It's the early hours of New Year’s Eve when I first meet Wolfgang Tillmans in Berghain, the Berlin club renowned as the city’s spiritual home for creatures of the night. I’m here to experience Tillmans’ debut DJ set at the mammoth former power station, where he’s playing the main floor. You couldn’t imagine a more typically Berlin crowd: handsome, chiselled, blond boys dance to his tune alongside bearded hipsters and techno Goths. His choice of music fuses techno with innovative sounds that give the usually tough and rough main room a more energised, funked up edge. The audience offer a deserved round of applause after the set.
We meet again the following evening when I pick him up en route for a return visit to Berghain (it’s like that coffee shop in Friends, us gays just love to hang out there). This time we’re here to party. Turner Prize-winning artists need to shack out on the dancefloor, too.
Once the disco dust has settled and the hangovers have subsided, we finally meet for our interview at his vast Kreuzberg studio. Tillmans has made Berlin his on-off base for the past 10 years or so, and in a more fulltime capacity since he moved his exhibition space Between Bridges from London in 2011. When it comes to cultural edge, there are few cities more renowned for raising the bar. Did he feel the pressure to deliver when he took to the decks at the city’s most (in)famous club? “Berghain is a fantastic challenge, let’s call it that,” he says.
“It has to be good, it cannot be bad. Especially with me being known for being good in another area.” Making music is not as extreme a departure for Tillmans as you might initially think. His reputation is grounded in photography, but he has had a passion for sound for as long as he’s been taking pictures, as epitomised by last year’s EP release, 2016/1986, which combines original productions from 1986 with newer tracks. DJing is a more recent thing. He points out that the surprise around his (re)evolution into music hasn’t been the fact that he’s doing it, but more that it’s actually rather good. He’s conscious of the trap that can befall artists (be they actors, singers, models, or whatever) when they move from one celebrated specialism into a new medium.
“I’m wary because when rock stars start painting it’s usually terrible. I also didn’t want to make ‘art music’, I wanted to be good on musical terms. I don’t want to force an interpretation, as if the songs are pictures or something like that.” He’s imposingly tall, stooping down to talk to me, but his manner is gentle and soft, and speaks with considered, measured words. The DJing, Tillmans finds, is more a performance, a place in which his role as a visual artist and his love of music coalesce. “People have known for years that DJing is an art form, a medium. But I see it very much like an exhibition, it’s a condensation of a thinking process. “When I play it’s also the result of some weeks of thinking about it. I do it so rarely that I give a great deal of thought to, and preparation for, it.”
Perhaps the ultimate endorsement for Tillmans’ music came when Frank Ocean sampled his track Device Control at the beginning of his Endless visual album, released last summer. The full length version of the track closes the collection.
Such was its impact that Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic Wesley Morris commented on it in his essay about the singer/rapper, arguing that Ocean had entered a “deconstructionist mode”. He wrote: “The best song on Endless doesn’t even belong to [Ocean]. It’s a dreamy electro-poetic position paper by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans.”
Tillmans finds the statement somewhat bewildering. “I thought: ‘I’ve never even met the critic, he didn’t have to write this’.”
But the fact is it’s true, it is one of the best tracks on the album. Tillmans acknowledges that it’s a huge compliment that Ocean included it in full. “If he felt it was complete rubbish, he wouldn’t do that. I’m slowly building confidence there.”
He’s being humble, which is certainly part of Tillmans’ appeal. From clubbing at Berghain with the hoi polloi to holidaying on Fire Island, he engages with gay culture, unashamed to embrace his status as one of the queer world’s most famous contemporary artists, where others might try to sideline their sexuality for fear of being pigeon-holed as “that gay artist.”
But humble as he may be, Tillmans’ talent transcends such rudimental labelling, and if there’s one area in which he certainly doesn’t need to build confidence it’s photography. When he’s not clubbing with Frank Ocean (which he did), Tillmans is still very much focused on his core mode of practice. His current exhibition at Tate Modern is 2017, which opened in February and is his most epic to date. Beginning the Tate’s celebration of LGBT+ art in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, there can be few artists more relevant than Tillmans. He won the Turner Prize in 2000, one of very few out gay men to have done so, he was the first non-British person to win, and the first to work extensively in the medium of photography.
2017 represents a monumental milestone for an artist whose work aims to be accessible and affordable, yet uncompromising in its desire to provoke thought and invite the viewer to share the human experience.
Making his name in the Nineties through photographs of everyday life and contemporary culture, his images were both natural in their appearance and orchestrated in their staging. Tillmans was one of the first photographers to successfully bring the medium into the artistic sphere. Continually innovating, he’s embraced photography in all its forms, from magazine articles to gallery prints. Tate Modern is a unique place, where experienced art critics congregate while virgin visitors flock to discover the likes of Dalí and Matisse. For many, it will be their first encounter with Tillmans’ work. No pressure, then? “It’s special because it’s London, where I’ve lived for 25 years, and the museum has such an amazing context with this mix of, on the one hand, specialist people; next door there’s Robert Rauschenberg. I hope it will be an encouraging signal to younger people that [my] type of work can be the subject of a major show.”
This was not the case when Tillmans won the Turner Prize 17 years ago, with some critics questioning why photography deserved to be ranked alongside more traditional art forms. Needless to say, those arguments have long since dissipated.
One thing he’s certain of is that he doesn’t want newcomers to his work trying to understand every aspect of it, rather to open their senses and negotiate a relationship with what they
see. “People bring to contemporary art a feeling that they have to ‘get it’. But often there isn’t a whole story, or narrative they have to get. Maybe you just come away having seen a nice colour, or a nice colour contrast.
