Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘When I see borders, they trigger me’
The photographer's democratising belief that ‘the eyes are free’ is clear from his new Imma show
In 2016, Wolfgang Tillmans launched a pro-EU campaign that included a collection of posters and print-at-home T-shirt designs emblazoned with pointed statements: “It’s a question of where you feel you belong. We are the European family”; “What is lost is lost forever”; “Say you’re in if you’re in”. For an artist who never dictates how you should view his photographs, such explicit directives might have seemed uncharacteristic. They were, however, just another expression of his longstanding opposition to authoritarianism, both in politics and in art.
From the early days of his career in the 1990s contributing photographs to i-D, the fashion magazine that epitomised London street style whose every page he “devoured” while a teenager, to becoming both the first non-Brit and the first photographer to win the UK’s Turner Prize, Tillmans has grounded his photography with simple, albeit rigorously defined, methods – to democratising ends.
Whether he is capturing a queue outside Berlin’s Snax Club in the manner of a more ethereal Edward Hopper night scene or the baroque still lifes of a torn-apart crab and the detritus held within a freezer, he eschews complicated equipment in favour of commercial cameras and means of production. He also makes no alterations or retouching in the development process.
“I observed early on that, when something looks simple, it comes across as more immediate,” he explains when we meet at the opening of his new show at New York City’s David Zwirner gallery, "How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?" “When you see an extremely highly produced picture, you’re not thinking about what’s actually [there]. I don’t want to point at me as much as at the viewers’ ability to recognise themselves in the pictures. I’m more interested in conveying a sense that the eyes are free. [They] can subvert and invert anything.”
Tillmans, who speaks with great care and frequent seriousness, though rarely without at least the shadow of his boyish smile, seems more preoccupied by pondering questions than making – or even entertaining – clear-cut assertions. His photographs do not argue a claim so much as suggest subjects that should be discussed and analysed.
“Where do things come from? Where does change come from? What’s the threshold when something becomes an object of affection or care, or when and why was it overlooked before?” he ponders, detailing some of his long-term preoccupations. “All man-made things look the way they [do] for a reason; there isn’t anything innocent or casual about any design. Road layouts, car and clothing design – it’s always intertwined with politics, gender, society, economy.”
Hanging practices His upcoming show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, opening on October 26th and entitled Rebuilding the Future, will probe these cross-disciplinary intersections in his characteristic hybrid and non-axiomatic manner, exemplified most in his unconventional hanging practices. A performance in its own right, his hangings could be considered visual and spatial tone poems: new works hang alongside archival images and even magazine clippings, from postcard size to four metres tall; some are nearly out of view, others press into corners; large walls may feature only a few photographs while dozens of images might hang on the room’s smallest; a naked male torso could exist next to an eerie desert landscape, with a gigantic shot of sea foam or a group of nonfigurative works in the periphery (which is to say nothing of the likely fusion of different media, including field and spoken-word recordings, video works, and Tillmans’s own electronic music compositions).
What may seem random is, however, a carefully choreographed act that begins, formally, in Tillmans’s Berlin studio, where he and his team work for months with three-dimensional miniature models of future gallery spaces. The connections between photographs as they exist in a gallery are never prescribed, though.
Borders are among the issues Tillmans will interrogate at Imma. As with other topics that linger in his unconscious, “when I see [borders], they trigger me. I recognise something or understand something, and it adds to this ongoing train of thought.” This happened for him in Tijuana in 2005, and, in 2008, while travelling through Israel and Tunisia. “When does something turn into another? When does Germany become East Germany or West Germany?” he asks. “It’s all the same earth.”
Hospitals – a conceptual border, at once within and sequestered from society at large as well as a liminal space where the living and the dead coexist – play a similar recurring role throughout Tillmans’s life and work.
“Over 25 years, I’ve been present at three operations, so there’s a scientific and a medical interest on the one hand, and, on the other, I had a tragic period in intensive care where my partner died in 1997,” he says.
Imma’s original identity as the Royal Hospital Kilmainham gives him novel reason to consider the relationship between these otherwise disparate works.
But, as with any conventionally clear-cut grouping, he issues a disclaimer.
“I [would] never normally show [these photographs] together because I don’t necessarily want to condense them into a subject matter in a typical, mono-thematic way.”
Such a suite of images would betray each photo’s unconscious and singular genesis. It would also coax spectators to read them in a simplistic, prescribed way.
Physical body One such interpretative mistake would be to consider these hospital photographs as representing the height of Tillmans’s awareness of and appreciation for the physical body. Yes, the image of an empty bed enclosed with crisp white sheets either beckoning for a sick body or having just released one, or a cheekier photograph of a patient holding in one hand not the lunch placed on his lap but instead his exposed, semi-erect penis, point to the body’s materiality – but so too does every photograph Tillmans hangs. To him, the paper is a physical body, too, whose fragility should be cared for and respected.
“People in general see photographs as only image information, not as objects,” he laments. “They either treat their carrier with so little attention or respect that it’s negligible, or they see them matted or covered by the frame so the paper doesn’t have body or volume. The photograph isn’t, by nature, on that paper, [though]. When we go to the chemist and pick up our photos, the image is on it. [But] the moment you start to print, you realise that you put the picture onto the paper.”
This awareness that photographs do not appear ex nihilo, as if simply called into being, and the vulnerable nature of the paper that holds them brings us back to Tillmans’s meticulous hanging procedures.
The majority of smaller prints are affixed to the wall using special tape which doesn’t touch the emulsion and that prevents tearing upon removal from the wall; the larger prints almost hover as they are gripped at the corners by bulldog clips that hang from fine, almost unnoticeable nails. These methods sometimes cause the paper to bend or pull away slightly from the wall, making evident its existence as paper-a physical product at risk of destruction.
