The Body’s Mystery and Journey

An Interview with Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans’s embrace of the idea that “if one thing matters, everything matters” easily leads to a practice where if one thing is worth photographing, everything is worth photographing. This aesthetic approach offers an exhilarating freedom. It has “allowed” him, a word he uses frequently in conversation, to take photographs of many things and to make photographs from strange things. His abstract images come about when he feeds paper through a developer that is contaminated with dirt and chemical traces of silver. The process results in an extraordinarily seductive series of camera-less images called “silvers,” which are resolutely material and imaginatively suggestive. Their abstract nature provokes our representational inclinations. We see them as worlds that are both wondrous and wounded.

Tillmans won the Turner Prize in 2000, the first photographer to do so, and with the prize money he purchased an industrial printer. Then in 2011 he made CLC 800, dismantled, a photograph of the now obsolete and deconstructed 10-year-old Canon copier. The machine that made images becomes an image itself. The photograph is an example of the flexibility with which Tillmans engages the world around him. His instinctive fluidity is now manifesting itself in the audio and video work (one aspect of this emerges in what he calls “audio photography”) that are now integral parts of his art production. In his “paper drops,” which he began in 2001, he treats the photograph as an object. Every single thing for him is a possible other thing; thinking about one medium puts him in mind of another medium.

Wolfgang Tillmans, wake, 2001. Images courtesy the artist; David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; Maureen Paley, London.

Wolfgang Tillmans, outside Planet, view, 1992.

In one way, taking and making images is only one step in a process of seeing that includes the art of installation. Installing his photographs is another critical meaning-making procedure. He understands that any one of his images, in whatever scale, changes when placed in a relationship with any other single, or any number of other images. Among contemporary photographers, no one is more effective than Wolfgang Tillmans in activating the space of the exhibition. His mind does not easily settle, and the resulting exhibitions have about them an air of reassuring and comfortable restlessness.

Wolfgang Tillmans’s first museum survey exhibition, “To look without fear,” opened on September 12, 2022, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it remains until January 1, 2023. From there it will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (April 15 to September 20, 2023) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (November 2023 to February 2024).

The following interview was conducted by phone to Germany in two parts, on Monday, July 25, and on Friday, July 29, 2022. Border Crossings would like to thank Julia Lukacher, the director of communications at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York; Stephanie Katsias, the senior publicist in the Department of Communications and Public Affairs at MoMA; and Alison Midgley from Studio Wolfgang Tillmans for their help in setting up and co-ordinating the interviews.

Border Crossings: How many works are going to the show for MoMA?

Wolfgang Tillmans: In the end, there will be something like 350 across all the rooms, ranging from a postcard size to the largest print, which is eight metres by five metres. Even though the exhibition has been very carefully planned in design and model, I take more than I’ll need. The organization beforehand is only to make sure that I have a plan that allows me to respond to how the space actually feels and unfolds. All three spaces where the exhibition will be installed are, of course, very different. I conceived the system of the three sizes of my prints, which we call small, medium and large, and it’s a shorthand that I have consistently used since 1992. In their unframed versions they are incredibly lightweight and easy to move, which allows me to take more work than I can hang. Because of logistics and transport costs, it wouldn’t be right to take tons of heavy material with me, half of which I’ll not be able to use, so the flexibility is part of the concept.

It seems as if you never really intended to be a photographer. I assumed you wanted to be an astronomer. Why did it take you so long to get to photography?

There were lucky coincidences at play in my youth. One was that I wasn’t artistically talented. I wasn’t the one in school who could draw particularly well, and I wasn’t recognized as particularly musical, so I didn’t have the pressure of being the artist in the family, or having to be the artist in school. Instead, I was developing my own value system, so to speak, between high art and pop art and pop music. I started to make my own language. The other thing that was fortunate in hindsight was that I come from a family of avid amateur photographers, going back to my great-grandmother. I never felt compelled to use photography as a medium to express my deviant teenage interest. That’s why it took me until I was 20 before I bought my first camera. A few photographs did emerge from when I was 17 and 18, and they have been exhibited and are considered part of my oeuvre.

You discover this Canon photocopier and you get entranced by what it can do, and it’s as if you buy a camera so you can feed the machine. You come at photography through a different technology.

I guess the printed page and ink and toner and anything that can be put on paper have always had a strong allure and attraction for me. The more you care about a graphic medium, the more you realize that it all is about how the ink, or whatever material it is, sits and connects to the base. Whether it’s a drawing, a photocopy or a photograph, it’s a carrier of image information. This is an intensely man-made process, even when it’s machinemade, and somehow, I’ve been sensually very aware of that. What that means is not so clear, but in music we would not question such attractions, like the electric guitar has an incredible texture and sound that has a value in itself. Just like electronic music synthesizes the very nature of its being strangely generated, and that is part of its attraction and meaning.

In the music video Make It Up As You Go Along (2016), the most attractive images are printing cylinders with ink rolling off them. There’s a sensual quality to looking at the machine as it works.

Yes. It’s impossible to know if people who grew up without any knowledge of technology would find these mechanical processes visually stimulating or meaningful, but I guess because we are surrounded by them, the technical workings of machines are part of our visual curiosity. I guess we are all familiar with the outside of cars, or we are familiar with books, but we don’t know what goes on inside a car or inside a printing press, and when you actually take a look, it has more poetry than you thought.

Your aesthetic is so profoundly non-hierarchical. How did it develop?

I developed that photographic language in those first three years after I bought the camera in ’88, ’89 and ’90. By the end of ’91, stylistically, I had found the lens language. I was fascinated by photographic styles in the 1980s like cross-processing, when you put a negative film through a slide process or the slide film through a negative processing machine. In the second half of the ’80s particularly, there were all sorts of effects—an extreme wide angle or extreme colours—that photographers were trying out on every story and on every portrait. Also, in terms of expressiveness, I felt that young people were often depicted making funny gestures, almost as if they were excusing themselves for being in this passing phase that is called “youth,” and I felt, no, I’m not in a passing phase. I’m who I am and I’m serious. I’m not just some fun consumer. I always took myself seriously, but I wanted to express this seriousness in a neutral visual language that, of course, was not neutral in the landscape in which it landed. It became very recognizable. I wanted to strip back to a clearly readable effect and to show things as they are. It’s too simple to say that I just wanted to show ordinary things as dignified. I also wanted to show extraordinary things as dignified but in a naturalistic way. I don’t want to ever bring things down. The mindset embedded in the zeitgeist of the early ’90s was a general, more sober rejection of ’80s glitz and glamour and a need to look at how things really are, knowing that there is no such thing as how things really are. The moment you depict them, it’s already an interpretation. So what I wanted to get at was personal and embedded in that time, but I also come from Germany and in particular from the Rhineland, where there has been a photographic tradition of August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher, and the Neue Sachlichkeit art movement of the 1920s. But there wouldn’t be Neue Sachlichkeit without naturalism and Gustave Courbet, so when you look back there always have been artists who wanted to cross hierarchies. In the late ’90s I looked at Caravaggio paintings wherever I could find them; his painting the dirty feet of saints is such a non-hierarchical gesture.

Wolfgang Tillmans, young woman, Chemistry, 1992. Image courtesy the artist; David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; Maureen Paley, London.

You have that beautiful photograph of a flower with five small reproductions of Caravaggio paintings sitting in what looks like an industrial window.

That was exactly from the time when I looked at him.

What Sander wanted was to document an entire culture and the Bechers were equally ambitious in assembling their typologies of industrial structures. Was your aspiration when you started out, and subsequently, to encompass that larger vision or was it something more modest that focused on intimate and restrained details?

As it stands now, the project is in its fourth decade and is anything but intimate. It’s sprawling and all-encompassing, including the fold of a T-shirt, the aesthetics of what astronomers see through the biggest telescope on Earth and the surface of the visible world. It all somehow became a part of what I was doing. If I had started all that at the same time, it probably would have been an unmanageable project, but because I work in elliptical, circular ways, I end up coming back to similar subject matter 10 years later. It all accumulates in an attempt to make a picture of what it feels like to live today. I guess it’s not more modest in outcome.

When you say that, my mind goes to the great American poet Walt Whitman. In the 24th poem of his “Song of Myself,” he goes from his sense of being what he calls “a kosmos, / Turbulent, fleshy, sensual,” to the minutiae of “beetles rolling balls of dung.” The scale of your work also moves from the cosmos to the quotidian.

Yes. When I lived in New York in the mid-’90s, I was aware of Whitman and I can see those points of connection.

I’m going to mention another poet as a way of making a connection between space, perception and sexual politics. In one of your talks, you refer to the optical properties of the eye and point out that the cornea is good for colour perception but not good for light perception. So when you’re looking through a telescope, you have to look from the side to see distant planets and solar systems. You’ve also said that in German, “queer” means “from an angle.” So as a gay man, you have to come at things from the side. I realized that you were queering astronomy.

I haven’t thought of it in that sense, but I’m always open to new readings. I have to admit I always thought there was something sexy in the nerdiness of astronomers

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, 1992. Images courtesy the artist; David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; Maureen Paley, London.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Alex & Lutz holding each other, 1992.

