that is what my work is about
interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
portrait by CARMEN BRUNNER
All images copyright Wolfgang Tillmans and courtesy of the artist, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin, and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
Wolfgang Tillmans, a longtime Purple contributor, came on the scene in the early ’90s as one of the most representative photographers of an emerging generation. He fiercely opposed the oversize, commercial aesthetic of the late ’80s and photographed friends, lovers, rebels, and artists in a realistic and poetic way, intimately and in the most delicate fashion. He helped to revolutionize photography in the age of computers, simply and with integrity, refusing any kind of effect or artifice. This immediately gave him the status of an artist, transcending the definition of what a photographer could be in a time of change.
His photographs first appeared in Purple’s third issue, in the fall of 1993, and on the cover of the Winter 1994 issue. He also did fashion shoots for Purple, which he generally refused to do for other magazines. More than two decades later, we wanted to meet him again and speak about the evolution of his work in an image-saturated world.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How did you first get involved with Purple?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — In 1993, I got invited to take part in a group exhibition called “June” at Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris, which he had asked the Purple crew to curate. It was a pivotal time, a kind of a point zero in the art world, as the commodity-oriented aesthetic of the ’80s was definitely over — everybody was questioning how to make art. Of course, international shows have always existed, but the early ’90s were characterized by an active feeling of “we are in this together.” The Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, techno was becoming a pan-European dance culture… The nature of that exhibition was trying to connect different centers of activity: New York, Cologne, London, Paris, and Milan. They chose my image Suzanne and Lutz, White Dress, Army Skirt as the exhibition flyer.
SVEN SCHUMANN — A picture of Lutz ended up on the cover of Purple soon after as well, right?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — I guess it was in the next issue after that exhibition. They chose the picture Alex and Lutz Looking at Crotch for the cover, which was quite a courageous choice. [Laughs] And then I had a couple of spreads, not collages but mini-visual essays. One was called Peace Movement, which was a picture of a guy lying on the floor wanking with a boot in his face. I’m still quite proud of these. Later, enraged by the Iraq War and the turn of the political climate and the perceived meaninglessness of most fashion imagery I saw around, I made one big — I think 40 pages — fashion cover story called “We Are Not Going Back.” It was about a defiant spirit, literally on a cliff’s edge. After a long break, I recently contributed a visual essay again, and I’m glad that I contributed again in this issue of Purple, with the incredible Michèle Lamy. We had a great afternoon together.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How has working for and with magazines been important in your career?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — The fine-art-based nature of my work was my main focus from the start, but I chose to publish in magazines and photograph for magazines from the beginning as well. And I have continued to do so to this day. It was not how it would be normally seen — like you start as a commercial artist and somehow find a way into the fine-art world and then drop the commercial work. Because that narrative is always the narrative, seemingly, but it wasn’t in my case because I actually wanted to be in the pages of i-D. I recognized that it was the most powerful publication at the time. But at the same time, the gallery was an equal venue.
SVEN SCHUMANN — When did you have your first show? What was it like?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — I had my first exhibition in ’88, when I was 20, with black and white, fairly abstract laser photocopies. And in ’89, I photographed the first picture of a nightclub for a magazine. Then, in ’93, I showed magazine pages for the first time in an exhibition next to handprints, next to laser photocopies. That coexistence was hard to swallow for many.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Because it made it harder for people to label you?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Exactly. But I see everything I do, my whole activity, as one.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So you don’t approach a landscape photograph differently from a portrait or an abstract?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — There isn’t a fragmented view — that is so not my thinking. I judge everything depending on potential. Does it have potential to yield a result that is interesting? It sounds simplistic, but it really is like that. I have limited time; I have multiple interests — am I spending time on this or not?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Would you say that on some days you’re a photographer and on others an artist?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — This division between photographer and artist relies on the idea that every activity an artist does must yield great art. You cannot predict what will make a great work of art and what won’t. There is also freedom in not everything having to be art. That’s what I greatly enjoy about journalism, that in journalism I can also speak about things that I’m just interested in; for example, my music photography through the years was also just nurturing an interest in music. I’ve always found it very liberating to have different places where I can operate with different expectations, and I have always felt extremely fortunate that I had this medium, that I arrived at photography. It was actually the last medium that I tried.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What were the ones before?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — I’ve done music, I’ve made clothes, I painted, I drew… I went through intense engagements with different forms of expression. I’ve got stacks and stacks of lyrics from back then, before I was 20. And somehow I arrived at photography in ’88, ’89, almost by coincidence, by needing a camera to make more photographs for these photocopy works I was doing. And only then did I realize that I could actually speak with the camera, even though I was always aware of the power of photo-mechanically originated art!