The intense precision of these hangs might seem like fetishistic behaviour – and it may be in part – but it helps convey a similarity between photographs and humans: photos might not scream out in pain upon tearing or being pierced, but they should be treated with care, just like those people depicted in Tillmans’s portraits.
“While [photographs] are visually so powerful, convincing, and immediate, there is a lot of symbolic meaning in [their] material fragility,” he argues. “There is a very potent contradiction in the very power and presence of a photograph, its vividness and ultimate instability. These very large unframed works came from an interest in being strong, fragile and vulnerable at the same time, which certainly goes for humans. We are incredibly resilient, strong, inventive, and, at the same time, incredibly vulnerable.”
His stance is a conscious and determined opposition to the anti-fragility ethos that is so pervasive today, and not only concerning the popularity of strongman leaders. From the tyranny of fitness culture to the capitalistic obsession with wealth accumulation and production in which a weak body is a useless body, there exists at once an explicit and unconscious sense across cultures that vulnerability should be not only maligned but eliminated.
‘Fragility’ “I’ve always understood that my own fragility is inevitable, and I better make peace with that rather than spend energy on pretensions of strength,” he states. “I always found people who were in touch with their own vulnerability more interesting than [those] who believe in their own strength. Doubting and questioning are not counterproductive but really positive.”
As the United Kingdom slouches toward Brexit and hints of fascism emerge around the world, Tillmans’s stance becomes more urgent. His oeuvre has long been associated with the social, particularly his documentation of youth culture in the 1990s and what he considers a kind of pan-European bliss that took place in dance clubs reverberating with techno. But now, the liberal-democratic ideals that he cherishes and which conditioned the very possibility of those utopic photographic subjects that have long been his focus are at the greatest risk of disappearing in his lifetime.
“I’ve not taken the things that happen around me for granted and [understand] that all the freedoms that I enjoyed and enjoy came from somewhere, having been fought for by others,” he says. “I chose art as my sort of language over direct politics or words because I felt that’s how I function most naturally.”
His pro-EU activism, he says, is “a departure” but, like all of his work, not one that requires strict categorisation. Its hybridised nature gives it strength precisely because it defies simple explanation, as does the entirety of his multidisciplinary work.
The 2016 campaign “came about from a sense of urgency, seeing that all I benefit from and have enjoyed is under attack,” he reflects. “I have achieved a lot in my career as an artist, and now is not the time to say that tomorrow, or someday, I will get more involved. I’m 50 now. I see exactly what’s going on in the world. It’s not so much that I think these things are or are not art – it’s sort of beyond that.”
The Life and Art of Wolfgang Tillmans
In a corner of Panorama Bar, the upstairs venue of the Berlin night club Berghain, there is a large, unlit photograph of the back of a throat—one of three photos by the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans that hang on the walls. Berghain is a techno club known as much for its code of etiquette as for its sound system. Photography is forbidden. Cell-phone-camera lenses are covered with stickers when patrons enter. Doormen are strict about whom they let in, with apparent biases against conspicuous displays of wealth. The party starts at 11:59 on Saturday night and continues until Monday morning; it’s common to stay for twelve hours, or twenty. There is no V.I.P. area. The bathrooms are ungendered, the atmosphere is sexually open, and the ethos is queer. Ravers make pilgrimages to Berghain from all over the world. Some call it “church.” When the club’s owners approached Tillmans to acquire one of his pictures, in 2004, its patrons were mostly gay men, and he chose “Nackt” (“Nude”), a photo of a woman exposing her vulva. In 2009, as Berghain’s reputation grew and its clientele became more heterosexual, he replaced the photo with “Philip, Close Up III,” which shows a man exposing his anus. Six years later, he hung the throat instead, describing it as “kind of like where all the joy comes in, in different ways and forms.” The other two photographs by Tillmans in Berghain, hung on the back wall, are large-format inkjet prints from his “End of Broadcast” series, which depicts television static: a black-and-white scramble that, upon close inspection, reveals pixels of color. He took them in a St. Petersburg hotel room in 2014, just after Russia invaded Crimea. He was thinking about symbols of censorship, how the eye deceives, and how, as he told me earlier this year, “we’re getting all this information and have to learn to let most of it go.” A photograph from the same series is also in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where Tillmans will have a major retrospective in 2021. He had two other surveys last year, at Tate Modern and at the Beyeler Foundation. But, for a certain group of people, having three photographs displayed in the fog and cigarette smoke of Panorama Bar is a more meaningful honor. In the early nineteen-nineties, Tillmans was known for photographs of young people that exuded openness and honesty. He chronicled Gen X and rave culture and took portraits of the musician Aphex Twin and the Blur front man Damon Albarn. He photographed sweating bodies and dilated pupils at Soundshaft, a club in London; the Ragga scene in Jamaica; and the aftermaths of student parties. But Tillmans, who admires the paintings of nineteen-twenties Berlin night clubs by Christian Schad and George Grosz, saw the acid-house-music nights at Opera House, in Hamburg, or the Love Parade, in Berlin, not just as hedonistic gatherings but as a political achievement. “I was always aware that this freedom was only possible because people were not as afraid as they used to be,” he told me. Born in 1968, Tillmans belongs to the first generation of Europeans who, after the wars, were allowed to move easily between countries, reject a single national identity, and have legal gay relationships. He was given a diagnosis of H.I.V. in 1997, when antiretroviral therapy was available to him. He responded to the relative optimism of his era with images that blended into what he called, in an interview, “one reality, where people were happily taking Ecstasy together or partying in a park, as well as being solitary, serious individuals, or sitting naked in trees, as well as sucking cock in some dark toilet corner, with Moby lying in the sun.” (Tillmans photographed the electronica musician in 1993.) Outside the world of his photos, he has admitted, this freedom only existed in “little nuggets and pockets and areas.” Another thread of Tillmans’s art has explored the fragility of the political consensus on which his personal utopia depends. Tillmans has photographed gay- and lesbian-pride parades, antiwar marches, and Black Lives Matter rallies. In his photographs of the night sky, in which stars are indistinguishable from optical distortions created by the camera, he wanted to draw attention to the unreliability of sight. In an image, from 2014, of seventeen years’ worth of H.I.V.