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Contemporary Art

Wolfgang Tillmans' Eclipse: A Reflection

Eclipse 2–3 by Wolfgang Tillmans will be offered for sale in Shake It Up: Works from the Mario Testino Collection Auction at Sotheby's in London on 13 September 2017. 

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WOLFGANG TILLMANS, ECLIPSE 2-3, 1998. ESTIMATE: £40,000—60,000.

It is easy to define the phenomenon of a solar eclipse in scientific terms: the sun obscured by the moon as seen from the earth, when the three bodies are aligned. To describe the beauty of it is harder. Eclipse 2-3 by Wolfgang Tillmans is an attempt to find the right words. The term photograph derives from the Greek ‘photos’ meaning 'light' and 'grapho', 'to write'. A glow seeps through the clouds that thicken and sinks into darkness as deep as an inkwell. A writer would scrape these depths for more ink; the photographer points his camera to the sky to speak. Tillmans' photograph is a story written with light.

Yet an eclipse is about a light that fails. As the sun disappears, the story turns to something else. The withdrawal of the big blazing star is also the narrative of the rise of a rocky satellite that shines no light of its own. A solar eclipse is only visible from within the lunar shadow, as it sweeps across the surface of our earth. There is a message to be read in this scene — the key not only to this photograph, but many other works by Tillmans. Moments of absolute darkness may resolve in enlightenment. 

The Cock (kiss) 2002 by Wolfgang Tillmans
WOLFGANG TILLMANS, THE COCK (KISS), 2002. © WOLFGANG TILLMANS. COURTESY MAUREEN PALEY, LONDON. 

The Cock (Kiss) urges us to feel the intimacy between two human beings kissing. People often label Tillmans' work as chronicles of specific communities or subcultures, but this description is to misinterpret his pictures; they show us instead how things that may look extraordinary, such as an eclipse, are in fact wholly natural. We slowly realise that through Eclipse 2-3, it is really the photographer's corpus we scrutinise. 

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WOLFGANG TILLMANS, ASTRO CRUSTO, 2012. © WOLFGANG TILLMANS. COURTESY MAUREEN PALEY, LONDON. 

Astro Crusto was exhibited in the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at Tate Modern. There is a fly that interferes: it is alive on pieces of meat, a sombre presence dirtying spaces that are cleansed. And yet there is another way of seeing all this. A creature from the sky flew down to feed on a creature of the earth. As it eats, we fathom the cycle that encompasses us and everything else. 

What Tillmans meant to say with Eclipse 2-3, remains difficult to guess. If we stick to what we see, however, the beauty of it is visible and simple. To describe it, we may resort to the scientific definition. It is about three distinct bodies being, despite their differences, aligned, levelled out, made equal. It looks incredible – though painful to the naked eye, not used to this rare sight.

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