As Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Rebuilding The Future’ enters its final weeks on display in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Aoife Donnellan gets some time to speak with the celebrated photographer.
“The thing is art is not an absolute, it is not like breaking bread, you have to make certain things the right way. For a Guinness to be a Guinness it has to be done in a specific way, whereas art is a highly-specialised mind game…”
It’s safe to say I was terrifically nervous about Skyping Wolfgang Tillmans; one of the most famous photographers in the world. He was the first photographer, and person outside of the UK, to win the Turner Prize, and is federally decorated by the German State. If you haven’t heard his name, then you’ve seen his work [the cover of Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ for example].
Living between Berlin and London, Tillmans is a cultural icon. He arrived on the arts scene first as a fashion photographer capturing his surroundings in the 80s and 90s. His work was published in magazines such as i-D, Spex, Interview, SZ Magazin and Butt. As time went on, Tillman’s art became politically oriented, inspired by LGBTQ+ rights and the AIDS crisis.
In preparation for the interview I went to IMMA to see Tillmans’ latest collection Rebuilding The Future. This exhibition is a beautiful display of mini-universes with textures of bodies, rock, sand and natural landscape. Some pieces are large-scale, all-consuming, Pollock-esque rectangles of colour, while others are lists of dates and pictures of airport signage.
As I sat virtually opposite Wolfgang Tillman, he wore a blue woollen jumper set against a while wall, surrounded by photographs. I imagined his surroundings and pictured an inspiring minimalist location, looking across the skyline of Berlin. We began at the beginning and he explained why he gravitated toward photography.
“I guess from an early age I felt the desire to contribute to society in some way. I always had an interest in contemporary life and culture, but I didn’t feel particularly artistically talented. I mean, I was never spotted as the one that is super skilled in drawing for example in school, and [laughs] I was actually rather bad in class, as well as in music, so I was actually lucky that I grew up not being treated like the talented one; ‘Here is the one that is going to be the artist’. It allowed me to be independent and develop photocopying as my medium of choice… It was a gift not to be detected.
At this stage in his career Tillmans had become fluent in the language of the photograph. He told me why the medium was innate in him.
“I guess I had a way of looking and still have a way of looking at the world, and at things, and at people that can be expressed possibly in different ways. I found that the camera is the way in which that I could speak most fluidly and that’s for different reasons. Like for example, the seeming artlessness of photography, the lack of gesture, it allows me to be more self- effacing than in an oil painting.”
The beautiful ease of the gestures in Tillmans’ photographs are often mistaken for spontaneity, but he explains that he doesn’t like privileging staged photographs over found moments.
“Like just having found something puts staging over finding something. I never felt that way, I felt that because to find something you need to recognise it, and that’s as hard as seeing it, or as finding it, and as hard as staging it.”
Examples of both staged and natural scenes can be found in IMMA.
“The Paper Drop pictures, in the second last room, those are of course, 100 per cent set up and only made for the purpose of that moment… While certain pictures of people, like Lutz and Alex Sitting In The Trees, they of course didn’t just happen to sit naked in trees [laughs], but they looked like it. Then the picture of Johan and the Deer looks completely staged but really was a moment that I saw, and I just froze it. Sometimes life can be more surreal than the brain can imagine.”
I cannot do the Paper Drop images justice using language, but I’ll try. Their subject is light playing with folded paper in the shape of a water droplet. For Tillmans, the “sharing of a moment” is the most important aspect of photography. I wondered if the artform is a gateway into his perspective. Which does he favour: his eye or his mind? Is it philosophy or aesthetics that inspires him?
“It’s interesting, language is very binary… You cannot invent a theory of thought that is less interesting than the picture, if the picture isn’t interesting. If the thought is more interesting than the picture, the picture doesn’t work.
“At the same time, the gaze, the way you look at the world, is only as interesting as your thoughts about the world… If you’re boring, if you’re having boring thoughts, or if you’re not interested in the world… I mean it sounds very simplistic, but I find that to be true whenever I think about it.”
The way Tillmans perceives and presents the world is how he makes his living and he doesn’t confine his creativity to photography. photography; he also dabbles in soundscapes.