-medication bottles, he acknowledged the miracle of chemistry that was keeping him alive. His art often shows what is new. He has documented subtle changes in design and the environment: the shift from car headlights that look friendly toward ones of sleek, “shark-eyed” aggression; spikes laid down along a sidewalk to deter street sleepers; a sign in an airport that directs people toward a “Rest of World Passports” line; the cladding used in public housing and made infamous after the Grenfell Tower fire in London, last year. “I constantly think of the materiality of this, and of this, and of this paper clip,” he told me at one point, when we were eating takeout curry—he gestured to his plastic food container, the toothed piece of plastic attached to the cap of his water bottle, and a paper clip he was playing with as we spoke. Last November, on the morning after I saw Tillmans’s photographs in Panorama Bar, I visited him at his studio, in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. The space occupies an entire floor of a building originally intended as a department store, designed by the Bauhaus architect Max Taut. It has unfinished concrete floors and long rows of windows. Tillmans cultivates a small wilderness of houseplants—sculptural cacti, papyrus, greenish-purple-leafed begonias, delicate ferns—which he grows from cuttings that he gets from friends and collects on his travels. Walls are decorated with maps, exhibition posters, and protest signs, shelves are lined with records and books. Tillmans takes still-lifes, and I was reminded of one composed from half-smoked packs of Gauloises, decks of Post-it notes, and tape dispensers scattered between computer monitors and plants. He encourages a careful selection of visual clutter, which, he said, “keeps it interesting for the assistants and myself.” It was a Monday, and Tillmans, dressed in blue Puma sweatpants, Adidas running shoes, and a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt, was standing next to a conference table, drinking a coffee, with several young employees gathered around him. Tillmans has worn the same wardrobe of T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers for twenty-five years. He was, as he often is, the tallest person present, straight-backed and broad-shouldered but still dainty in manner, with unblinking brown eyes that seem to notice everything. Aside from his photography, he also makes electronic music, and he had just returned from Turin, Italy, where, at a festival called Club to Club, he played with the British producer Oscar Powell, performing live versions of their tracks. Tillmans compared the veteran Detroit d.j. Richie Hawtin, who had performed surrounded by equipment and backed by an ornate visual display, with a younger German d.j. named Helena Hauff, who had taken a minimalist approach: two turntables, the glow of cigarettes, and a bottle of whiskey. Tillmans took Hawtin’s portrait in 1994. “I love Helena Hauff,” someone said. “I think she’s amazing.” “Ah, yes?” Tillmans, who speaks with a German accent, said. He likes to defer to others in conversation. Tillmans is kind and polite. He compels those around him to be punctual, efficient, and prepared not by severity, but by living at a slightly higher standard than most people. When he asks a question, one becomes aware of the difference between feigning knowledge and being knowledgeable. He can explain why the stripes of a zebra are outlined with colors when viewed with binoculars and why eighteenth-century astronomers misinterpreted the transit of Venus. He avoids automatic settings on the tools he uses and dislikes conversational imprecision. Soon after we met, he described to me how he paints the edge of some photographs so that the colors appear to have saturated the paper. He held up a photograph. “I see,” I said. “I mean, you don’t,” he replied. Tillmans made his first synth-pop album as a teen-ager in western Germany and his second in 2016. His song “Device Control” appeared on Frank Ocean’s album “Endless.” (Tillmans also took the photograph of Ocean on the cover of the album “Blond.”) Tillmans blames the long hiatus from music on a catastrophic cover-band performance at a graduation party almost thirty years ago. “The monitors didn’t work, I couldn’t hear myself, it was just totally embarrassing,” he said. In recent months, he has been thinking a lot about embarrassment, an emotion he sees as both protective and inhibiting, and which he also overcame in another recent decision, to publicly campaign against Brexit. For the first twenty years of his career, Tillmans, who graduated from art school in Bournemouth, England, in 1992, lived and worked primarily in London, a city he has called “the big continuum of my life.” In 2000, he was the first non-British and lens-based artist to win the Turner Prize for British art. Before the referendum on Brexit, he produced twenty thousand posters and a series of T-shirts and social-media posts. Like his photographs, they are deadpan in tone, images of the horizon or white cliffs overlaid with text: “For 60 years the E.U. has been the foundation of peace between European neighbours, after centuries of bloodshed. Vote Remain on 23rd June”; “No man is an island. No country by itself”; “DJ’s and musicians: Before you go to Ibiza and Glastonbury, make sure you’ve used your postal or proxy vote.” Last year, as Alternative für Deutschland, a right-wing political party, threatened to make gains in the German parliamentary elections, Tillmans began another campaign with similar posters, this time in German:“Not loving nationalism”; “Sundays are great: for partying and for voting”;“If you don’t vote, you’re actively supporting the right-wing nationalists. It helps just to vote.” In the two years since the Brexit campaign, Tillmans has emerged as a kind of artistic statesman, interviewed in the German newspaper Die Zeit and speaking at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, on the threats of nationalism. On his Instagram account, he shares clips from articles about European Union trade agreements with China, images of protests, and summaries of his opinions (“Please take a few minutes to read this eye-opening piece,” one such post began). Earlier this year, he joined the architect Rem Koolhaas, a friend of his, in running a workshop that solicited proposals to “re-brand Europe.” Tillmans’s studio is itself a non-bureaucratic creative machine that combines Germanic efficiency and exacting standards with camp posters of baby seals and a stock of Club-Mate soda. Printed outtakes from the anti-Brexit campaign, one with the words “E.U. Bureaucrats” inside a heart, were pinned on a wall under a portrait of Chloë Sevigny holding an electric guitar. A calendar delegated kitchen chores; assistants in baseball caps and vintage sweaters inspected an inkjet print for possible flaws and were ready with updates about flights from Kinshasa, Congo, where Tillmans was going in January to install the first show in a three-year touring exhibition in Africa. Tillmans is a meticulous archivist and stores some of his records in a back room, next to a ficus tree he has kept for nineteen years. No element of his past is considered trivial. During my visit, I saw him struggle with whether to throw out some boxes, frayed and torn, that had been used to hold photos. They bore the names of exhibition venues in marker—Nottingham, Tate—and were stamped with the address of a defunct London studio. Tillmans hesitated. His assistants smiled. “Yes, it’s very important that you have a box file,” one said, teasing him. “A box file, yes,” he said with seriousness. “You want to throw them out?” “Yes!” the assistant said, laughing. “Just stack them under the window over there or something,” he said. “It’s fun for me to just once look at them and say goodbye.”
