FOLAKUNLE OSHUN'S INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG TILLMANS
Wolfgang Tillmans on his “Fragile” Lifework by Folakunle Oshun

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Wolfgang Tillmans on his “Fragile” Lifework
by Folakunle Oshun


Before I met Wolfgang Tillmans at his Berlin studio in March 2020, I had been told by friends there was really nothing new to write about the artist, and it seemed most of the themes in his practice had been covered in other writings. The exhibition partners advised me to focus on Fragile, his ambitious exhibition, which is soon to open in Lagos. This seemed like good advice, but I was more curious about the man: What made him tick? What did he think about his art in a space like Berlin with countless other artists sharing a similar aesthetic?

I arrived at Tillmans’s studio early, and in the most authentic Berlin fashion, I was offered coffee and cake as I waited for the artist. He soon arrived, and we began.

First, he gave me a tour of his studio, explaining in detail the processes involved in producing some of the work installed on his studio walls. When our conversation began, we swayed from the materiality of his work to the inspiration behind his photographs. One thing became apparent: Tillmans immerses himself into his work to such an extent that there is no actual differentiation between the artist and his work.

When we got to the subject of his forthcoming exhibition, he told me Fragile was not explicitly created for the city, but, even so, as a Lagosian, I could identify points of convergence.

With a population of 22 million people and counting, Lagos, naturally, is presented as a tough place to live. A 2019 article by the World Economic Forum suggests that Lagos and eleven other cities across the world will be submerged in water by 2100. In contrast to the hitherto hostile and gritty character of the city, we can begin to perceive Lagos’s urban and ecological space as fragile. A shoreline exposed to the fierceness of the Atlantic strikes a parallel with the political and social uncertainties plaguing Lagos’s inhabitants. Both the city and its people have a measure of fragility in their lives; this is what makes Lagos Lagos.

When Fragile finally lands in Lagos, it will be interesting to see what other connections will be made between the city and Tillmans’s exhibition. Perhaps an emotional exchange is expected. The artist’s approach expresses the fragility of life and removes boundaries whether through unframed photographs or exposing the edges of his prints, or manipulating techniques and conventions that lend his abstract works sculptural and self-reflective qualities. The city of Lagos, I imagine, might conceive of Tillmans’s unconventional borders as the Atlantic unleashed!

Enjoy the transcript of our interview below.

Folakunle Oshun (FO): I have been thinking about how a Lagos audience would perceive your work.

Wolfgang Tillmans (WT): That’s an interesting question. Everybody, at least in West Africa, seems to think that Lagos is the coolest and probably the leading city.

FO: I think we’re noisemakers. We’re loud. I mean, there’s a lot of talent in Lagos; there’s lots of pedigree and history, but it’s a city that accentuates whatever you put there, and it magnifies it. So we just take on this position of leadership. There’s a vast population, so many people are quite receptive, and people are open to new ideas. The people are super aspirational, so whatever finds its way to Lagos is amplified.

WT: Does religion not hamper that?

FO: I wouldn’t say it hampers it. It shapes it. As compared to ten years ago, the art scene in Lagos is much more open-minded and liberal, but, yeah, religion is still a huge part of our existence. I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think it’s sort of a necessity to respond and survive in a super harsh environment. As the saying goes, “religion is an opium of the poor.” It’s the only other thing; it’s either that or depression. But back to your work.
Most people I talked to here say, “Oh! The early 90s underground Berlin . . . this was the guy.” This movement – making images of random people, portraits, the underground, the gay scene, all of that. But I’m reading your most recent publication, and it’s extremely political. So, did your gaze change over this period or were you also political at that time, and what was the politics of the day?

WT: That was the politics of the day. I was very aware at the time that these free spaces that opened up were not normal, they could be taken away again. So any kind of free space for self-expression through music, dance, clothing: I never saw it just as a hedonistic private space but as political because the political always deals with what is acceptable in society. Let’s say the gay situation, for example: Are two men kissing acceptable or not – visually? Are we allowed to look at that or not? A woman undressed; is that acceptable or not? Those are questions to which one would say, “Oh yes, but that’s private, that’s her matter, or that’s their matter.” But if you’re free to wear whatever you want, there’s always a political preference behind it. And that was what I felt very acutely aware of.

FO: What was the sentiment back then? What was acceptable?

WT: A strong feeling was that there was a loss of hierarchy. For example, in clothing, in class, the 80s were dominated by power dressing.

FO: Just in Berlin or in all of Germany?

