"Wolfgang Tillman's new show is a world of differences: bodies and buildings, trays of eggs and vernacular Tunisian houses, pictures of the world and pictures of nothing. There are on-the-hoof shots and darkroom experiments; large photographs and small; intimacies and distances. There is a photograph of a young man's ear, caught by the clippers while having his hair cut; there is a shot of a forest in Tierra del Fuego, the trees blitzed by light and shade.
All this might be bewildering: the jumps in scale, the sheer variety of Tillmans's subject matter, his different means of presentation (huge sheets of photographic paper hung from bulldog clips, other things taped directly on to the wall, work sitting in Perspex boxes). But it is all orchestrated with a sense of rhythm, pace and surprise.
For Tillmans, photography can be a record, something observed or something never seen before. It can also be painting by other means: pinkish fields with sudden judderings that recall skin seen close up; strange abstractions generated by the random dirt on the silver drum of Tillmans's printer (and which recall the squeegeed abstractions of Gerhard Richter, whose art is also much concerned with the relationship between painting and photography, intention and meaninglessness). Some of his photographs are near-monochromes, recalling thin shadows crossing the walls in a pale room, or the acid lighting on a highway at night. Sometimes it is hard not to think of paintings by Ellsworth Kelly or Raoul de Keyser.
Here is a still life, an accumulation of little objects on a window sill: a conker, an acorn, a key, some lenses, a number of stainless steel sex toys for stretching your balls. (At least that's what I thought they were. When I asked him, Tillmans called me a pervert. He was right.) Elsewhere, there is a small image of a naked man on his knees. He might be praying. Weirdly, it looks more like a pallid ink drawing or a water-colour than a photograph. In fact, it is a faded fax, a degenerated thermal image of a photograph now fixed for ever on the verge of disappearance.
Somehow everything makes a kind of sense. The cumulative effect of Tillmans's art may be puzzling, but it isn't a puzzle. Its logic lies in process rather than in the production of telling images. The differences in his work are themselves the point: from his coloured rectangles dancing on the Serpentine gallery's white walls (they make your eyes dance, too) to the wonky, knocked-together tables that stand in the middle of one room, laden with cargoes of text, newspaper pages, printed ephemera. Here is an article on religion by Polly Toynbee, commissioned by Tillmans for an edition of Die Zeit he guest-edited; there is a piteous image of two young men – little more than boys – about to be hanged in public for the crime of homosexuality in Iran; here is an article by Tillmans himself, a keen amateur astronomer, on the 2004 transit of Venus. What is the carpet tile doing among all this stuff, on one of the tables, a blank square of pixellated industrial flooring?
If art can talk about the world, the big question is where to stop. What do you include and what do you exclude? Sometimes, and especially in photography shows, you can end up going from one damn thing to another, driven by the hope of finding something salacious, erotic or just plain peculiar. Tillmans does his best to call a halt to such aimless gawping by constantly giving us things that need to be approached and looked at in different ways – as images, as constellations of pictures, as objects.
For some artists, doing one thing well is enough. But photography – perhaps more so than painting – allows for many different kinds of incidents and singularities. The great pleasure of this exhibition is its orchestration of different registers and voices. The last big Tillmans show I saw, in Berlin in 2008, was called Lighter. Walking through it, I felt heavier and heavier: it was so full of stuff, it was hard to hold the logic of it all in one's head. Retrospectives often fall into this trap. The smallness of the Serpentine gallery demands much tighter editing; the space edits the work as much as the artist.
Tillmans's show was hung and finished two days ago, but late on Tuesday night the artist decided to rearrange part of the hang. Things aren't right until they're right, and rightness seems to be a big issue for the artist. The big problem, of course, is what happens when the crowds pour in. You lose all those perfect sightlines.
The extreme variety of Tillmans's work, with its different printing techniques and technologies, makes for a fascinating show on many levels. There are luscious photographs and dirty faxes, photocopies that accentuate the dismal Edinburgh light and glossy prints that bring out the unpleasant glamour of Shanghai by night; there is a vivid cyan blue invented in the darkroom and too artificial to be the sky. It is all here. These could, of course, all be exercises in style: I can do this, and this, and this; you can have it this way or that. You want abstract? I can do abstract. You want gritty, or sexy? Well, here they are. But there is more to Tillmans's work than formal intelligence. He wants it all, and why not?"