The European Union Is Under Threat. Artists Say It’s Time to Rebrand.
With populist politicians across the Continent attacking the European Union and negotiations underway for Britain to leave the bloc, the very idea of a unified Europe seems to be under threat. Some artists feel the union needs to rethink its public image and refine its communications strategy to combat these attacks. In other words: to rebrand Europe.
The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has teamed up with a friend, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to encourage artists and other creative people to brainstorm ways for Europe to better present itself to the public.
They put out a call in March for rebranding proposals, asking: “How can the European Union be valued by its citizens and be recognized as a force for good, rather than as a faceless bureaucracy?” They requested ideas “for communicating the advantages of cooperation and friendship amongst people and nations.”
More than 400 proposals from 43 countries poured in. A German fashion designer had an idea for a unisex jacket that would serve as a ticket for public transportation in all 28 member states. A dance troupe with members from Albania, France and Italy proposed filming folk dances at European historical sites that could then be broadcast or viewed with virtual reality goggles. A musician from Hungary proposed a new anthem, and dozens of artists sent sketches for new European Union flags and designs for new euro bills and coins. Several proposals suggested the bloc needed to develop a new sense of humor.
Starting Thursday, about 30 of those who submitted the liveliest ideas will participate in Eurolab, a four-day event led by Mr. Tillmans, Mr. Koolhaas and the architectural historian Stephan Petermann during the Forum on European Culture in Amsterdam. Yoeri Albrecht, one of the forum’s organizers, described Eurolab as “a kind of jam session for the greatest cultural thinkers in Europe to tinker and work with the idea of Europe.”
The ultimate goal of the session “is not about a happy, clappy symbol, song or gesture” to sum up the benefits of a united Europe, Mr. Tillmans said. “It is about coming to a deeper understanding of how this misinformation around the E.U. works and how can we counter nationalism.”
“Music Has Always Been with Me”: Wolfgang Tillmans on His Latest Single and Musical Career
Wolfgang Tillmans has been very busy lately. A survey of his work has just opened at the Carré d’Art museum in Nîmes, France, and two solo shows, in two different continents, just closed last week: one in Hong Kong, at the recently inaugurated David Zwirner gallery in H Queen’s Central, and one in Nairobi, Kenya. Which is, of course, expected from the Turner Prize-winning photographer.
However, for the last two years Tillmans has also been working in a different kind of studio and exploring a somewhat unexpected medium: electronic music. His latest single, “Source,” is out now on vinyl, and available to download or stream, under his own label “Fragile,” with remixes by the legendary German electronic music producer Roman Flügel.
Tillmans’s career as a music producer is more of a return to an original passion, rather than an artistic reinvention. In 1985, two years before he bought his first camera, Tillmans started experimenting with music, which he probably would’ve pursued if it weren’t for fate: “My collaborator Bert [Leßman] left town and I never found the courage to find another. Then I discovered my visual side and began making work with a black and white photocopier. Somehow that took over,” he told me over the phone.
Music has always been present in the artist’s visual work: from his early days documenting club culture in Berlin and London, to spaces that he dedicated entirely to sounds, such as exhibitions at his nonprofit gallery in Berlin and at Tate Modern’s South Tank. But it wasn’t until almost 30 years later that his desire for making music would resurface in a gradual process that started taking form in 2014, when he worked on a video called “Instrument.” “It was a split screen where I’m dancing, playing and making noises with my steps, which creates the rhythm to which I dance to. I manipulated the stepping noises into electronic sound, sort of me being my own instrument.” Through “Instrument” he also met the music producer Tim Knapp, with whom he’s still working today. “It was such a lucky coincidence [to have met]; our studios were literally on the same street. I took him the cassette recordings I’d made in 1986, digitized them and we tried to restore them as well as possible. He replayed the instruments and layered them under the original recording. Those are the songs on my first release, 2016/1986 EP,” which came out in the summer of 2016.
Totality of Experience: Interview with Wolfgang Tillmans
An iconic photographer of the past three decades, Wolfgang Tillmans remains an innovator, fueled by his expansive curiosity and engagement with the worlds of science and environmentalism, politics and culture, fashion and art. He has even returned to making music after a nearly 30-year hiatus with the release of an EP, 2016 / 1986, in 2016, and live concerts with his band Fragile. A solo show by Tillmans opened at David Zwirner Hong Kong in late March, and was an occasion for the photographer to make an exhibition in a city that he was revisiting for the first time since 1993. Additionally, Tillmans debuted several large-scale landscape images, of the sea and the Sahara desert, and portraits of figures that reflected not only his recent travels but the conversations he has been having about the state of the world today. I spoke with the photographer ten days after the exhibition’s opening about his approach to presenting works, his process, as well as solar eclipses.