WT: I was already living in London at the time, and my perspective was from there. I had a strong sense of Europe without the Iron Curtain, the end of the division between East and West, a continent coming together. Even style-wise, there was house music and rave music and a total loss of dressing-up culture.Everybody was just wearing jeans and T-shirts or old army clothes.

FO: What would you say was responsible for this?

WT: I guess it was a quest for something real, which is, of course, always tricky territory. What is real? The 80s was the decade of postmodernism, which allowed the crossbreeding of any kind of meaning, and that’s what informed me as a teenager growing up. But then maybe the disorientation was created in the early 90s. I was interested in reality, not in pretences, or hubris and arrogance. It’s difficult because it’s easy to end up in binaries of the 80s and 90s, and say the one was superficial and the other deep.
Once I was 22, I ended up reading meaning anew in the individual and taking things for what they are. I wanted to photograph my contemporaries just as I saw them, not the way I was supposed to see them or the way that advertising wanted us to see them or as adults wanted to see young people. Back then, young people were depicted as making funny gestures or being crazy or acting up as if they wanted to apologise for being young and ...

FO: Would you use the word “random”?

WT: No, I really don’t like the word “random.” I mean, randomness is a given, and it’s an foundation of my work that randomness underpins our existence because we cannot control everything. We define random as something beyond our control, or an arbitrary decision to focus on one moment in time. But I don’t like the use of the word “random” because then it suggests that the resulting work is random too.
I prefer to talk about the specificity and quality of the moment, and that is very rich when you open up to look at it in depth, and that’s where the term “everyday” comes into play when talking about my work. It’s about appreciating the specialness of the everyday rather than making the everyday look shitty and sort of getting away with it. That’s not the approach. It’s about being attentive and carefully observing our environments. One might feel solidarity with others by intensely experiencing the shared reality of the physical world.I feel there is a bridge one can build between different people when I get a sense that someone else sees the absurdity of human existence and, at the same time, the beauty and the pointlessness. When that becomes tangible in the picture, that’s maybe what art can accomplish: to somehow establish common ground. FRAGILE Wolfgang Tillmans

FO: My first time in Berlin was five years ago. It was my first time in Europe as an adult, and some of the names that popped up at every museum were Ólafur Elíasson, Tino Sehgal, Wolfgang Tillmans, etc. I thought, “Who are these people?”
Much of the photography I saw looked similar, specifically photography from the 90s. My friend Eva-Maria Ocherbauer documented similar things. And I asked myself, why does Tillmans stick out all the time? What is it about your work? What sort of responsibility do you feel for being that one person that stands out in how you’ve shaped popular culture?

WT: I guess when I started taking pictures of Berlin in 1991, there was still all that political turmoil from 1989. There were not that many others that photographed like that, and when constantly working within a period, five years make a huge difference. You know when someone does something in 1991 and someone else in 1996, and then others in 1999 and 2002, they often have their own moment of genesis, of how they arrived at a picture which doesn’t have to be influenced by previous years of work, even though it often is. But for acute observers of culture at the time, many people recognised that I was doing something new. And my way of hanging was something that hadn’t been done before.

FO: What informed that?

WT: It was really a fascination for the magic, the mystery of photography. It’s another type of picture-making, the ability to turn something mechanical into something with individual charge and meaning. It is something that I find a wonder, something I cannot fully explain.
Ultimately I see it as an act of transformation of this industrially produced paper that becomes something else. There’s always the conceptual question: What is this thing actually? And I wanted to accentuate that and talk about it by showing these photographs that fascinate me so much as these vulnerable and fragile sheets that they are. Which brings me to the title of the exhibition. Rather than hide that fragility, I wanted to admit it. Instead of hiding the edges inside a frame or behind a mount, I wanted to show the vulnerable, fragile edge of the print. And twenty years later, I ended up making works that, even more so, talk about this fragility – exposing the edges, and yet they are extremely strong and powerful because they are supported by nothing. They all rely only on themselves rather than fantastic expensive frames or presentations around them. So these installations are like a test for each one of the prints to be challenged, to shine on the basis of their own strength.

FO: What’s your relationship with money? I ask because people are obsessed with framing stuff and hanging stuff. Was it ever “I’m making photography to make money” or rather “just expressing myself and, hey, whatever happens”?

