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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.

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