Tate Modern of London presents 2017, a new exhibition of the acclaimed photographer. Taking the year 2003 as the starting point, Tate will focus on Wolfgang's last 14 years of work, and his specific engagement with political issues, from climate change and gay rights to, most recently, the refugee crisis. We caught up with Helen Sainsbury, Head of Programme Realisation, and Emma Lewis, assistant curator, to gain an in-depth look at the iconic work of the internationally recognized artist.
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Very short hair, basic tees paired with denim and a cup of coffee in his hand. That’s the picture that comes to my mind when someone mentions Wolfgang. Whether he is capturing landscapes, still lifes or portraits, his images represents a need to self-document and a fixation to make something new through experimentation.
Tillmans made his name in the 90s, photographing the acid house scene for i-D magazine. Why did you decide to focus the exhibition on his production from 2003 to present?
The majority of the works on display have been produced since 2003. It was at this time that global events prompted Tillmans to address different sets of political and social concerns in his work. It was also from the mid-2000s that he began to examine how the cultures around new technologies – from the proliferation of online news outlets to digital cameras that enable us to see subjects in unprecedented detail – increasingly shape our understanding of the world today.
What approach has been used for designing the exhibition? He became known as much for the way he showed the pictures as for the images themselves. As far as Tate’s exhibition is concerned, can you tell us how it will be structured?
2017 is not a retrospective. From the very first discussions with Tillmans we set out to make an exhibition that would emphasise his extended practice and therefore we wanted to include works such as his Playback room, a space specifically configured for listening to music in the gallery, and Instrument, a recent video work of Tillmans dancing rhythmically, accompanied by a soundtrack created by digitally distorting the sound of his own footsteps. Of course the exhibition will feature an array of his photographic works, and the rooms in the exhibition have been specially configured by Tillmans as a personal response to the present moment. His Truth study center project, an installation of photographs, newspaper cuttings and other ephemeral material displayed in table vitrines may prompt us to reflect on contemporary issues. There will also be an opportunity to experience his recent work in music and sound when he takes over Tate Modern’s south Tank for ten days in March with an immersive new installation and a series of live events.
What differences are significant of his transition from analogue to digital photography?
One of the aspects of photography that Tillmans draws our attention to in 2017 is the impact of digital technologies on photography and printmaking, in his own work and in the world in general. In some of the works that feature in the exhibition, many of which are from his body of work Neue Welt, you will see details of everyday natural or man-made objects that Tillmans has shot very close up and printed at a very large scale. The fact that they can be printed at this size, in the beautiful velvety textures of inkjet prints today, with extraordinary depth of detail and colour – to create this object, the photographic print, is of as much importance to the meaning of the work as the subject matter itself.
Global issues, such as climate change, gay rights and, most recently, the refugee crisis, have stimulated Tillmans as an artist. How do you think he reflects the destabilization of the world through his photographs? Why do you think it’s important to connect art with social issues?
In terms of thinking about how the political is reflected in Tillmans’s photographs, it’s helpful to consider his interest in the social. That is, how we as citizens choose to participate in our communities and society at large. In his photographs we might see instances of people protesting, marching, holding placards – moments where the political is active and explicit – but we might also see images of people dancing, hanging out; images that feel warm and celebratory, but that also address the important issue of where people can go to today feel safe, and included. Another aspect of the political in his work is his consciousness of using his resources as an artist and prominent figure, whether that be the physical resources of his non-profit exhibition space, Between Bridges, or his relatively recent embrace of social media as a platform to speak out on important issues.
Tillmans came long before the existence of digital photo-sharing platforms, but he has always seen photography as a social medium. Do you think pictures are replacing words as messages, as Tillmans once said about selfies and restaurant Instagramming? How would you describe the current situation of the contemporary art scene in response to this insane speed of picture consumption on platforms such as Instagram?
It’s within contemporary art and more generally – to talk about images today in terms of volume, speed and consumption, but I think we are still getting to grips with what these terms actually mean; certainly a lot of the most exciting artwork is being created today as artists grapple with those questions. (Incidentally, people spoke of technology-related concerns in a similar way in the 1920s, and this is when some of the most groundbreaking photography was created!) Today, we see artists who grew up with the Internet incorporating certain aesthetics into their work – GIFS and memes and stock photography, and so on – creating a new visual language. Tillmans is not of this generation, but anticipated similar concerns from early on. In his work the idea of consumption in relation to the Internet is as more specific to the circulation of information, and particularly truth, rather than images in general. In Truth study center, he lays out examples of online and print media in such a way as to draw to attention to how information is conveyed to us and the gaps in knowledge or information. He first began making the work in 2005; 12 years later, when ‘post truth’ has entered the vernacular, its startling how prescient this has become.
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Lampedusa, 2008
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Tukan, 2010
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Astro crusto, 2012
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Weed, 2014