SVEN SCHUMANN — Like Warhol or [Gerhard] Richter?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yeah. Somehow my teenage mind understood them as: This is a printed photograph. This is a painted photograph. This is a printed record sleeve by Peter Saville on card, and Robert Rauschenberg is a newspaper photograph printed on canvas. And I just realized that all these images, pictures that touched me the most, originated from a lens. I ended up with this medium that seemed to satisfy all my expressive needs but also allowed fast movement, mobility, and great economy of time. If painting had been my thing, you know, there’s a completely different time economy, no?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Of course.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — So that’s really central to understand what I do and what I did. That it was a conscious, strategic decision. I understood the potential of this, that it allowed me to make pictures that were art because they had power that you couldn’t explain — but I didn’t have to laboriously make them over a month. And that allowed me to also do music journalism and to participate in nightlife extensively.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How long did it take for you to arrive at your own photographic language, which has been so influential?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — I think I arrived at the way my pictures look today in around ’91, when I had sort of fully said goodbye to the desire to make “interesting” pictures. Like, for example, young people in the late ’80s or early ’90s in dominant culture were depicted with cross-processed film or extreme lighting effects or extreme wide-angle effects or gestures, looking funny but not serious. And the pictures wanted to somehow draw attention to themselves. The reason I moved into this photographic style is that I realized I’m most interested in what I see. And then trying to translate that onto paper. And that’s easier said than done.
SVEN SCHUMANN — It must have been quite a revelation to reach that point.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — It was a period of intense technical consideration and observation, yes, but then from that time on, I recognized that the technical simplicity of means — under full knowledge of exactly what I’m doing — allowed me to then actually live my life and record occasionally at the same time.
SVEN SCHUMANN — That lack of separation caused an undeniable intimacy that had a big impact, especially in your erotic photographs.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Interesting that you mention erotic photographs. Now, having been in quite a retrospective mode the last year because of Tate Modern and the current show at the Fondation Beyeler, I’ve realized how important it was that I didn’t do certain things often. For example, I don’t know if there are even 10 nude sittings done in my entire life.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I guess because they’re so well known, it seems there have been more.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — If I had done them weekly, they would have been different, they would have a completely different meaning. I’m not saying what meaning they would have, but the fact that those few nudes that I took are so memorable and seem to trigger something in people is also because I wasn’t all the time in photography mode. I wasn’t really about constantly creating images. I was always very respectful of this relation of intention and letting things happen because the moment you push things, the push becomes visible. I always asked myself: What is this proliferation?
SVEN SCHUMANN — In terms of images?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yes, from the early to mid ’90s there was a strong questioning in me of why we should take more pictures of young people. Are our lives really that important that there has to be a daily record of them? And in that way, I guess I was misunderstood or misjudged by many in the fashionable magazine world, because although my pictures appeared in magazines rather infrequently, when they did, they left a big impact. They were influential and noticeable. But I was never really part of this increased, accelerated image production… That has been dominant in the last 20 years. In the early 2000s, I guess the super-thick magazines started to be around. How can that be that now we have 10 times the space for pictures but not 10 times as many interesting or remarkable pictures? Because I know the improbability of a good picture happening, I’m careful of output. It might seem ironic now because I’ve just had a year of three big magazine contributions.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you think a photo is less valuable today than it was 20 years ago?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — The easy answer would be yes. But on the other hand, now there are so many more people literate in reading photographs and speaking photography, that maybe photographs are more valuable.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But many people still have no idea about photography and yet are constantly producing images and looking at other people’s images on their phones. Is that really adding value?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — If you give a camera to one million people who don’t know what they’re doing, you will not get one interesting photograph. That was always the same — when people don’t know what to do, how to look at the world, how to read it, they cannot randomly take a good picture. That there’s only a very small number of really good photographs is the same reason that there are only very, very few good heart surgeons and very, very few nuclear scientists who are outstanding… It just seems to be human nature that everything in its extreme is very rare. One could say there is a broader education in photography. But there are no classes in school on how to read Instagram.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Not yet, thank God.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — [Laughs] But there is still a much higher visual literacy today than there used to be. And that allows people to use photography for the first time, or for pictures to reach them, which in the past they might not have — so the quantity is not a reason for devaluation. There is some quality to it as well.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you think people look at art differently these days because of decreased attention spans?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Well, one could argue that lots of people see art for the first time only because there is a flood of images washed their way, as you said. And so because of that, I find the younger generation today is so much more knowledgeable about visual art than 20 years ago: they’ve come into contact with it as part of visual culture. But you might be right that the attention span narrows it down. The pictures of your mother’s breakfast or a photo by Cindy Sherman, it’s all treated the same, in one way. But the very fact that people value, or at least some people value, visual innovation is a good thing. But that speed, for me at least, highlights the uniqueness of being in a museum for a specific amount of time.