For your exhibition at David Zwirner Hong Kong, and for the accompanying catalog, you introduced new and recent images alongside specific older images, from either a few years ago or even several decades ago. What is your approach to making an exhibition? Do you bring a lot of photographs with you and edit and arrange them while you’re in the space? Or do you have a very specific idea of which works you will show and how they relate to one another?
I start by building an architectural model of the exhibition space in my studio about a month before the exhibition and use that for my thinking process. The model is not prescriptive—it’s not a plan that has to be stuck to. It’s actually there to allow me the freedom to do whatever I want in the gallery. But of course I can only play with the work that I have shipped. Over the years, the layout of the works in the model has become so precise that I now sometimes follow it exactly on the gallery walls. Other parts of the exhibition are completely done on the spot and are developed over several days.
It’s an organic process that took the better part of a week in Hong Kong. I worked during the day and late into the night until everything found its place. Each picture has a sound in my imagination. The smallest images and the biggest ones are not so different in their importance. They hang together, and when it’s done I never feel, “Oh, I wish I could change this now.” It’s kind of then settled and good.
Although his photographs had graced the pages of magazines like iD and Interview magazine, for a couple of decades it was at nightclub Berghain’s Panorama Bar in Berlin that the work of Wolfgang Tillmans really seared itself on my mind. The work in question, Phillip III (1993), depicted a man exposing his anus with his hand. The Panorama Bar, known for its hedonism, where music, dance and sex dissolve into one another and clubbers can party the night away with complete abandon and without judgement, was the perfect venue for his work. What struck me wasn’t that the work was confrontational or provocative—Robert Mapplethorpe paved the way for works of this nature in the late 1970s and 80s, drawing the sting from homoerotic art. Instead it was the unapologetic directness of the work, the raw honesty and frankness of it, that impressed me most. Throughout his three-decade career photographing a diversity of subjects, Tillmans’ has demonstrated a commitment to exploring and depicting truth, blurring the boundaries between art and documentary photography.
Music and clubbing have been central to Tillmans’ work from the outset of his career. After picking up his first camera at the age of 20, it was in documenting the late 80s and 90s club counter-culture that he rose to recognition. Back then, the young photographer was merely taking pictures of friends in Hamburg in a scene that they were part of; the dancefloor was where he felt the biggest energy. But his subjective photographs also captured and arguably defined an era, reflecting the spirit of the times and influencing a generation of other young photographers in his wake. They were celebratory works expressing togetherness and the ideal of a utopia that was infused in club culture of the 80s and 90s.
"Where other people maybe saw just pictures of partying and hedonism, I saw body studies, and pictures of trance and ecstasy in an art-historical context of hundreds of years of painting: moments of ecstasy and revelry and revelation," he says by phone from his Berlin studio; he has divided his time between London and Berlin since 2007. "So this interest in almost something spiritual and the everyday is really at the foundation of my work."
It’s hard to define Tillmans’ style. He has moved fluidly between genres, including portraiture, street shots, studio shots, still lifes, urban scenes, close-ups of mundane details and abstract photos. Everything and anything can be a photograph, as he suggested with the title of his 2003 Tate Britain retrospective, If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. His photographs look almost offhand, so casual that they skim the surface. He captures scenes that look like they have been noticed in passing, but that are familiar and universal, accessible to all who look at them. Tillmans is not one for dramatic or grand gestures; it is the quiet moments that he brings into focus, freezing and capturing time, conveying intensity or lending beauty to the otherwise overlooked. His photographs are striking for their normality, stripped of harsh lighting or affected poses, printed without the aid of cropping or Photoshop, so taken for granted in photography today.
"I want people who see my work to trust that what landed on the film is what’s in the picture," he says. The idea of truth in photography, so anathema to our post-truth era when photographs are manipulated, doctored and filtered, crops up several times in our conversation. Yes, photographs can lie – but, says Tillmans, "I think photographs are so genuinely true to their intentions, true to the mind behind the camera. Photography always depicts the intentions behind a photograph."
Tillmans’ intention is to depict "what it feels like to be alive today", frank and unfiltered. Viewers see life through the eyes of the artist: his friends, places he’s visited, the remains of a party, a box of bottles of HIV medication. In choosing what to photograph and how to photograph it, he reveals his interests, what he sees and the way he sees it, creating an intimacy between viewer, subject and photographer.
"But I don’t see my work as a diary or a window into my life; it’s more a window through my eyes," he says, dismissing the common misconception that his work is diaristic. Through this window he reframes as beautiful and poetic the mundane, the discarded and scenes taken for granted.
There is an understated sensuality to some of Tillmans’ work, especially his still lifes, which pay attention to the smallest of details; although they can look casual, there is a studied formalism informed by a rich visual language and by art history. A pair of crumpled, discarded jeans draped over a bannister (grey jeans over stair post, 1991) seem to still radiate the warmth of the body they were just peeled from, the folds and draping of the composition evocative of a baroque painting. astro crusto a (2012) is an intensely detailed, vivid high-resolution photo of freshly peeled crab shell with a single fly feasting on the remains, with every hair and texture of carapace and claw in sharp focus; hinting at decay, it references Dutch still life painting. In Water Melon Still Life (2012), a large slice of watermelon rind sits underneath a plate stained with red juice like a blot of blood; erotic and fleshy, it conjures up memories of summer heat, tanned fingers and bare arms dripping sticky juice. We might be living in an era of image saturation, when anyone with a smartphone can claim to be a photographer, and images are consumed and discarded at an unprecedented pace, but Tillmans’ images are evidence of the enduring transformative power of photography – of a photograph’s ability to not just convey a narrative but to also engage the senses and imagination.
His idiosyncratic installation style and singular take on the world around him have captured the attention of art institutions internationally, with solo shows at venues including New York’s MoMA PS1, Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof and recently London’s Tate Modern, as well as winning him the Turner Prize in 2000: the first photographic artist and the first non-British artist to do so. The 2017 Tate exhibition rejected institutional norms: photos in various sizes, framed and unframed, were tacked, taped or hung on the walls of 14 rooms in seemingly random ensembles, like a forensic study of lives, with no single photo being accorded more importance than others.
