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.”
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.
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.
“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.”