SVEN SCHUMANN — My fear is that this new way of consuming images will eventually infiltrate art spaces like museums and galleries.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yes. I mean, the thing is… Art doesn’t seem to be interesting for so many people. Football has X percent interest, opera has another, and museum art has somewhere in between — probably closer to opera. [Laughs] And that cannot be changed. The quality of the self-chosen voluntary art experience is probably not so dissimilar from one 25 or 50 years ago, like our parents going to an exhibition because they are of a certain educated class; or you and me going to an exhibition and experiencing the pleasure of time and space and the isolation from other senses.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I guess that’s the benefit: the louder the world gets, the more a space like a museum works in people’s favor.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yes. However, I know a lot of people who work at museums, and there’s this constant question, how can we broaden our audience? How can we be more inclusive? How can we have more this or that? The noise now is being brought into the museum by the museums wanting to show up on people’s social media. So increasingly, all museums around the world allow photography. And now you have this perverse situation where people don’t look at the art anymore and only take pictures of themselves in front of it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — That is the fucking worst.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — That is just so crazy, and we shouldn’t give it more space. But, unfortunately, the museums feel they have to allow it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — They hope it will be good for business, which might not actually be the case.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Which is a question, after all. Does that bring in more people, or…
SVEN SCHUMANN — Keep others from coming?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — There are always two sides. Is it good or bad, I don’t know. Maybe their grandchildren will find a memory stick and see the Mona Lisa for the first time behind their grandfather. What the fuck do we know? It is all communication. But what fascinates me more is how ideas traveled the world 50 or 80 years ago — for example, ideas permeated the Iron Curtain in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and you wonder: How did that happen? It’s not necessarily true that a hundred pictures transport more zeitgeist than one picture. I think even if a microscopic dose of the spirit of the time is let loose in the world, it travels somewhere and it does something. If there’s less of it around, then that is a more powerful ingredient.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But these days, it’s quantity over quality.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Right, now you have a thousand times more pictures, and we are seeing a more volatile reaction to this. That has shifted the world dramatically. We are being challenged by the new all the time. There’s a lack of tradition. Nothing is supposed to last anymore. I personally find my whole sensory radar is built out of the memory of things that I like and that I want to continue or that I want to reference. But that is constantly destroyed — or, to use the Silicon Valley term, disrupted. I honestly think the cause of a lot of the trouble that we’re in now is that people are not allowed any emotional stability or design stability. You can’t get used to anything.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What are the effects of that?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Here’s an example: you could say that people had an idea that the rich lived in extreme luxury 100 years ago, so much so that it caused Communist revolutions due to inequality. Now inequality in our society is constantly played out visually and turned into desire triggers. And that is backfiring because there are as many people who feel threatened by that as there are people who feel, “Oh, it’s fascinating and liberating.” A lot of people think, “These people are having a party, and I’m not at it.” And that creates an anger that is much more driven by a schoolyard psychology rather than rational political consideration.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What’s your solution to that problem?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — I think we have to look at the whole populism phenomenon on a schoolyard level. In the ’60s to ’80s, at the peak of a development of freedom and liberation, ideas had the upper hand, and were a force for good. And now, conservative forces have the upper hand and think they should shape the discussion.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Politics has always played a role in your work. But your anti-Brexit campaign took that to another level. You really motivated people to get involved and speak out. What made you decide to do that?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — For one thing, I felt it was a matter of self-defense and urgency because my life is so intertwined with the pan-European experience. But in early 2016, Brexit still seemed like a fringe idea, an extreme idea from an outsider position. It’s probably no coincidence that there’s this huge wave of EU criticism, EU blaming and scapegoating, at a time when the last survivors, the last people who experienced the most recent war in and among EU countries, are dying. I mean, the whole European ideal had been treated without love for decades in the UK, and I think people really have to wake up to what we have with the EU. You can’t take it for granted!