This March Tillmans will follow up the exhibition on a smaller scale at Zwirner Gallery in Hong Kong. His first show in the city, it will similarly bring together a collection of works across all genres from his three-decade career, including depictions of public and private spaces, natural landscapes, portraits, abstract photos, folded sheets of photographic paper that look like sculptural sheets of metal, and new abstract and text pictures that emerged from Tillmans’ exploration and study of the brain and how it deals with deception and truth. "And pictures of Hong Kong that I took in 1993 and this year, so 25 years in between," he says. “Photographs of the Macau-China border taken in 1993 and pictures of the Hong Kong-China border in 2018. I have an interest in borders”.
Indeed, that preoccupation has become something of a recurring theme in his work and private life lately. As much as Tillmans has made his career from photographing moments culled from ordinary life, his work has also recently acquired a sense of political urgency. He is a vocal—and visual—backer of the anti-Brexit campaign and staunch EU supporter, and engages with issues such as climate change, gay rights and migration. He created a series of posters available for home printing for the Remain campaign, including an aerial photograph of a coastline bearing the John Donne quote "No man is an island. No country by itself" that became a Remain campaign slogan. The personal is political and vice versa for Tillmans, who feels a sense of responsibility to address and engage with social and political causes through his art.
"I have joy making work, but the main reason why I do what I do is because I want to be involved in society, and I find that political and social and cultural activism has allowed me freedom to live my life, be it as a gay person, as a liberal person or as a spiritually non-aligned person," he says. "All these freedoms have been fought for by generations of other people; they have not come through indifference."
The idea of inclusiveness, the spirit of togetherness that he has expressed from his earliest club photos, is extended to his political and personal values. "You can have fun and be interested in the beautiful and in a night of abandonment in a nightclub, and in formal, aesthetic things. But it’s not a contradiction to also feel you have a sense of responsibility to protect what has been fought for by generations of anti-authoritarian people before us. Because one thing that is clear is that all progress in society can be reversed."
Tillmans uses the camera lens as a magnifying glass, encouraging us to look closer, to pay attention to details, to the world around us, to the personal and the political – and to find the poetic in the everyday.
Wolfgang Tillmans Explores the Role of Art in a Post-Truth World
LONDON—The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has had a decades-long love affair with printed media. Since making his name in the 1990s taking pictures of night life in Hamburg, Germany, for the British counterculture magazine i-D, his work has appeared in countless publications—from fashion titles to newspaper supplements—as well as in galleries and museums. Mr. Tillmans has long been concerned with how his work appears on the printed page.
The artist, the first photographer to win the Turner Prize, in 2000, had a large, midcareer retrospective at Tate Modern in London last year. Titled Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017, the exhibition delved into the photographer’s longstanding interest in the representation of truth in media and politics.
Mr. Tillmans’s latest project put him in the editor’s chair. He is the guest editor of Jahresring, a collection of essays about art and culture published annually in Germany since 1954. This year’s edition, What Is Different?, explores the increasing rejection of facts in today’s political and social discourse, with a series of essays and interviews with activists, academics and politicians, interspersed with photographs by Mr. Tillmans.
In an interview, Mr. Tillmans explained why he embarked on the project and spoke about the role of art in a post-truth world. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The jumping off point for the collection is the theory of the "backfire effect." What is it, and how did you become interested in it?
I started a project for an installation called Truth Study Center in 2005. I juxtaposed texts of great lucidity and awareness with absurd, humorous and also crazy false statements. All of this was, of course, at a time when no one talked about post-truth or fake news. As this became the center of all politics, I realized it is now everywhere, and I don’t need to juxtapose these different claims because they are so out in the open.
I wanted to go further and look at the science behind it. Around 2014, I read about the backfire effect, first described by Brendan Nyhan and his colleagues, which describes what people who believe in a falsehood do when shown a collection of facts that contradict their opinion. It doesn’t shift their opinion to the more truthful or factual, but instead it actually reinforces their belief in the falsehood.
There’s a lot of text in the book, but it’s also an art book. How do you view the relationship between art and politics?
I love that art is useless and that it has no purpose. That makes art so incredibly powerful. And so, I don’t think one should turn to artists instantly and ask, "What are they saying?" I think, really, every private person should take part in democracy, because if you don’t, others choose for you.
I think we all have to ask ourselves if there are people who have nothing else to do but push against our liberal society, who is actually defending it if we are not. If you feel an urgency and you don’t act upon it, then that is the whole problem in a nutshell.
In 2016, you produced a series of posters to campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union, ahead of the referendum here. What is your view on what has happened since?
The reason I felt such urgency to rebel against Brexit has, of course, to do with my 28 years living in England and Germany, but also because I really predicted at the time that it will be all about language. It will turn into an ugly blame game, and when the promises of a glorious post-Brexit future do not turn out right, no one will say "Well, maybe we got it wrong."
Even though I’m not campaigning in the U.K. anymore, I really think anything that could stop Brexit is a good thing. Even though it would be seen as anti-democratic, I think the pain and the antagonism in language and the sentiments of this divorce is more harmful.
What were you most surprised by when putting together this collection?
I learned how, for the last 50 years or so in the Western world, authoritarian people have been kept widely at bay. They have had to accept feminist, nonracist and L.G.B.T. progress, social justice, international cooperation and anti-nationalism. They had to accept all of that, and things in society changed for the better so dramatically because individuals believed in it and spoke up for it. So one should see it this way around: Trump being in power and Brexit succeeding is not the reason for despair, but it is really a backlash to 50 years of civil rights and liberal progress.
What conversations do you hope the work will provoke?
