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When you enter “Frei schwimmer,” the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition currently at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery (TOC), one of the first things you notice is that the photographs on display are attached to the walls with tape or paper clips.

After taking in a few of the images to gauge what kind of show you are seeing, you notice the lack of titles (they’re printed in a handout). Then gradually the photographs themselves capture your attention despite the lack of formal display. The images start to assemble into a fluid series of arresting visual experiences.

The first photographer to ever win the Tate Gallery’s prestigious Turner Prize (2000), Tillmans is doing something drastically different with photography. Born and raised in Germany, he started his career documenting the lives of his friends and the German club scene through the late ’80s and ’90s for the magazines i-D, Interview and index.

Working commercially introduced him to, and let him photograph, a wide range of subjects, including models and music celebrities such as Kate Moss, Michael Stipe of REM and Morrissey. But it was his prizewinning retrospective at the Tate that gave him a big name in art.

One thing is certain: Tillmans has created a new understanding of what photography’s standing in art should be.

Typically, TOC Art Gallery focuses on contemporary artists who use many mediums to explore art, culture, architecture, fashion and design. Until now, the gallery has shied away from an exhibition consisting purely of photography, but curator Shihoko Iida knew exactly who she wanted. “I wanted to show someone who stands for and works on edges or borders. Tillmans can be a photographer, an artist, a designer and an editor.”

His photographs start to grow on you as you take them in, one by one. At first they may seem simple and easy to place within categories: still-life, portrait, interior, landscape, abstract. But as you continue to look they elude any definition, becoming a playground in which your eyes explore objects, light, texture, layers and depth. They are never as straightforward as the subject that you initially recognize, the one that first catches your attention. Once you have been brought into the image, you start to see the different forces at play that Tillmans has chosen to capture.

This is Tillmans’ first large-scale exhibition in Japan, following two smaller solo shows at a private gallery, Wako Works of Art, in 1997 and 1999. Iida went to meet Tillmans in London to make an official proposal for this exhibition and the two immediately began to discuss the outline and plan of the new show. Tillmans shipped nearly 800 photos to Tokyo, of which 266 are on display.

The layout is integral to his shows, something that he has been adamant about since his first exhibition in 1991. “He always tries to make one picture exactly as important as another one — he tries to make everything of equal value, regardless of how big or small it is,” Iida explains. “He doesn’t focus on one image, rather he focuses on the whole flow.” Iida and Tillmans worked together to figure out how to best use the gallery’s space, deciding to arrange it without any immediately recognizable formal order.

“I wanted to try to show his present attitude, his present figure as an artist. I wanted to do something new with this exhibition — to give him the opportunity to challenge himself with something different.”

The decision pays off, as all of Tillmans’ photographs have an immediate connection with each other. Without the restraints of frames or titles, one image bleeds into the next as the changes in subject matter, or even lack of a subject, create a continuum that is in conversation with itself.

Tillmans’ photographs range from pictures of his friends and common objects in his kitchen, to cityscapes and lactating mothers, dirty socks and bloody dancers. He has also ventured down more experimental avenues, manipulating photo paper with light in the darkroom and more recently taking photos of what looks like ink in water for his “Freischwimmer” series. All these subjects are used as an exploration of the world that continually presents itself before his eyes.

“Freischwimmer” can be translated as “One who swims to freedom,” and this is the goal in his work. Tillmans wants his photographs to transcend their apparent categories and blur the boundaries between each other, so the exhibition itself becomes work of art. The importance of a single piece is subsumed by its place in the whole.

But that doesn’t take away from the individual works, and any number of them stand out as captivating. Simple images like “New Family” (of a windshield wiper) or “Wake” (of the interior of a club after a party), grow in complexity and visual narrative as you take them in. Images where Tillmans’ body appears in part, such as “Shades,” work as complex exercises in composition that make the photographer’s presence secondary to the whole of the image.

The abstract “Freischwimmer” pieces are beautiful in their execution and subject. They appear like free-floating hair, elegantly waving, but they work best as they are informed by the earlier pieces. Viewed alone, they could seem cold and distant.

Tillmans has spoken before about the necessity of explaining your art once it becomes successful. The proliferation of images and his unorthodox choice of subjects demand it. But as this impressive show attests, his most successful explanation is probably the title of his 2003 exhibition at the Tate, “If one thing matters, everything matters.”

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