to use the building to host exhibitions, with some offering redecoration, others additional equipment.
The Échangeur was thus given a new life, with little care for the original plans. Upstaging the towers of the city’s commercial centre, it is the Échangeur which has become for the kinois the unofficial symbol of the Congolese capital, as well as appearing in some official logos. And since no one really knows what it was supposed to be for in the first place, it has become a space where the most diverse ideas and intentions can be projected, a sort of factory of imaginaries mixing science fiction narratives with histories of torture squads of all regimes. It has also become a place of pride for the dissenting quarter of Limete, with black smoke from burning tires rising around it during protests as if it were a chimney. Finally, it has also become a kind of imaginary interchange (échangeur) or an interchange of imaginaries presiding over the gates of Kinshasa like an abandoned fortress.
If the project clearly shows its imperfections and its incomplete character materially, it succeeds in its psychological impact. And if a contemporary art museum must convey the dynamics of its host, what better place in Kinshasa for this tower to be thrown, both grand and decadent, phallic and eunuch-like, a hollow totem where all can see their pride, shame and anger reflected?
The Oeuvre of Wolfgang Tillmans: the Unexpected Infra-Ordinary
For Wolfgang Tillmans, a museum project necessarily has a certain architectural complexity. Defending Herzog & de Meuron’s extension project at Tate Modern in London, which he describes as being of ''unbelievable complexity'', he remarks: ''One doesn't just build a box, but an idea''. In another interview, however, he warns against certain approaches by ''dishonest'' architects who disrespect users by not taking their intentions sufficiently seriously. Architectural works, like those of exhibitions, are accomplished through the respectful and honest materialisation of an idea and consist in presenting a responsible offer to public consciousness.
Tillmans' approach seeks to capture this complexity of things. He describes his work as an ''amplifier of ideas, things and subjects which he believes in and cares about''.
But the terms ''amplification'' and ''complexity'' should not cause confusion and suggest a search for the extraordinary. On the contrary, it is an approach that aims to expose the banal, to highlight what may at first appear as normal. For example, the photo Sendeschluss/End of Broadcast 2014 presents a shot of the interference on an analog screen that is not receiving a signal. This photo, whose trivial character is undeniable, asks us to question the relationship between image, technology and the turmoil these cause over time in our everyday lives. In the same manner, Tillman's portraits stress not the expressivity of faces but the way in which ''bodies encountering other bodies'' bring us back to the materiality, profound sensuality and even vulnerability of our own bodies. Observing the photo Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees one sees half-covered bodies which at first seem dissolved into the trees. Yet on further inspection one discovers the way the muscles are brought to light, their grace and firmness, as if the bodies were emerging from their raincoats in order to reach our eyes. This same feeling of materiality, one of almost physical contact, is expressed in the portraits of Anders, a recurring model in Tillmans' work, such as in Anders pulling splinter from his foot or Anders (Brighton Arcimboldo). In the first, he can be seen sitting on a stool with one foot on the ground and the other, which he holds in his hands, resting on his thigh. What emerges here is a sort of proximity which makes us feel like intruders within their intimate world, but without an easy play on eroticism.
This materiality expressed through the photography of bodies translates the instant captured by Tillmans. For him, each photo is an act of love, respect and a form of embrace between himself and his photographic subjects.
Tillmans also displays a striking love for a material he considers essential: paper. For him, paper is not only a support for the image, but an object in its own right. In the images entitled paper drop he presents images on folded photographic paper in the form of abstract sculptures. But he also uses newspaper pages, photocopies and all kind of image formats. If Tillmans can be considered as the photographer who has marked the passage of photography into contemporary art – notably by becoming the first photographer to win the Turner Prize – his approach to photographic practice appears to desacralise this very medium. The photograph, become work of art, can also return to being a banal object, and inversely the object can become photograph. Everything lies in the manner of presenting the paper, the quality of the paper, its size as well as its positioning within the exhibition space.
Through his subjects, the way of treating them and the means of presentation, the work of Tillmans corresponds to what Elvira Dyangani Ose, speaking of the way in which social relations are redefined within public space through artistic actions, has called the ''poetics of the infra-ordinary''. Even if the African projects she describes (Hug de Sello Pesa, Chimurenga Library and Bessengue City) occupy public spaces that are radically different from those in which exhibitions of Tillmans normally take place, the latter's approach is primarily situated within the register of the infra-ordinary as defined by the French author Georges Perec who inspired Dyangani Ose:
''The daily papers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn't concern me, doesn't ask me questions and doesn't answer the questions I ask or would like to ask. What's really going on, what we're experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?''
The project truth study center (2005-2015) seems to be a direct response to this search for the infra-ordinary. By associating his photos, shot on modest formats and placed on tables, with newspapers, letters, everyday objects, he presents a vision of truth that is much more complex than that of the news, scientific works and religious dogmas. He thus places the notion of ''truth'', now no longer absolute, on the side of what one directly lives rather than of what one learns.
But exhibiting Tillmans in Kinshasa remains in the realm of the unexpected. Exhibiting an artist whose message has a connection with the Congolese public upon the sole register of personal expression and the amplification of the everyday may seem futile to many international sponsors and even local cultural actors. And if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right ''to enjoy the arts'' (Article 27), this does not translate into great international interventions, except in cases where art expresses a direct link with humanitarian activities in the areas of health or basic freedoms.
Tillmans at the Échangeur: A Platform for Resistance?
The project truth study center starts with a simple question: ''What’s wrong with redistribution?''. This question, related to the distribution of wealth, can also be applied to power, knowledge or, more broadly, to overcoming differences whatever these may be. Tillmans in this way is able to use the exhibition space as a platform for resistance.
This commitment to a just world is demonstrated not only at the level of content, but also of the very form of the exhibition. Tillmans, who curates his own exhibitions, is very careful to avoid what he calls ''the language of importance'', the tendency for a photograph to take up increasingly more space and visibility in all the exhibitions because it is supposed to have more value. He bypasses all hierarchy in the presentation of the exhibition by constantly adapting the format of every photograph, their arrangements and hanging.
As the Échangeur Tower reminds us, Kinshasa is a city of power and displays of force. How can an equitable and respectful encounter between the work of the artist and the public be created in the shadow of this tower, which is not necessarily used to this kind of photographic exhibition? How can one create a means of mediation which makes it possible to read it beyond the codes of contemporary art and the history of photography? How can one look at it as a human experience rather than as a German exhibition in Congo? How can one see it as an immersion in the everyday rather than as a triumphant celebration of the art world?
I don't have a pragmatic answer to these questions, but I'd like to think that the public who comes to the exhibition can have a feeling of being at home and see their own everyday life amplified and sublimated. I also hope that the hospitality of the space can draw from the experience of an alternative location like Between Bridges, the space created by Tillmans at the entrance to his London studio, and later also in Berlin, while also being as precise and considered as that of Tate Modern. And if the exhibition does not seem African enough, too European, or that it excessively emphasises this or that difference, it would be incumbent upon it to undertake a new anthropological reflection on itself rather than on others – or, to paraphrase Perec again, to undertake an ''endontic'' anthropology instead of quests for the ''exotic''.
Translation from French: Giovanni Menegalle