An opening up to uncomfortable questions about oneself. On the second-to-last page is a collage text piece with a sentence written on it: "How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?" This sense of humility, I think, is the precondition for positive change because without humility, it’s so easy to lose perspective. The moment I say this, alarm bells go off in my head; I should not even talk about humility in a confident way because that isn’t humble.
What then is the role of art is in a post-truth world?
We call it that, "post-truth," but we should call it "lies"—an era where some people are not ashamed to openly lie for their own ends.
I do believe that the true nature of things comes out, and that’s why intentions in art are always revealed in the work. If artists are interested in their fellow humans and in this society, that will also come out in the work. I guess this interest is also called solidarity. Again, I don’t feel like artists should particularly be singled out, but we all need to question if we show enough solidarity with our fellow humans.
For a previous exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in 2014, Wolfgang Tillmans was invited to pair his own pictures with works from the museum’s collection. The artist showed two large, seemingly abstract landscape-format pieces—Ostgut Freischwimmer, left and Ostgut Freischwimmer, right, both 2004—alongside works by Picasso, Matisse, and Max Ernst. That installation was, in a sense, a precursor to Tillmans’s vast new survey at the same institution: Both asked how and why his practice might respond to an architectonic and institutional setting built on modernist claims for the autonomy of the work of art. If the earlier exhibition allowed him to challenge the individuality of the artwork—and the medium specificity of photography and painting—by setting his pictures in dialogue with those of acclaimed modern masters, the more recent show, by contrast, seeks to address the same challenge through a retrospective of his own work. That its opening coincided with the last day of the Beyeler’s Monet exhibition only underscored how “casual” his presentation is, if at first sight considerably less experimental than his installations at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin in 2016 or Tate Modern in London earlier this year.
The foyer contains three works from different groups and periods, which together function as an introduction to the programmatic ambitions of the exhibition as a whole. In the large photograph unscharfer Rückenakt (Out-of-Focus Nude Back), 1994, the slightly blurred contours of the naked male body possess a painterly quality reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s works; it is only at second glance that a vulnerability evoking life at the margins of conventional society becomes evident in this image of a kneeling man with dirty feet, who is seen from above and contained in a narrow pictorial space. The small photograph Night Jam, 2013, is a study in color contrast, depicting gently creased strips of variously hued photographic paper arranged on top of a paper guillotine, bringing to mind series such as “Lighter,” 2005–, for which Tillmans turns flat pictures into three-dimensional objects by bending, folding, or creasing photographic prints and exhibiting them in Plexiglas boxes; or the famous “paper drops,” 2001–, for which he takes pictures of photographic paper gently furled into drop-like forms. The third work in this opening ensemble, ceremony, 2007, shows a performance space, presumably a theater. The photograph, a blown-up scan of a black-and-white photocopy of a color photograph, is permeated by a ghostly white. Instead of replicating an image, the process of copying here bleaches out the world. Together, these three pictures create an allegory of photography and how it opens onto the practices of painting, sculpture, and performance.
These attempts to reach beyond photography as such laid the groundwork for Tillmans’s compelling engagement with the exhibition space in what followed. Across twelve rooms, some two hundred photographic images from 1986 to the present are brought together, grouped either by series or loosely by theme. The first rooms speak directly to the museological setting, featuring various genres of European art: portraits, still lifes, landscapes, and drapery studies of articles of clothing casually thrown on top of one another. Tillmans’s portraits in particular stand out; they are direct and intimate, more gifts of friendship than documentary images or records of their subjects. If the artist has become well known for these snapshots of friends, passersby, and acquaintances, here their familiarity and utter singularity are amplified, in stark contrast to, say, Conceptual photography’s use of typology, seriality, and repetition. Tillmans’s is an art of the specific, never the generic.At the same time, however, traditional artistic genres evidently remain viable categories for articulating how individuals, social interactions, spatial settings, and objects offer different perspectives on a singular yet multifaceted world.
In other words, Tillmans’s images are never simply his: They are historically and formally mediated. Let’s look again at one of his portraits, albeit an atypical one: Wilhelm Leibl painting, 2002, is a black-and-white shot of a nineteenth-century oil painting by the eponymous artist, in which a boy sits on a chair looking somewhat anxious, as if he were about to slide off it. Tillmans’s cropped photograph is decentered and includes part of the original picture’s frame, undoing its traditional stabilizing function. Indeed, Tillmans’s own pictures are often bordered by white strips above or below the image, or (sometimes) down just one side. These white bars articulate the transitions between picture and wall, allowing the photographs to stand on their own while at the same time relating them to their architectural support. White is, however, not only a framing or fixing element: It also repeatedly appears as a sign of overexposure, as in the aforementioned ceremony or the early studio photograph o.M., from 1997. Many of the objects Tillmans photographs are also white, and can—like the crumpled T-shirt in Sportflecken (Sport Stains), 1996—be said to refer to the gallery’s white walls.
But Tillmans also uses the wall as a screen for bringing together political images from various times and places inside the contemporary space of the exhibition. With subjects ranging from an LGBT protest in Berlin in 2006 to the US antiracism movement of the past few years, these works include several examples of the political activism for which Tillmans has become widely known since his anti-Brexit poster campaign of 2016. Here, however, the context of the exhibition space again changes their emphasis. Take the picture of the palm of a raised handtitled Black Lives Matter Protest, Union Square, b, 2014, for example. When a detail of this image was reproduced on the cover of Artforum in March of this year, it was clearly a signal of resistance, but on the walls of the Beyeler, it above all tells the viewer to keep his distance, to pause for a moment.