“I observe from musicians that they tend to want to re-record a take, and I observed it goes completely against my instinct with how I work with a camera because for me there isn’t another take… To think you can go back a few hours later and do it seems impossible to me.”
He is particularly concerned with current socio-cultural changes in technology. His sound installation ‘I Want to Make a Film’, is a playful piece about the power of a smartphone. The title sets a humorous tone and I found his treatment of technology refreshing. It wasn’t contrived and it wasn’t prescriptive. Frequently technology is represented in a laboured fashion, in literature as well as visual art where social media is always the devil incarnate. Tillmans manages to describe interactions with tech in an authentic way.
“It was recorded without rehearsal. It just came to me as I was walking through Hong Kong a year ago. I somehow kept the thought I had and walked straight back to the hotel, switched on the voice recorder and fell on the bed and spoke the whole thing just how it poured out of my head. It was completely unedited, and it came out like that. As a listener I think one picks that up.”
Authenticity is something that Tillmans frequently seems to achieve with his art. His large-scale works afford an intimate glance into how he comes into contact with the world. He spoke to me about the pressure on art to be universally accessible.
“The thing is, art is not an absolute. It is not like breaking bread, you have to make certain things the right way. For a Guinness to be a Guinness it has to be done in a specific way. Whereas art is a highly- specialised mind game and a thought construction… The only problem is that it is possibly the only field of expertise where everybody, 100 per cent of people, feel entitled to an opinion and a judgement, which is quite striking… People wouldn’t do that immediately about philosophy or nuclear science.”
Tillmans’ eloquence is interesting to navigate in person. It is evident that he meditates on the power his work wields as well as his responsibility as an artist. For someone who has been a photographer for over 30 years he has built up a tremendous belief in the power of art.
“I mean you have to trust that the work is also standing on its own two feet and it doesn’t always come with a prescription or instructions. Because if there is only one way to read it, then I would say that it is an illustration and I don’t like my art to be an illustration. What I love about art, when art works best for me, is when I can move around within it in my head and somehow feel free to see different things from different angles. Sometimes the work makes itself, and only later I learn and understand what interests me.”
I brought up his piece. ‘We Are Not Going Back’ – a table of rocks, of various sizes, alongside a photograph of said table. For no particular reason I just ended up smiling when I saw it, in the middle of this influential exhibition, here was the ultimate conclusion that photography will never fully represent what it attempts to capture
“I mean, this work it came from play, but it was also an experiment which took me 30 years to make and when you see it, it’s actually quite devastating how flat and incapable photography is. We think when we see a photograph independently from its subject, it’s a fairly realistic representation of the subject, but when we see the stone right next to the photograph of the stone you just realise how much is lacking.”
The smaller 4×6 works in the Rebuilding The Future which captured my imagination as I almost expected to see my family on holidays staring back at me in these familiarly sized works. I asked Tillmans how he chooses his themes.
“I found that I didn’t always agree with widely-accepted value attributions… I’m hesitating because I don’t want to sound overly simplistic or romantic but there is actually something about meditation and spirituality. I’ve read a lot of the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti and something resonated very strongly with me when he was asked, ‘How do I meditate correctly?’ He said, ‘That’s bullshit, don’t meditate correctly’. ‘Correct’ is wrong from the start. If you are just able to look at something and somehow take it in and somehow engage with it for however long without predetermined thought, you know in an openness and directness? That is meditation.”
Tillmans is frequently championed for attempting to both find quiet in the extraordinary, and for making the ordinary extraordinary. His work feels familiar but also curious. He elaborated about why this works for him explaining that to see a fold in fabric with the imprint of a body behind can be an ‘incredible sensual sculpture’ while something as classically celebrated as gold can be ‘just a metal’.
“Ultimately all the shit in the world we’re seeing today is coming from judgemental eyes and wrong, premature attributions of value.”
His insistence on maintaining openness is integral to allowing his work to penetrate the psyche of the beholder. He’s the visual Seamus Heaney; here to capture the lost moments of beauty in the every day. I feel he has an awareness of what it is to be a prolific artist and of the responsibility that entails. For anyone who has been to see a Tillmans exhibition, you’ll understand the range of existence that he has been able to capture over his career. For anyone yet to see one, you have until March 10.
Rebuilding the Future by Wolfgang Tillmans runs until March 10 in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).