SVEN SCHUMANN — The current political climate seems to be more dominated by radically opposing mindsets rather than a pan-European experience.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Right, and you can see how people around the world are positioning themselves in willfully antagonistic mindsets and still think they can do that with no further consequences! It’s nationalists. It’s capitalists. It’s autocrats. It’s Islamists… Who have I left out? Russians, a particular mix of nationalism and “Russianism” merged with fundamentalism. They are all watching and waiting for this success story of Europe to fall.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And yet Europe prevails.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Europe works! Europe is an incredible success story. People in Europe have six weeks of paid holidays! In America, you’re lucky if you have two weeks. And you have to take them from Christmas to New Year, so you basically have just a week’s worth of free days you can choose per year. Or paid maternity leave — I honestly feel incredibly proud that we have this productivity in Europe. That we have workers who can go home at four in the afternoon and go on holiday three times a year. Granted, this paints a super-rosy picture, and I’m aware that life is not all roses for everyone in the EU; it’s not equally distributed.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What are your hopes for Europe in the face of current developments?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — I just hope that we all stay curious about each other and become tolerant of each other in a truly accepting way. We are all slightly crazy — the French, the Belgians, the Austrians, the Danish, the Germans, these old European countries that have created strange minds.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Minds that are very set in their own ways as a result.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Of course, and I am aware it will not be easy to, for example, reconcile Finnish and Portuguese and Irish and German interests. But I think people will understand that any alternatives will be worse. We have to embrace each others’ weirdness and become friends. We have to get over this sense of, “Oh, we can’t change it anyway.” It should be, “Yes, we want to get to know each other.” This year could be a turning point in the end of indifference on behalf of the people of Europe — having common enemies will bring us closer together. But a new sense of European togetherness cannot only be based on a reflex against one ugly leader, of course. I genuinely feel much more emotional about my fellow European countries, my fellow European friends, how we take an interest in the Spanish election, how we take an interest in a Polish national affair. I would think that we are now caring about other countries’ domestic affairs as we would among friends. And that is really an amazing sign that we are growing closer together.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Were you surprised at how few artists really spoke out against the referendum? Especially in music, there was hardly anybody taking a strong stand against Brexit.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yeah, I thought it was shocking that there was no artist more famous than Jarvis Cocker, a minor star who spoke out loud and clear in 2016. It’s not a deliberate will to be bad or to secretly cause Brexit, but I guess it’s amnesia.
SVEN SCHUMANN — As well as laziness and fear of repercussions. Musicians used to be very vocal about these kinds of issues in the ‘60s and ’70s…
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yes. But there are as many good musicians today as there were 40 years ago. There are as many good artists and as many good designers and free minds that are in it for the right reasons and are principled people. They put themselves on the line 40 and 20 years ago. Almost none did in 2016. It’s a bit shocking.
SVEN SCHUMANN — After campaigning for months and really putting your beliefs out there, what went on in your head when you found out that Britain had voted to leave the EU?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — For me, the emotional moment was not the results but the evening before the voting started. I had a meeting at Tate Modern, and when I left and walked toward the Millennium Bridge, I looked up to the Tate chimney. Tate Modern opened in 2000, so it really is a symbol of the UK becoming truly international. The year 2000 is also when I won the Turner Prize, which is a prize for British art — I was the first foreigner to win it, because my whole career history is very intertwined with the British relationship to Europe. I was part of a redefinition of Britishness. And as I walked over the bridge and I saw the sunset, I suddenly burst into tears thinking about how this might very well be the last sunset before we begin a new era. In this brief moment of tears and breakdown, I suddenly realized how much energy I had invested in this in the previous two months and how I had never before put myself on the line or been so outspoken politically. I realized how much emotional engagement that costs.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Did you go to the opening of the extension of the Tate the next evening, which was the night of the referendum?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yes. It felt like people were celebrating with good hope, as the vote was already in the ballot. Ironically, this building was built with money from international donors, built to enable Tate Modern to become one of the first contemporary art museums in the world that really represents art from all five continents appropriately and not just from the Western point of view. I didn’t wait and stay up for the results, and when I woke up the next day, it was what it was. I was totally unemotional, and I was ready to move on. I flew to New York to spend three months working on Fire Island, which I had planned independently of the result. I knew that if the result was Remain, I wanted to leave as well. By the next day, I was making music on Fire Island.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You mentioned earlier that you made music even before you started taking photos. Recently you started releasing music and including it in some of your exhibitions. How did that come about?