WOlfgang Tillmans and I spoke on the phone on June 23, which he calls the “horribilis fifth anniversary,” in reference to the Brexit vote. He is at his home in Berlin: a day later, he will travel to the United Kingdom to install his new exhibition, Moon in the light of the earth, in the coastal town of Hove. To conform to Covid protocols, he will do so alone, without his usual assistants, carefully placing his photographic images around the space – a former Regency floor owned by his gallery owner. Maureen paley.
These photographs range from an image of wet concrete coming out of a nozzle to one of the tendrils of a root crawling along a gap in the pavement. They come in a variety of formats, from large prints suspended on bulldog clips to small photos taped to the wall. Like all his shows, Moon in Earthlight will serve as an installation in its own right, a manifestation of Tillmans tender scrutiny of the universe. It also includes a collection of astronomical yearbooks dating from 1978, when the artist was a 10-year-old boy gazing at the stars.
“Mm!” he says. “It was the first passion of my life. I spent days and nights observing the sky or the sun and its sun spots. What it taught me was the importance of observation and that whatever you look at is always a bit on the edge of visibility. Is this a blur or a star? “An image, an amber stain on a computer screen, shows exactly that. It is the view of” a very large telescope in Chile. The fantastic images that we see by NASA are processed, developed images that once looked like that. screen. I asked the astronomer, ‘So what is this?’ And he said, ‘That’s a galaxy.’
Tillmans’ work seems driven by insatiable curiosity. He made a name for himself in the ’90s, photographing everything from Concorde to jeans drying on a radiator with a singular and searching perspective, won the Turner Prize in 2000, and later exhibited at the world’s heavyweight art institutions (his exhibition postponed at MoMA in New York, To Look Without Fear, will now take place in September 2022). Some of his portraits have become familiar even to non-gallery goers: for example, the shot of a green-haired Frank Ocean in Tillmans shower, which became the cover for Ocean’s Blonde album in 2016.
Sometimes Tillmans’ theme is just the reaction between light and photographic chemicals. Saturated Light (Silver Works), a collection of abstract images, was made by inserting photographic paper into a printer. Despite this plethora of modes (and he makes music too, including a club banger, I can’t escape to space, released this Friday in a remix by DJ Dijon honey) his work often reveals something about Tillmans himself, from his political beliefs to his sexuality and, above all, his sense of playfulness. An image from the new show is called Animalistique and shows him crawling naked by the sea at New York’s Fire Island gay vacation spot. Nice tan, I say. “It’s just the camera exposure,” he replies with a smile. “I try to stay out of the sun normally.”
Given your desire to explore and your obsession with the interconnectedness of things, was blocking a challenge? “In Berlin, there was never a blockade [so strict] you couldn’t leave the house. So I spent a lot of time walking and observing the stations. The transformation that occurs between March and May is immense; He hadn’t experienced it in a solid block of time since he was in school. That was powerful and interesting. But as we got into the second and third waves, everything got a little less interesting. “
No wonder Tillmans got bored – he’s a city man by nature. His pictures hang on the walls of Berghain, The famous Berlin techno club; he was a regular in Adonis, the wild and joyous monthly London night; and I met him for the first time in 2002, dancing electroshock in a Soho sweat box now flattened by Crossrail. Have you missed the discos? “No, not at all,” he says deadpan. “I prefer a cup of tea.”
He laughs. “I feel out of practice in terms of moving between people without fear, the way you stumble and rub shoulders. Nudging instead of a hand is fun and enjoyable, but after 16 months it becomes part of our behavior. I hope this is not the beginning of a preemptive inhibition in us. But I reminded myself that in the Pandemic Bruegel paintingsand other painters of the 1400s, showing village festivals, many people are very close together at a time when there was no penicillin. Humans just pointlessly yearn to be together. We need to feel other close bodies. I hope the deprivation does not last much longer. We do not know what it has done to young people who will never be able to live 16 years again. Let’s hope we get to a dance floor soon. “
He calls Covid “the second viral pandemic of my life,” the first being AIDS, the disease that claimed the life of his partner, the painter, in 1997. Jochen klein, when Klein was only 30 years old and Tillmans 29. “With the great difference that Covid does not have any stigma and that, from day one, the entire economy and politics of the world strove to cure it. This year is the 40th anniversary of AIDS and there is still no vaccine, which is due to the unique nature of HIV. But I think any anti-vaccine [should remember that] all the people who died from causes related to HIV and AIDS would have loved to have received any vaccine possible. “
Tillmans work often expresses the transience of things, whether they are entire civilizations (there is an image of the pyramids in the new show, placed on their side to subvert “the supposed certainty they radiate”) or the fleeting joy of a kiss in a nightclub. In addition to his experience with AIDS, he attributes this feeling of precariousness to being born in Germany in 1968, only 23 years after the end of World War II; the same distance, he points out, that 1998 is from us now. “When you think about how unthinkable the conditions and ideology were in the heart of Europe, it is amazing that the civil rights revolution of the 1960s could occur so soon after and that things could change so dramatically for the better. But somehow it also made me realize that things can go backwards, that any breakthrough I’ve enjoyed in my life can never be taken for granted and must be defended. “
It’s something he saw up close this month, having opened an exhibition in Budapest, Hungary, just fifteen days before the Viktor Orbán regime passed a law that bans the representation of LGBTQ + people on television before children lie down, or in materials used in schools. “In systems that are becoming autocratic,” says Tillmans, “autocrats need to establish internal enemies rather than focus on the problems that society actually has.” At a protest march in Budapest, he noticed some people waving EU flags to signal their opposition to the anti-gay law. “It was moving to see that, despite all its shortcomings, the EU is seen as a hope, as an ally for a free society.”
As a German who first came to the UK as an exchange student in 1983, then studied at Bournemouth and lived in London, Tillmans campaigned hard against Brexit. “When you consider how dire the consequences are,” he says, “it’s surprising how inactive people were. There was a demonstration a year after the vote, where there were a million in the streets, but that was too late ”. He’s horrified at the Brexit we ended up with, leaving the customs union and the common market, “so you can change some great laws, the shape of your plugs, I don’t know. It is a particularly British obsession, this idea of European cooperation as rule-making. “
Did it show you a side of the British character that you hadn’t seen before? “The depth of the exceptionalism has surprised me,” he says. “Certain characteristics that throughout my life I saw as funny or outlandish are actually quite serious. I suppose the colonial experience of being a rule giver was deeply ingrained. Having your cake and eating is not an experience that is considered normal elsewhere. There is an amazing British quality to the construction of ideas in a phenomenon, as in pop music. Britain is a unique creator of fictions and realities through that, but seeing that the whole country and identity are subject to a fiction was a bit sad. I think the UK has benefited from contact with the continent, so it is disturbing. “
It is also the antithesis of the whole Tillmans spirit: connecting connections rather than tearing them apart. The general theme of the new program, he says, is “forms of human activity. The image of the 2002 Queen’s Golden Jubilee or an educational kit from a sexual health clinic in a Kenyan refugee camp, and then the pyramids and then a sink from which two weeds grow. And images of nightlife interspersed. It’s a fascination for the shapes and forms that humans create by organizing our lives, and then images of the larger environment it is in: space. “
No wonder he hated Brexit. In contrast to Tillmans’ all-encompassing vision, it seems really very small.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism