Wolfgang Tillmans
Trusting Your Own Eyes

Wolfgang Tillmans is interested in the here and now. The photographer, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, is an indefatigable chronicler of the globalized present. In recent years his work has become more and more political, evidenced by his new exhibition at Tate Modern in London.
Already as a child, Wolfgang Tillmans was fascinated by the universe and astronomy. Through his telescope, he studied stars, planets, and the surface of the sun. His view of space influences all of his artistic work. “I consider this phase of intense observation as the basis of my visual understanding,” he says. Tillmans does not find the mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos threatening. On the contrary: “With this encounter with infinity, with this connection to something larger, I had a sense of not being lonely.” Today even NASA knows that we are not alone in the universe. With the help of the Kepler space telescope, the space agency has identified an unexpectedly large number of earth-like planets. It is almost certain that life exists on at least one of them. Tillmans is euphoric about this discovery. “In this day and age of religious fundamentalism I just find this fantastic news, that the last bastion of men thinking that they are unique and selected by god is now scientifically challenged.”

Views of the star-filled sky and current sociopolitical issues – this at first surprising nexus informs the artistic work of the photographer, born in Remscheid, Germany, in 1968. Tillmans’ desire to express his thoughts about the world drives his work. Thus we encounter myriad themes and motifs: landscapes, planetary constellations, a market in Ethiopia, shopping malls in Saudi Arabia and Poland, or fruit lying on a meadow, as seen in one of his works in the Deutsche Bank Collection. In addition to such impressions of the globalized present, he makes abstract works without using the camera but only by exposing photo paper. And of course pictures of people. It is the latter that made Tillmans renowned – as well as the image of him as a chronicler of the rave and techno scenes. Yet just as self-evidently as he photographs his friends from clubs and queer subculture in Berlin, New York and London, he portrays his mother, Kate Moss, Tony Blair, and visitors to the German Protestant churches day. Or Frank Ocean, the first hip-hop and R&B star to thematize his gay experiences. The singer used a photo by Tillman for the cover of his recent album Blond. On top of that, with his techno track Device Control, the photographer is a musician on Ocean’s video album Endless.

What holds Tillman’s incredibly wide-ranging work together is his casual aesthetics. He manages to avoid making sunsets and flowers—motifs used millions of times—look like visual clichés in his photographs, but instead like symbols of the world’s fragile, fleeing beauty. With his seemingly “imperfect” style, the photographer picks up on William Eggleston, Nan Golding, and David Armstrong. He dispenses with dramatic intensifications. His large-format photos do not contain the overwhelming gestures found in the work of the Düsseldorf School. These formal decisions also express his attitude. To understand the latter, a cosmic view of the world is instructive. Tillmans views astronomy as a “great leveling agent.” The awareness that the Earth is only a tiny part of the infinite universe influences his view of the world. Everything is matter that is constantly transforming; everything is interconnected. Particularly at a time when many politicians are embracing isolationism, this self-evident fact has a very political dimension.

His “astronomic” worldview engenders an extremely humanistic and even spiritual attitude. It is not by chance that references to Krishnamurti can be found in Tillmans’ work time and again. A statement made by the Indian philosopher, who died in 1986, sounds like a description of the point of departure for his photographic work: “Mindfulness is attentive observation, an awareness that is entirely devoid of motives or wishes, an observation without any interpretation or distortion.“ The term “mindfulness,” taken from Buddhist meditation practice, is a pillar of the artist’s work: “When I am mindful, I don’t think in terms of rigid definitions like black or white, yes or no, but my being is connected with the here and now.” 

His current exhibition at Tate Modern is definitely concerned with the here and now. This is already indicated by the terse title 2017. The show revolves around the state of the world, which has worried Tillmans for quite some time. While in the 1990s he focused on issues such as community, identity construction, and his personal affirmation as a gay man, his work now takes a much more specific tack. Since the invasion of Iraq and worldwide demonstrations for peace in 2003, his art has become more political. Thus the show, curated by Chris Deacon in close cooperation with the artist, not only features photographs of AIDS activists in South Africa, but also his visual responses to the BREXIT campaign. The latter’s aggressiveness prompted Tillmans, a convinced European, and his assistant Paul Hutchinson to create 25 posters pleading for Great Britain to remain in the EU. They combine views of coasts, the sea, and the sky with slogans such as No man is an island. No country by itself, and Democracy, peace and human rights have many enemies. Don’t make them stronger. Only as a united Europe can we stand in their way. Tillmans, who has lived uninterruptedly in Britain since 1990 and was the first non-Briton to receive the Turner Prize, regards the EU as “the largest peace project in human history.” He countered populist BREXIT propaganda, often marked by nationalism and racism, with appeals to reason. He facetiously calls himself an “activist of moderation.”

The forms his non-polemic, understanding-promoting activism can take can be experienced on Tillman’s Instagram account. At Christmas time, he posted a picture of a Christmas tree standing upside down, accompanied by a text taken from the New York Times. The heading reads How Could You? followed by a catalog of “19 Questions to Ask Loved Ones Who Voted the Other Way.” His aim is to bridge the rifts that have been created within families and circles of friends by fostering mutual discussion bereft of shouting and aggression. In Berlin, due to the “refugee crises” and the rise of rightwing movements, Tillmans transformed his art space Between Bridges into a forum for political and social projects. These activities are also documented at Tate Modern.

For exhibitions, the photographer continually recombines his pictures. The carefully composed presentations reflect questions and themes he is currently occupied with. As he puts it, they are akin to “laboratories for studying the world.” The exhibition in London shows Tillmans’ interest in surfaces—in sleek and sharp-edged commercial architectures, in shiny metallic paint, in gold and trash. A link can be created to the assemblages of Isa Genzken, an artist with whom he is closely befriended and whom he portrays again and again. Both see such surfaces as reflecting social developments and longings. While Genzken collages them into sculptural objects, Tillmans photographs them and brings these pictures together in exhibitions, magazine sections, and artist books.

Since 2005, he has increasingly presented his works in display cases, together with books, copies of newspaper articles, calendar pictures, and found pieces. These combinations spawn new contexts, associations, and trains of thought. “Their nonhierarchical composition is meant to permit non-predetermined access to the pictures. An overarching theme is encouraging people to trust their own eyes when they view the world, to distrust their prejudices,” explains Tillmans.

His most well-known display-case works bear the ironic title truth study center. They speak of the dogmatization of the world, questioning religions’ and ideologies’ claim to absolute truth. Particularly now, at a time when the spokeswoman of the American President uses the expression “alternative facts” to express her distaste for the very objective truth of facts, Tillman’s truth study center is right on the mark. “Everyone has the possibility to appropriate their environment with their own eyes,” he says. “Once you have trained yourself to do this, it is easier to recognize and resist manipulation and to remain open to new ideas.”
Achim Drucks

Wolfgang Tillmans. 2017
Tate Modern, London
02/15. – 06/11.2017
Live Programm, The Tanks
03/03. – 03/12.2017

Wolfgang Tillmans
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel
05/28. – 10/01.2017