It made me think of Emily Dickinson, another 19th-century American poet, who operates in an entirely different spatial register from Whitman. In poem number 1263, she writes, “tell all the truth but tell it slant, / Success in circuit lies,” and at the end of the poem, she concludes, “The truth must dazzle gradually,” but that idea of seeing things slant is also the way you’ve suggested that, as a queer man, you had to come to the world. You couldn’t confront it directly because it was a hostile world.

I like the quote as well as the idea.

When you were documenting club culture in the late ’80s, you weren’t there as a chronicler but as an individual experiencing it. I assume you didn’t go there to take pictures; you went there to be in the space and the pictures evolved out of that presence.

Yes. In the beginning I wanted to tell i-D about how excellent the scene was in Hamburg, and out of that came a larger desire to communicate what I felt was a genuinely liberating and progressive togetherness. In the early days of ecstasy culture, it really seemed if everybody would have that experience, the world would be a more peaceful place. It probably sounds super-naïve, but, to be honest, I still believe in this peaceful power of ecstasy and the dance experience.

You’ve described the club scene as “an experimental chamber for human interaction,” but you also said it was a utopian ideal of togetherness. In every way, socially and sexually, it seems to have been a significant time for you.

Yes. But I use the term “club culture” as if it is one thing, but it is so many things, and the particularities of what I experienced or what the world experienced in the late ’80s and early ’90s were this very egalitarian version of nightlife. It was not all about club membership and what you wear. It is 30 years ago, and I can’t say that nightlife today is exactly the same as it was then. What was liberating for me might be intimidating for somebody in 2022 and it may not be so egalitarian. I was in Toronto in 2016 and after the talk, two 18- or 19-year-olds came up and asked, “How does one do a rave?” and when I inquired about their experience of nightlife, I realized that the whole idea of a party in an empty, unused warehouse didn’t exist for them. Most city centres just don’t have any unused empty space. I guess it’s all part of a bigger consideration now and many things play into it.

Do you look back on house culture with some sense of nostalgia because it was so special and vibrant and inspirational?

I do. Things were less commercialized and the world has become more economized. But good things have happened in the last 30 years and I’m not part of the doomsters. A lot of equality has been achieved only in the last 10 years, so why be nostalgic about a time when, for example, gay marriage was not even in the cards in the ’90s? It’s just a very different time.

Your intention wasn’t to be a documentarian, but now you realize that you did capture a sense of the time that is important for us to know about.

Yes. I never saw myself as a chronicler, but that had to do with being young and not wanting to do that. But I saw it from the inside and I see that those editorial projects were journalistic in essence. So while I’m not referred to as a photojournalist, I’m actually proud of having done some meaningful documentary work.

Were the first photographs you sent to i-D magazine the Lutz and Alex pictures?

No. That was in 1992. First, it was simply reportage on the nightlife from Hamburg. When I lived in England, I didn’t want to do any editorial work as a student, but at the end of my studies I reached out to i-D again, and then I did this reportage on techno in Europe. Its title, Techno is the sound of Europe, beautifully expressed the positive postwar European vibe of unity. After that, I contributed on a monthly basis in 1992, and the Alex and Lutz photographs appeared then. Even though I conceived, styled and photographed them, I could not have done so without Alex and Lutz’s collaborative input. They were so unusual that the magazine put “a fashion story” under the title “like brother, like sister.”

Wolfgang Tillmans, Kate sitting, 1996.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Kate with broccoli, 1996.

You never seemed to be interested in being a fashion photographer in any conventional sense.

The reason I’m hesitant to give a casual answer is because it might sound like I’m suggesting that fashion photography is something bad when it is a field of great expertise and craft and energy and excitement and something from which I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration. The definition of fashion photography is so varied. On the one hand, I’ve always been interested in clothes and the meaning of clothing, and, on the other hand, the particularities of fashion industry photography were never something that I was any good at, or had any interest in. But my work has been very influential on fashion photography, it has also been published alongside fashion photography and I have always looked at fashion and clothes. So I can’t say that I’ve had nothing to do with it because I have had a specific and unique position towards it.

I think of your work as being innocent. It starts in those early photographs of Lutz and Alex, and what seems to run through it is an openness to possibility. That quality strikes me at its core as being generous and innocent.

Innocent? The thing is, you cannot claim that yourself. The moment you do, it’s not innocent, so I find it hard to wholeheartedly say yes to this. It’s something others have to say. But what I could say is that I have an openness for the outcome. Many people look only for the outcome they want, which is natural, but I think the biggest challenge is to accept evidence that is different from what we expect. It’s similar when you make art. One has to make peace with the outcomes that one gets. I try to control as much as I can and I’m careful to know when to stop and when to accept the outcome that I get.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Venus transit, 2004. Image courtesy the artist; David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; Maureen Paley, London.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Anders pulling splinter from his foot, 2004. Image courtesy the artist; David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; Maureen Paley, London.