WT: When exhibiting my works in 1993, I made my prints accessible and started with what would be now 200 euros for a handmade print in an edition of ten, but I also hung magazine pages in the same show. They cost 50 cents, and I hung them side by side and declared them both to be authentic works of mine. I see them as complementary and not contradictory. I was soon able to live off the sales of the prints, and I stuck to the same conceptual strategy that the printed magazine page is a work of mine as well as the limited edition print. At the time, people didn’t think this was conceptually conceived by me but they thought this was a magazine photographer switching to art. However it was a conscious decision to go into magazines because I saw them as relevant at the time.

FO: Did you ever do fashion photography?

WT: In the early years, I found that the fashion pages in magazines were often the only pages where you could show pictures that were not about something. It was a different, innocent time because now every fashion page has to show a handbag and the name of a paid advertiser.
I had a great interest in clothes and have made photographs of them. These works were published in i-D magazine, which had a strong relevance in fashion. I never pursued fashion photography and always styled the models myself, but I never made photographs for advertising purposes. I was never a commercial photographer except if you consider working on stories for magazines as commercial work.

FO: Has Berlin been your flip board, the base from where you’ve been inspired to create? Is this your city?

WT: No, that’s London. I moved to England in 1990 and to London in 1992. I lived and worked there for twenty years until 2011 when I moved to the studio here, and I still live in London now. I made all the works I was first known for in London visiting Berlin. So it’s funny that I am so associated with 90s Berlin because I didn’t really live here. It was only on particular visits and moments. Maybe that outside perspective allowed me a certain privilege. There’s a particular perspective I had as an expat German looking at London, looking at Germany and also looking at Europe and then going to America. I moved to New York in 1994 for two years and my career kind of started almost at the same time in different places. It’s important to note that the works hung in this room where we are sitting are works from the early 90s because this is the hanging for the first room at my MoMA New York exhibition. Also, the work I will show in Lagos is not all thirty years old.

FO: Is it more of this? (Pointing to other works in the studio)

WT: Yes, more of this, more abstract work done without the camera.

FO: To me, this group of work (pointing to another group of abstract works hanging in another part of the studio) suggests that you’re nearing the end of your career or at a blurry part in your career where you are almost done with composition and imagery, as it’s getting heavily philosophical.

WT: Yes, that would maybe be a correct observation – if these were made now, but these works are actually from 2006 and 2010, so they are more than ten years old. Since then, I’ve gone into digital photography and reinvented my work. I became hungry for the camera again, so there’s a whole different type of photography made with the camera that is also in the Fragile exhibition, which I first sort of crystallised in a book called Neue Welt.

FO: Does fragility extend to your person?

WT: That’s something that strangely I did understand as a teenager, that the sort of ignorance and resistance against it was futile, and I can only win by accepting my fragility and mortality. I had a strong sense of wanting control, of wanting to hold on but ultimately knew that it would lead to unhappiness, and we have to let go. I found that people who struggle with their own fragility often end in rage, and they destroy others and make others unhappy and then themselves.

FO: I have a generic photography question. What’s your relationship with light and darkness? Where do you come from, from the light or the darkness?
WT: Let’s say I come from lightness. But I’m sure you’ve heard it before that there’s only one with the other. At least you can only appreciate one with the other. It is the contrast between the two that makes life taste and look the way it tastes and looks. If there was only darkness, or if you want to say positive and negative, then it’s the amplitude that makes everything actually discernible. I don’t see it this way. My work is really about all the shades of it. It is one picture that is joyful, and it’s at the same time fragile, deep, colourful, monochrome, and it’s many things, so that’s where I come from. Light and darkness are co-dependent.

FO: Were your trips to South Africa, Yaoundé and Addis Ababa, etc., exploratory in any way? Were you there to learn?

WT: They were very much places that were important for me to go. I go to all my exhibition installations because I place the artworks myself. But there we were working with local people, usually some artists that help with installing as a job. There is the sharing of techniques, and I’m all the time looking and learning and seeing how things are done in other countries, which has been fascinating to me right from when I started to show in Italy or France. You think this is how it might go, and it might go differently from what you expect, and then you realise it’s a matter of seeing. We’re often more similar than we think.

FO: Do you have any anxieties about these trips?

WT: I would say maybe at the beginning of this touring exhibition. That was in 2018 in Kinshasa, and I was anxious about potential misunderstandings. For example, what is the direction of the cultural transfer? But then, at the first exhibition in Kinshasa, I realised that it’s not cultural imperialism because while it is obviously powered by money from Germany, there are a lot of Congolese artists here but not many German artists go to show their work there. I came to believe it really is an act of exchange and of serving each other.

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