To these pictures, Tillmans has added a small image of a pile of old newspapers (Zeitungsstapel [Pile of Newspapers], 1999). The simultaneity of nonsimultaneous images directs the gaze toward specific historical events, but then draws it away, to the mode of display itself—creating a palpable tension between the pathos of the depicted events and the purity of the white cube. In Silvio (U-Bahn), 1992, a clock at the center of the picture illuminates the scene like a pale moon floating above a landscape from the distant past; the photograph, seemingly bathed in red light, shows the temporary memorial built in a Berlin subway station in 1992 for the victim of a neo-Nazi murder. Tillmans includes this picture twice in the arrangement of images here—in two formats, one larger and one smaller—positioning it so that the strip lights in the underground passageway form a kind of horizon line, thereby changing the relationship of the entire installation to the museum wall.
In 1989, the critic Jean-François Chevrier remarked that the most important issue in regard to photography’s status as art was not to raise the medium to the rank of painting but rather to find a form that can “reactivate a thinking based on fragments, openness, and contradiction, not the utopia of comprehensive or systematic order.” This would mean a more intense experience for the viewer, produced by the aesthetic distance between her and the photographic image (which allows a one-on-one relationship very different from flicking through pictures in books or magazines). Along such lines, Tillmans’s exhibition insists on a particular kind of gaze that the artist has described as “open and fearless.” But while demanding the viewer trace a startling multiplicity of patterns and relationships, this dynamic way of looking is riven by sudden interruptions, moments when Tillmans’s works use the gallery setting itself to confront the viewer as individual images that insist on being considered on their own terms.
Take, for example, Chaos cup, 1997, an unassuming picture of a white cup filled with tea. Here, it is hung between two doorways, one of them connecting two galleries, the other a photographic close-up of an entrance in Schlüssel (Keys), 2002, in which a cluster of keys hangs from a magnet stuck to the lock of an old white door. From a distance, the dark liquid in Chaos cup appears as a black sphere against a white background. On closer inspection, however, the image reveals itself to be dense with meaning: a metaphor for contingency. The tea has apparently been left standing for some time, and a thin membrane has formed on its surface that looks at first like a cracked and fissured section of the earth’s crust photographed from space. Perhaps, though, we can also see a tree reflected in this skin covering the tea, maybe even a face? Or gazing into the vessel might bring to mind the dark cup of coffee in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her, where the action of stirring sugar into the liquid accompanies the circular course of the dialogue itself, determining its length and cohering into an emblem of the mind dissolving into the world of things. But the porous and reflective surface of the tea also recalls the film, in various senses, through which the photographed world is rendered,which in Tillmans’s work often turns opaque, either completely black or completely white—or even gray, orange, or turquoise, as with the monochrome drips of chemical residue in the “Silver” series, 1998–2015. What these pictures show is something quite different from a “comprehensive order.” They offer instead—as Chevrier puts it—a fragmentary, open-ended worldview given structure through movement and transformation but also by singularity: the unrepeatable power of each picture as a moment of difference.
Wolfgang Tillmans Takes Pictures of Modern Life, Backlit by the Past
The photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is a material guy. He has always embraced the physicality of photos. As a boy in Remscheid, a small city in western Germany, he photocopied printed images and bought his first camera so he could obtain more material for the copy machine. Achieving prominence in the early 1990s, when his pictures of Hamburg night life were published in i-D, a British periodical known for its cutting-edge design, he prized his work not as it existed in its original form but as it appeared laid out in the magazine.
Abrupt contrasts, confusing superimpositions—the magazine presented life as he knew it. In a new show at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, and in a 40-minute slide show, "Book for Architects," on view through Nov. 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Tillmans, 47, displays the alternately bewitching and stupefying contemporary world—from a nighttime view of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood to the end-of-broadcast static on a television screen.
In his quest to portray modern life, Mr. Tillmans harks back to an earlier century, to the voracious ambition of the artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77). The Zwirner show includes a wide array of subjects that recapitulate Courbet's scope: still-lifes, seascapes, landscapes, portraits, group scenes, and—most startling—a large and lovingly detailed photograph of a man’s buttocks and scrotum, the gay man’s version of "The Origin of the World," Courbet’s notorious and exquisitely brushed painting of a woman’s groin. "It's innocent," Mr. Tillmans insisted. "The scandal is in the brain." Yet the angle and cropping of his image, as with Courbet's, leave little doubt about what was buzzing in the artist's brain.
"One must be of one's time" was the rallying cry for progressive French painters in the 19th century. That is Mr. Tillmans's aim, too. "My starting position was, I wanted to make contemporary pictures, to make art that makes you feel what it's like to be alive today," he said. In his youth, he admired the paintings of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke that relied on silk-screened photographic images. "They painted on photographs, or they printed photographs on canvas," he said. "They made contemporary paintings then. I realize, to make contemporary painting now, I don't need to transfer them onto canvas."
Review: Wolfgang Tillmans, a Photographer Showing His Life as an Open Book
Wolfgang Tillmans may be moving toward total transparency in his life and his photography. He is at least trying to get the most out of both.
These are two of the big ideas to be extracted from Mr. Tillmans's enveloping debut exhibition at David Zwirner's gallery in Chelsea through Oct. 24. It is hardly his first gallery solo show in New York. That occurred in 1994 at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, where he had subsequent exhibitions.
But this show is Mr. Tillmans's first with Mr. Zwirner's high-octane multinational gallery, and it brims with ambition. It takes advantage of the gallery's big side-by-side spaces, without being overbearing, or making us wonder how much it cost. (Unlike, say, the Mike Kelley extravaganza one block away at Hauser & Wirth.) It is unusually personal, even for an autobiographical artist, and details what Mr. Tillmans's work has always implied: Photography has no limits.
The show is titled "PCR," an abbreviation for "polymerase chain reaction," in molecular biology the technique that finds and multiplies tiny fragments of DNA and is used by crime labs everywhere. This multitudinous metaphor reaffirms that today every photographic image can not only be dispersed everywhere, and be seen by anyone. It can also spur people to take more photographs, creating networks of experiences, feelings and ideas that connect people. This show is one such network.