From the Spring 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
It’s snowing when I meet Wolfgang Tillmans RA in Berlin. The streets of Kreuzberg are covered in ice, and I skate tentatively across them to reach the photographer’s studio – a converted 1930s department store designed by the modernist architect Max Taut. Inside, I find a haven of calm and warmth. In the kitchen area, January sun pours through a grid of windows, backlighting a
jungle of potted grasses, ferns and tropical plants. Assistants are quietly chatting, making coffee and
tearing chunks off a fat, freshly baked pretzel.
Tillmans arrives, wearing a bomber jacket, jeans and a beaming, roguish smile. For a spell in the 1990s, he captured the “ecstasy generation” for fashion magazines, developing a quotidian, naturalistic style of photography that would become his trademark. Thirty years on, with “RA” after his name and a Turner Prize under his belt, he still has an aura of youthful, casual cool.
Though he is just weeks away from opening a solo show at Tate Modern (13 years after his Tate Britain retrospective) and another at Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Tillmans seems relaxed, happy to guide me through a series of expansive rooms of the kind you would rarely find in London, where he also lives and works. Recently, he decided to spend more time over here, partly because of leaks in his Bethnal Green studio – “I mean, I had buckets up at night” – but also to “shift the life-work balance. When I was living in London full time I was not doing anything but work, just like everybody else.”
Born in Remscheid, Germany, Tillmans became an Academician in 2013. He doesn’t see himself as a Berliner: “I feel like a European.” For his recent pro-EU campaign he produced T-shirts and downloadable posters with slogans such as “What is lost is lost forever”.
“It’s curious. A year ago the EU thing was about a particular vote. Now this amorphous, nationalist, right-wing sentiment is something that has become the central issue of world politics. And so how, as a sort of avant-garde artist, do you engage with the number one political subject?”
This is something that Tillmans has long been grappling with. Rather than being another retrospective, the Tate Modern show takes 2003 – the year of his Tate Britain exhibition – as a “point of departure”. This was also “the year when the state we’re in now began, with the Iraq War demonstrations, and the breaking of trust between the politicians and the people.”
“The exhibition is only about an idea of now,” he adds, gesturing to a couple of abstract pieces from his ‘Lighter’ series. “You’re not supposed to read some commentary about concrete issues into these works. But all my work has an interest in describing what it feels like to be alive today.”
In adjoining rooms, people are preparing work to be shipped for the exhibition: hand painting the edges of prints so that the white won’t show when they are mounted; wrapping a still-life of a watermelon in plastic. There’s a set of turntables – Tillmans, who has been making music since he was 17, has just released a techno EP and a “visual album”, and is including a “Playback room” in the Tate show. The studio also has a collection of giant printers, including one Tillmans bought with his Turner Prize money. Having worked exclusively with digital photography since 2012, he now retouches and prints all of his own work. “Digital technology has actually made photography more hands-on for me.”
In a corridor, we pass a tree – as a sapling, it appeared in his 1997 US Vogue shoot with Kate Moss. On every surface, objects, prints, pieces of fruit are placed artfully – recalling Tillmans’ still-lifes, as well as the display tables that have featured in his installations. On the walls, snapshots, postcards and posters are pinned alongside original prints – images of the late George Michael, a puppy, Angela Merkel. “My daily work is really about questioning pictures – are they just attractive for the moment? Or are they something more? So I move them, take them down and put them up again. I live with them.”