“What I like most is if somebody says or feels, ‘Oh, I recognise how that smells,’ or ‘I recognise how that feels’. If three pictures out of 250 resonate on that level that means we are not alone, we are communicating, there is connection.”
Connection is a word that Tillmans comes back to frequently. “It’s something I want to ultimately feel in my life and that’s what I want to convey in my work. That’s something that has a lot of trap holes [sic] because it could so be easily kitsch, over emotional, over didactic. The moment you say, ‘I want to connect with you’, it’s only the ‘want’ that stands in the room.” For a connection to work, there needs to be a recipient willing to engage.
Tillmans is very much aware how “artificial” a gallery is as a constructed environment into which people put themselves in the hope of being stimulated. “Just to be in the space of six vast colour fields maybe just does something,” he observes.
“That’s not something you have at home or can experience on the Tube. I see galleries and museums as laboratory spaces, because they are strange, unnatural spaces, these white cubes. When you see them as a lab and put things in there and see how they interact with each other and with people, that’s a nice experience.”
Tillmans notably caught the attention of critics with his unique way of exhibiting his work. Traditional framed prints are often eschewed in favour of bulldog clips and tape to fix images to walls. Without frames they blur the line of where the art begins and ends, bleeding it into the gallery space. His magazine work, as featured in publications such as i-D and recently Arena Homme+, are frequently exhibited alongside high-quality photographic prints. He elevates and celebrates the printed medium in all its forms when others confine it within wooden frames.
“I like the fine-edition print which has its price, but I also like massproduced work in magazines or postcards because that’s where photography sits very comfortably.”
I ask if it frustrates him that images without any depth have become so prevalent on social media, and how everybody now considers themselves a photographer. Does it mean people might look at his work as something purely aesthetic rather than having a wider context or story?
“It hasn’t affected how my work is being read,” he answers. “But there is devaluation of photography as a profession, which is deplorable. But at the same time what these cameras do is quite astonishing, so you can’t say it’s all terrible because a lot of pictures are quite good.
“Not anybody can take a good picture, but there are thousands and thousands of photographers who can take good pictures. That doesn’t mean they are doing something in the larger art context, and what constitutes art has more ingredients than just what meets the eye. You know, why are you doing it in this time, in this context, in this place and how do you connect that to the decades of artists who went before you?”
Tillmans' art collided with his political views last year when his passion for the UK and Europe was so strong that he campaigned against Brexit through a series of posters that were distributed around Britain and celebrated the positive aspects of EU membership.
“I felt an urgency and imbalance in language between the passion of the Leave side and the lukewarm excitement — or lack of excitement — for the EU.”
Come the referendum last June, he anticipated the Murdoch press, The DailyTelegraph, and the Daily Mail would turn up the heat. Tillmans draws as an example The Sun’s notorious front-page headline from then 1992 General Election. It read: If [Neil] Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.
“There is a viciousness on that side. The EU has its flaws but its flaws are also part of its nature. It is a weak organisation because its strength is that it brings 28 countries together in constant negotiation. I find that a beautiful idea, a very practical idea, and it’s caused great results. Butit’s definitely not something tangible. I felt I had to do something because nobody was talking positively about the EU.”
Now, as Brexit becomes the overriding political issue of the day in the UK, Tillmans worries about a sudden “cancer of nationalism” that is spreading around the world.
“We don’t need separation, we need connection,” he tells me, resigned to the fact that Britain’s future does increasingly look like one of separation from its EU neighbours. He recalls the dark days of the Nineties as the gay community emerged from the Aids crisis and started to successfully challenge anti-LGBT legislation, which had started to look archaic in light of Europe’s more progressive human rights laws.
“There was full-on homophobia in parts of the media and the country but I remained optimistic. In a way things are so much better now, and a lot of this discontent that is so intangible but so real among people of the Western world is strange because things are actually better. There’s better health, food, environment, less pollution, and, of course, around the world there are so many people lifted out of poverty. There’s more democracy. It’s strange that there’s this sense of decline.”
In Tillmans view, our modern age exists in the shadow of the Iraq war. “I titled the exhibition 2017 because it is about a state of now, the state we’re in and I define that with the year 2003, because ‘the now’ is a continuous state that began then with the [anti-Iraq war] demonstrations. Millions of people clearly seeing we we’re doing something wrong and politicians doing it anyway, and the huge rift it caused between Islam and Christians.”
It’s perhaps fitting that when I attend the private viewing of 2017 there’s a copy of Attitude displayed on one of the tables. It features Tony Blair on the cover, shot by the artist himself.
Tillmans muses over whether there is a deeper lust for destruction in human behaviour. “It’s a tragic thought but I spoke to the 90-year-old artist June Leaf, the wife of Robert Frank, in New York last summer and asked what was this desire to break something? She said it was a ‘lust for climax’. To have that from a woman who saw the Second World War, I wonder whether that’s an uncontrollable thought, that people can’t bear 70 years of peace.”
What is the role of art in the debate? Tillmans contends it’s hard to say because one can’t measure how things would have turned out without artists’ contributions to events such as Brexit.
“What one can say is the great advances in civil liberties in the Sixties and Seventies are clearly the result of artists in music, pop, culture, film... in the end politics is always about culture. “You think art is very marginal but ultimately it’s actually what defines peoples and in the end when you go somewhere such as Mesopotamia, all that’s left of a 5,000-year-old culture is artifacts and architecture.”
2017 runs at Tate Modern until June 11