Ten Questions for Wolfgang Tillmans
On his 49th birthday here's another chance to read an interview we did to coincide with his latest Phaidon book
Twenty years ago, could a keen-eyed reader of i-D magazine have picked out something in a certain German contributor’s work that suggested he was destined for a career beyond the pages of the style press? Actually yes. Whether photographing the Berlin Love Parade, the view from his plane window, the curve of a young man’s ear, or creating quasi-photographic, abstract works such as his Freischwimmer series, Wolfgang Tillmans manages to imbue his pictures with a sensuality, clarity and sense of purpose that meant he would come to dominate the gallery booths of the world's most important art fairs. Indeed, it's not uncommon for his work to show at five different galleries at one fair.
To mark the publication of our newly updated Wolfgang Tillmans monograph, we spoke to him earlier this week about Richard Prince, the function of photography and why he's a (begrudging) fan of Frieze. When we spoke, Wolfgang was particularly keen to point out how pleased with how the integration of his original 2003 Phaidon monograph with his eleven years of work since had been achieved.
"What’s important is that one gets a sense of what the work feels like," he said. "My exhibitions are not just image information; they are things in front of you and the continuity of that 25 years of very different types of work holds together extremely well between the covers of this new book."
In the book you mention seeing the Richard Prince image of Brooke Shields (Spiritual America) for the first time, what was it about that photograph that inspired you so early on? I guess what I was responding to was all sorts of appropriation which really permeated the very end of the eighties, also in terms of music. Sampling as a technique, a language – to take snippets from other songs and movies or a line from an actor and use that in a song instead of lyrics – seemed so incredibly ‘now’ and exciting. Now it’s part of a much larger and more linear understanding of what is known as post-modernism but sampling and taking things from one context into another so that it was saying something in its own right seemed incredibly powerful then, and, of course, flew in the face of traditional values about an artist having to make their own work. My school mates looked down on electronic music, on Italo Disco, because it wasn’t hand made. And I liked it because there was emotion but it didn’t have the signifiers of emotion in the music. So something supposedly cold like Kraftwerk - although I wasn’t a particular fan - showed there could be emotion in something you didn’t touch. That was a great revelation for me.
How did your early experiences at ID magazine open your artistic eye as it were? I felt the biggest energy coming from there. I felt such a personal engagement and excitement about what was going on with acid house and techno and the accompanying optimism about changing the world. For a few years it was a tangible sense that this could change the world. One shouldn’t be too passive about it, in the end the whole gay and lesbian rights may have come anyway, but who knows? On one hand I feel that that experience of shared dance floors and music and gay and straight scenes helped change certain attitudes in the late 80s and early 90s for good. I am very grateful and happy that I experienced that and I’m still wondering how it is possible that there hasn’t been a new genuine movement of any kind, a shift in youth culture.
What is the function of photography for you? A piece of visual content, a presence in the room? Ha, the big one! I think the primary function for me of a photograph is that it allows me to think about the world in a non-verbal way which is very direct and at the same time incredibly subtle. Sometimes it takes me five or ten years to be able to say something with a picture. It’s only on the surface a fast medium. With the car headlights photographs, I had observed how the face of cars had become mean in the last ten years and I saw that as an expression of the generally competitive climate in the world. I always pay attention to car design. I’m not a car buff at all but I think you can read society by the cars it designs. But it took me to be in a car park in Tasmania to finally be in the right spot where I saw the right cars, in the right light, and so I photographed all of them in an hour - even though it took years of thinking and observation up to that point.
Ryan McGinley talks of his photographs as 'diagrams of experience'. Do you have a description of your work that feels close to your heart? I think it’s an ongoing process of observing cause and effect, a locked and unsolvable coexistence of intentions and results. And with cause I don’t just mean outside influence but my own influence in a situation. The moment I put a camera between my eye and the sitter something happens in the cheeks of the sitter, maybe the mouth makes a certain move. And that’s exactly what I observe. If you take a picture of a window you observe what happens with the reflection when you move. Is my presence getting in the way of an experience? Or am I making an experience possible? I think if we all paid attention to what causes what it would be a much greater world.
