Currently showing “Apocalypse”, Royal Academy (from 23 September, see pp. 28-29); “Protest and survive”, Whitechapel Gallery (from 15 September); British Art Show, (currently touring UK); Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Britain (from 25 October)
Represented by Maureen Paley/Interim Art
Background Born 1968, Remscheid, Germany; 1990-92 Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design
Track record Solo shows include: 1993: Interim Art, London; ars futura Galerie, Zurich; Daniel Buchholz, Cologne; 1994: Andrea Rosen, New York; 1995: Portikus, Frankfurt; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Kunsthalle, Zurich; Stills Gallery, Edinburgh; 1996: Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg; 1997: “I didn’t inhale”, Chisenhale Gallery, London; 1998: “Fruiciones”, Reina Sofia, Madrid; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; 1999: Sommer Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv; “Space between two buildings/soldiers: the Nineties”, Interim Art, London; Galerie Daniel Bucholz, Cologne; Städtische Galerie, Remscheid
Group shows include 1994: “L’hiver de l’amour”, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris; 1996: New Photography 12, MoMA, New York; 1997: Berlinische Galerie im Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; Projects, IMMA, Dublin; 1998: “The quiet in the land: everyday life: contemporary art and the Shakers”, ICA, Boston; “From the corner of the eye”, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; 1999: “Visions of the body”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; “On the sublime”, Rooseum, Malmo; 2000: The British Art Show 5 (touring); “Some parts of this world”, Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki; “Lost”, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.
You first became known in the early 90s via fashion shoots and photo stories in i-D magazine. This month, at the same time as your photographs are on the walls of the Royal Academy and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, you are also making work for the pages of The Big Issue [a magazine sold on the streets of London by down-and-outs]. What is the relationship between these different outlets?
It’s always been a smaller percentage, but it’s an ongoing potential thing that I use magazines, on the one hand, as an extended exhibition space and, on the other, as a means to make new work. The other aspect that has never been talked about in my work is that I use magazines to get to people and to get to subjects that I otherwise wouldn’t dare approach or wouldn’t have come across. In the early 90s, magazines gave me access to clubs, to musicians, to activists that I was interested in anyway, but it’s hard to wake up one morning and say, “I must go to Scotland and photograph the Fasslan peace camp”, or, “I must go to the next Gay Pride and look in depth at the people and make photographs of them”. You don’t usually do that.
Often images you originally made for magazines later reappear in your gallery exhibitions.
I really do care about both potential environments and I care about them in themselves, as opposed to being interested in the transferral between the one to the other—which you find a lot today with artists doing, say, projects in fashion magazines or fashion photographers and fashion designers doing an art project. I really want my pictures to function as pictures in a magazine. So when I accept a magazine assignment, I consider beforehand whether it’s potentially interesting, and if it is, then I give my very best; I don’t treat it as just a little magazine excursion. I think the backbone to my sustained interest in magazine photography is a fascination with how we represent ourselves and how we negotiate this process between artificiality and so-called naturalness. Because artificiality, I’ve found, can be as real and as natural as naturalness can be artificial.
So the most seemingly casual kind of image, that looks like a spontaneous snapshot, is actually carefully considered. And reciprocally, the most beautifully arranged, formally rigorous still-life at the same time looks as if it could have just been left like that on the table. Nothing is finite or categoric.
That’s something I like to play with, and it’s fascinating because, let’s say, you consider that every snapshot of mine that looks like a snapshot is actually not a snapshot; then I go a step further and say well, actually, some of them are real snapshots. Or they can be c-prints, bubblejet prints, black and whites, colour photocopies...
I find photographs an incredibly difficult thing as an art medium; they are an industrial product and there’s absolutely no individuality to the surface. You’re basically looking at a big sheet of plastic. So it’s been an underlying project of mine over the years to work with understanding and enhancing the beauty of the photograph as an object, but also to understand its shortcomings and playing around with them too.
You do your own colour printing which is unusual for an artist.
When I started to colour print, I just could not understand why the picture didn’t come out the right colour, because our concept of colour photography is that it should represent reality. But of course it’s only a likeness of reality. Then I understood that there isn’t just one colour, and that there really is a very, very personal touch to how a print finally looks. What I like to create for the viewer is the feeling that they don’t even see the picture—they don’t see the effort that goes into the picture—I think effortlessness is the thing that we admire most.
Is the way you install your photographs—often taped or pinned unframed to the wall—part of this aim?
It is never about casualness; it is always about purity. The reason that I have used Scotch magic tape for my prints is not because it was grungy, but because it almost disappears, and they are just pure objects. To maintain the purity of the object is the paramount goal. We always mistrust the spontaneous, but in every second you make a decision, thirty years of knowledge is at work. The moment that you take a picture or decide to place a picture on the wall is not a coincidental decision because there are all these millions of previous decisions and experiences that lie behind it. But again, I don’t want to show the weight of this process.
How do you choose your subjects? You present such a wide range of images, from monochrome abstracts to sewer rats, from newspaper images of soldiers, Moby on a duvet or Concorde climbing the skies. Are they simply what interests you?
Or what I like to make up. Because they are often things that I desire, that I want to see. So making a picture is also about making it real, it allows me to look at it and to feel what it is like. This can only look real when the emotions and the feelings that went into it were real. The fascinating thing about photography is that it cannot lie about the photographer’s intentions.
So even if the scenario is staged, the intention behind it is authentic.
Yes. I believe that you cannot betray authenticity of intent and I think that people appreciate this authenticity. It’s easy to make something look artful, but this “realness” has always been of great interest to me. If something looks real, then it is actually much more powerful because people believe that it really happened, and once something happened it can’t be undone. I am after authenticity of intent, but I’ve never been after authenticity of subject; I’m after universal truth, but not the truth of that moment. Obviously my pictures are very personal experiences, but at the same time I try not to talk about myself directly and say that “This is my friend so and so”, or, “This is us at a party”, or whatever, because then the work is tied to that subject matter, and it doesn’t leave room for the viewers to see themselves in it.
Your photographs have an almost classical quality, while also being very much placed in the here-and-now.
It’s nothing that I chose strategically to move into. When you look at my first Taschen book in 1995, a lot of those pictures are classical portraits, even though the person is maybe sweating in a nightclub or lying on a piss-stained floor in a sex club. I think that the biggest achievement, in a way, is to be of your time, because you cannot programme timelessness. I was never afraid of being contemporary. It’s really all a process of thinking about the world: it may sound a bit grand—and maybe that’s where the classic-ness comes from—but when you get into this territory, I guess life, love, spirituality are all things that move people, and they can’t be reinvented.
And beauty, too.
What I’ve been pursuing in my work is a utopia that is real, or looks real, and which hopefully tries to establish an alternative to the dominant concept of beauty or acceptability. In a way, aesthetics is the battleground of today—Section 28 and all the debates going on right now in this country are about what is acceptable behaviour, which in the end is similar to what’s beautiful and what isn’t. And that’s why I don’t think questions of aesthetics are superficial, because I believe that things are what they look like, and that you can actually deal with the world on face value.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Wolfgang Tillmans'