A photograph like astro crusto, a (2012) could be read as a memento mori, a reminder of death, but its brightness and cheeriness resist that reading. It actually becomes a very positive image. I assume that’s a conscious choice you make about what it is your lens captures.

Yes. The memento mori “thing” is potentially in so many things, like the temporalness of life and of any given moment. A strong presence and a connectedness to that has been very clear to me from an early age. I’m happy that I have made peace with the full tragedy of life because it’s absolutely unavoidable and quite overwhelming. I turned 54 this summer, and my parents are starting to get very frail, some friends are dying from diseases and there are freak accidents. Basically, death is all around us.

I look at the “Urgency” series and I see the surface as thin blood. The read for me is wound more than wonder. Are you okay with that reading of such a beautiful work?

If it is readable only as that, then I wouldn’t have done them. In my art I’ve always claimed freedom and liberty in being allowed to make something that looks red and fibrey and liquidy and still not see blood in it. I’m allowed to photograph a sunset and not see a cliché in it. I try to see innocent inquiry and that allowed me to turn some stones that others might not have even bothered turning. If I had been afraid of the “Urgencies” being only about blood, it might have stopped me from doing them. I never saw them as bloody, even though, of course, it’s bloody obvious to do so.

But it’s so subtle. It’s like the bleed of the red from the centre of a turntable into very black water in one of your music videos. The black water picks up the suffusion of the red tones.

I was wondering what video I have that includes turntables. You know what it is? It’s a cooker, an electric stove, and the red is the fast-boiling plate. It’s fascinating that you read them as turntables.

My misreading came out of their shape and your interest in music. But what caught my eye was the subtle shift of one colour into another. That bleed seems to be very carefully calibrated.

Yes, that is true. Don’t use this as a headline, but it’s all about colour. We can’t always say what colour means, but the fact is, most of us see colour all our lives. We are constantly evaluating it, like what colours appear at what time of day? What are their light sources? Not equally, but we are all subconsciously and subtly well-versed in reading colour. I’m like a super-colour reader, so I cannot have it as a central consideration in everything that I compose and bring together.

The range of your palette is extensive. In the lens-based photographs from Fruit Logistica, there is an extravagance of colour that is almost overwhelming. In the camera-less work in the “Lighter” and “Silver” series, you move from multicoloured surfaces to monochromatic ones.

With “Lighter,” because there is no lens, the image is made with light. And the folding and shaping of the paper in the darkroom influences the angles at which the light shines on them, so they are really a depiction of their sculptural form. I choose the colours through a trial-and-error mixing of different light sources of different colours—a red, green, blue or yellow. It’s not so much a depiction of colour, as almost a making of colour in the first degree.

Wolfgang Tillmans, installation view, “Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear.” Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Emile Askey.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer, 2003.

Your work makes me look closely at things. A piece like Blushes #26, a tiny shape on a large surface, is an image that gets away with as little as it can. Then in Lighter, white III and IV, there’s even less to see. The surface is only tone. Do you read these two works as different gradations of minimalism?

They’re distinctly different languages that I usually don’t fit so near to each other on a wall. The “Silvers” also don’t necessarily hang right next to the “Freischwimmers,” even though at MoMA they are sometimes inhabiting the same space. But they’re not the same colour/space explorations, and I don’t upkeep endless amounts of these fields. It’s not that I invent two new ones every year. For example, the invention of the “Blushes” and “Freischwimmers” happened in 2000 and has been fuelling my interest ever since. I started to collect and create the “Silvers” from ’92; I named them only in 1998 and it’s been one ongoing exploration. I’m constantly experimenting, always trying out things and playing with my eye, playing with the camera, playing with paper, with a photocopier. In the end there are sometimes striking results that I choose not to pursue because they would add too much confusion. It allows me to hang 30 years of work in one exhibition, often side by side. They couldn’t be more different, and it’s unusual for works that were made 25 years apart to somehow hang together. But it’s only one result of carefully choosing what not to show, which probably goes for everybody. Half the work is deciding what not to show, what not to do, what project not to go down. Visually, there are a ton of great effects and things one could do. Initially, I always mistrust every picture, every photograph. Like, are you just trying to please me? For example, I almost deliberately overlooked the Tukan (2010). To filter out pictures that are too loud is superimportant, and then there are some loud ones that are really, really good.

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