German-born artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans creates images that are instantly arresting in their intimacy. Moments congealed in time, that you feel priviliged to have gotten a glimpse of. I truly got into his work as a student and to me it’s quite telling that I felt compelled to give away a collection of his photographs as an early anniversary gift, feeling that this kind of beauty needs sharing with the one I love most. You may have recently gotten entranced by his musical endeavours or ensnared by – rightfully – staring at Frank Ocean’s ‘Blond’ cover for too long. You’re not the only one. Tillmans both influenced and captured an entire generation with his seminal snapshots of early 90s zeitgeist and club kid life, his works of sociopolitical critique - especially on migration and identity politics - and his unfiltered portraiture of queer life. He has stirred our collective consciousness as both an artist and documentarian.
With a career spanning almost 30 years, more than 40 books and catalogues published, 2 EP’s out, dozens of exhibitions held and as the first photographer ever to win the prestigious Turner Prize in 2000, it feels no more than natural that a new exhibition is at bay. Wolfgang Tillmans’ first-ever solo expo at Tate Modern, named ‘Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017’, opens on Wednesday February 15. The exhibition explores the world we find ourselves in today and the issues we face, from climate change to the refugee crisis. You can get up-close with a stunning range of work from photographs to video and music installations, slide projections, curatorial projects and publications. The expo’s starting point is 2003, the moment Wolfgang Tillmans feels the world changed due to the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent global demonstrations against the war. It’s not a retrospective but a look into the artist’s consciousness. High time to get better acquainted with this icon of contemporary culture, wouldn’t you agree?
EARLY DAYS & A PHOTOCOPIER
A trip to the museum introduced kid Wolfgang to the works of Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Andy Warhol, some of his earliest influences growing up in West Germany during the Iron Curtain days. Living with document-every-walk-outside parents, Tillmans didn’t feel the need to start photographing for himself until his late teens when he went on a holiday with his friends. He inevitably got drafted into army service but as a conscientious objector he got slapped with 20 months of community service instead. He ended up at a Hamburg mobile health service and started messing around with the office photocopier, blowing up his own pictures and found images to 400%, a technique he often revisited later. With these A3-sized copies he organised his first expo at a small gay café that let him use their space.
During a student exchange to England, Tillmans felt drawn towards British youth culture and he started to explore his sexual identity to the tune of Culture Club and Bronski Beat gigs (a brief affair with the band’s keyboard player ensued). He became really inspired by Peter Saville’s New Order record sleeves and the pages of i-D magazine, who first published snaps he sent in of his xtc-addled Hamburg club days in 1989. He moved to Bournemouth to study art at Poole College of Art and Design a year later and relocated to London after two years, where his most iconic early work was shot. Wolfgang Tillmans’ portraits of his friends, most notably the series featuring school mates Alexandra Bircken and designer Lutz Huelle, sometimes dressed as New Romantics, turned out to be some of the most important documents of early 90s youth culture.
Fuelled by techno and acid house, Tillmans portrayed club culture the way no one had before, unfiltered and interspersed with nudity and sexuality. His 1991 i-D magazine series ‘Techno is the sound of Europe’ is a precious time capsule of the European club scene, from Ghent to Frankfurt and back to London. His first true solo expo, with photographs DIY-taped to the walls of Daniel Buchholz’s gallery in 1993, truly kicked off his career as an artist as the industry took note of his now-treasured iconoclastic approach. The art world remained suspicious of his motivations for a long time though, as his work was perceived to be motivated by commercial interests instead of artistic ones.
Tillmans went on to immortalise youth in the 90s, most heartwrenchingly in a series he made around the time of his boyfriend Jochen Klein’s death caused by HIV/AIDS-related illnesses in 1997, with only one month’s warning before he passed. The still life photographs and images of their final moments together are a haunting testament to a devastatingly dark time in queer history. Tillmans later designed the AIDS memorial in Munich, dedicated to all those affected.
YOUR FAVE’S FAVE
A Wolfgang Tillmans portrait is both a stark but idealistic affair. He has shot a wide array of artists from Arca, John Waters, Chloë Sevigny and Bernhard Willhelm to Morrissey and Lady Gaga. His knack for always observing his surroundings, from nature to cityscapes, combined with a relentless social curiosity has influenced today’s Instagram set no end. That high-flash party shot of partygoers lost in a kiss you’ll see racking up likes on your feed is exactly what Tillmans was doing 20 years prior. Though he’s not a fashion photographer by definition, Wolfgang Tillmans’ work has steadily appeared on the pages of i-D or Fantastic Man throughout the years and he even walked in the Hood By Air SS17 show. He's your fave’s fave.
Though his portraits and intimate club scenes have garnered him the most fame over the years, Wolfgang Tillmans’ abstract phase starting at the end of the 90s - induced by a fascination with the chemical workings of photography – equally deserves close inspection. His sculptural imagery of photographic paper rolls and darkroom manipulations with coloured ink inspired by printer jams are fascinating experiences that draw you into alternate realms. After years of shooting analogue-only, he experienced a bit of a crisis with his medium ten years ago and switched to digital photography in order to expand into an entirely different set of artistic tools. This resulted in the beautiful tome named ‘Neue Welt’ portraying a globally connected and infinite world by showing empty streets and sky views. Though much of his work is seemingly random, you shouldn’t mistake it for being to just that. His images are ‘calls for attentiveness’, as Tillmans recently stated.
Those calls for attentiveness are heavily based in the political, a quick look at the Wolfgang Tillmans Instagram account full of article blurbs focusing on the lies coming out of the Conways and Spicers of the world will tell you just that. This acute urge for activism is nothing new, if you remember the part where Tillmans declined to participate in any army practices at a smooth 18 years old. His Truth Study Center series, made up of newspaper clippings, nudes, and portraits most notably drew attention in 2005 to the political idealogies and religious disputes of the time. In 2006, Tillmans launched ‘Between Bridges’, a non-profit exhibition space created to counter artistic censorship, currently located in Berlin. And just last year, Wolfgang Tillmans ardently campaigned for the UK's Remain camp by creating a poster series urging voters to reconsider their Brexit vote to leave. He also solely dedicated the Between Bridges space to projects pertaining to the refugee crisis.
WITH THIS APPLE APPLIANCE
2016 saw the release of Wolfgang Tillmans’ biggest passion project to date: his two first EP’s. The first one, ‘2016/1986’, featured deep cuts from early recordings as well as new material, parts of which famously ended up on Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’ mixtape after Tillmans took Frank to the legendary Berghain techno temple in Berlin (where portraits made by the artist adorn the club’s Panorama Bar). Last year also marked the launch of his band Fragile’s visual album ‘That’s Desire/Here We Are EP’ featuring Hari Nef, which we delved into earlier. If it was your belief that Frank Ocean’s ‘Blond’ cover was the first time Wolfgang Tillmans worked on music visuals, you should definitely check out the perfectly bizarre video he directed for The Pet Shop Boys in 2002. Music has always defined Wolfgang Tillmans’ work.
Those are but a few highlights from the past, there’s plenty to look forward to. The Tate expo, of course, but also a new book to accompany it published by David Zwirner Gallery. Wolfgang Tillmans’ work will also be featured in an upcoming MCA Chicago expo dubbed ‘Eternal Youth’, focusing on the concept of coming-of-age in art history, alongside Larry Clark and Mona Hatoum. In times when artful resistance is crucial and needs the most support, you’d do well to really immerse yourself in this artist’s microcosm of conscious beauty.