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — It has its roots in 2014. For years, I had observed that there’s something lacking in our cultural landscape, in our cultural institutions, which is a space that values recorded music and makes it accessible in the finest sound quality. There are lots of spaces for live music, and there is sound art and occasionally video art in museums, but there’s nowhere you could go and listen to “True Faith” by New Order in high-fidelity sound quality. A finished piece of recorded music is not given the cultural appreciation it deserves in terms of how it is given space — literally, square meters. Museums don’t give room to that. And that is kind of a cultural snobbism, no? I had this idea for a playback room for many years, so in 2014 I turned that into reality. At the same time, I developed an increased interest in DJing.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Which you had pursued sporadically before that, no?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yes. The first time I played records publicly was in 1999 in London, and then I had a brief period in 2002, 2003, where I played a few times at the Ghetto. But for me, for it to be good, DJing has to be a very infrequent activity. So at the end of 2014, I played at Panorama Bar and just generally started to pay more attention to music as a medium. Around that time, I also did a video where I performed in my underpants. Have you seen it?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Yes, you dance to the sound of your own steps, right?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — I was becoming an instrument in a way, which is why it’s called Instrument. In some sense, I was admitting that performance desire in myself, which I had suppressed for a long time.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Because of a catastrophic experience in college where I had a super-embarrassing performance and completely fucked up while playing at a graduation ball. After that, I had zero confidence. And there was also no musical encouragement in my family, so I figured this wasn’t what I would be doing. It was a slow process for me to come back to music. I didn’t push this through, it somehow pushed itself out of me, and I came back to it, and it grew. So when I started to release music last year, I was quite happy to see that there wasn’t a fundamental resistance to it, but it actually was seen as quite natural.
SVEN SCHUMANN — A song of yours ended up on Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless; I would call that a bit more than “no fundamental resistance.” He is one of the biggest musicians in the world right now, and there was hardly a release that was more anticipated at the time.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — You exactly described it in the magnitude that it was. To see these two roads cross — one is my life and my steps in music, and one is Frank Ocean — was just beyond surreal. People were talking about this thing last summer all the time, and then suddenly I found myself on it. I only had three weeks’ warning, and when he mentioned he wanted to use the intro as the intro of his album, I thought it was only one of the many unreliable promises or statements that Frank let the whole world believe that in the end didn’t happen. I mean, I got excited, but I thought, “Come on.”
SVEN SCHUMANN — So you only found out that it actually ended up on the album when it was released?
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Yes, I woke up on the 19th of August and saw that there was something going on in my e-mails. I only then realized it was more than the intro that Frank and I had initially discussed, that there was the intro at the beginning for two minutes and then seven minutes at the end. And suddenly I was speaking to Pitchfork.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I hope this solved your confidence issues once and for all, and that you will continue to make music.
WOLFGANG TILLMANS — Well, just yesterday I was in the studio with Oscar Powell, the London electronic musician who releases under the name Powell. We started making music together back in March. In Fire Island last summer, I did a three-month project under the name Fragile — six musicians in a traditional band setup, guitar, bass, and so on. We played two gigs in New York last autumn and a concert at Tate Modern in the South Tank sound and light installation I showed in March. The space was embedded in a sound installation of different types of audio: electronic music, live music, produced live music, proper studio music, rehearsal room audio recordings, spoken word, and field recordings of the environment. So there were about six different types of audio or music that made up this 100-minute installation — which is important to mention because my exhibitions of photographs include at least six different types of origination as well. A photograph, just like a piece of music, is a conceptual sculpture, you know?
I’m aware how my brain fails me.
I thought I said something, but I hadn’t.
I thought I saw something, but I didn’t.
I believe you said this, but in fact you said that.
The eyes are optical ‘instruments,’ by default they are impartial.
They project light, that falls through its lenses onto the retina.
I need to know what the brain does to what my eyes see.
To observe what do I want to see.
What do I really see.
What do I see, and what do I want to see.
What is on the picture?
What is in the room, on the walls? and What does the visitor see, what does she want to see?
What do I need her for to complete the picture?
This sounds like a flaw, an exception.
But different people see different things in the same picture.
I play surprised, but should really take that as the Normal.
And then discuss this.
We need to discuss the fact that humans seem to function like this.
Not discuss the opposing views and records,
but let’s discuss the very fact, that same and similar humans come to such different conclusions.
For that we need humility.
Progress can only begin when I start to accept
that all humans are born equal.
When I start observing how I observe.
I need to observe. not just talk and shout.
Careful observation, with the openness
to change my mind, when results differ from my preconceived ideas.
That is what my work is about.
text by WOLFGANG TILLMANS, 2017,
presented at the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, June 12, 2017
[Table of contents]
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