__Do you feel regret if you don’t take a photo? If you don’t have a camera on you? __ I feel like some pictures I work for quite hard and others I’ve just been ready for, and others were not meant to be taken. That’s how I view it. I really see it all in a way quite generously. I have benefitted from a lot of opportunities when I was ready so when I’m not ready that’s fine also. I don’t photograph all the time anyway but it heightens awareness for maybe what I could become interested in. Photography has become such an activity now. It’s much more about the act of photographing rather than the picture itself. It started before the web. I observed it in the nineties with the widespread use of the small, compact camera. Which people were holding in parties up and shooting the crowd or each other and I always understood that as a performative gesture, like ‘I am in charge, I am in control, I am doing something here’ which frees the person from dealing with the situation and the social awkwardness in a more direct or verbal way.
You moved your studio back to Berlin from London. Nan Goldin told us she moved to Berlin as the vibe reminded her a little of late 80s New York. How do you find it? Berlin still has quite an edge because it lacks certain concepts of behavioural control that are at work in places like London or New York - how to be ‘it’ for example. The whole idea of 'The It Girl' means that millions of women in particular are subjected to this fearful regime of indoctrination every day: how to be and what to feel bad about. I feel that it’s a little less crass in Germany. I do consider myself a Londoner foremost though, after living there 20 years and I carry on having a place there – it’s the best of both worlds.
As we see in the book, sometimes you use German in your titles and sometimes English. Why? I use German when a title isn’t a real title in that it actually bestows another reading or meaning onto a work, or adds a poetic note. Sometimes there is a particular word play that can activate something in a picture and of course German has certain qualities. For example you can put any two words together to make one word – like zeitgeist – that’s just better than saying 'spirit of the time'. If that’s not the case then I make it very descriptive and matter of fact – often lower case. Far more people speak English than German so in principle the titles are in English but sometimes when there is an added benefit I use German.
What’s next for you? (At the time of the interview Wolfgang was working on a project to be premiered at the Architecture Biennale in Venice). It’s a projection of architecture photographs that I’ve been collecting and making for a good part of the last ten years. I find it fascinating how architecture is also a reflection of society in terms of taste and fashion and economic givens and restraints and also the egos of the architect, of the builder, of the owner, the bauherr. Add in to that all the little elements of how the people use the building and want to use the building and adapt the building to their uses and their desire for decoration and change - that creates an incredible layering and impurity which is totally fascinating and, at the same time, hilarious and possibly also depressing.
Is moving image work something you’re keen to explore further? I feel the seduction of video in a dark space - of light and darkness - is so great that I’ve always been very careful not to simply fall for that seductiveness. So I have always set a high benchmark for myself with moving images and maybe because of that I’ve only made three or four videos in fifteen years one of which is featured in the artist’s writings section of the book and another, a double page installation page view of that 2011 show in Warsaw where I had four different films in the same room.
Do you choose the pieces shown at Frieze and how do you feel about art fairs? People say they are terrible and no way to see art. It is in one way terrible and random and no art deserves to be shoved together in this way, but on the other hand it is a great reflection of a physical reality. I like to go to art fairs occasionally just to see close up the presence and how these things are in front of my eyes. How is the canvas stretched? How is the photograph laminated? What is the thickness? The very nature of an artwork lies in these qualities and that cannot be relayed by a photograph - plus you can’t visit 300 galleries in 50 cities around the world. With every gallery it is a discussion we have and they won’t show anything I don’t want to be shown. I have up to five galleries at some fairs. I treat it like an exhibition. The reality is that an art fair like Frieze is seen by 60,000 people and many museum shows don’t get that amount of visitors so it is how your work is being seen. You can’t look down on it. If it were all bad it wouldn’t happen.
For a richer understanding of his life and work, buy our newly updated Wolfgang Tillmans monograph here. and for greater insight into the kind of role played by events such as Frieze consider our book Biennials and Beyond.