Wolfgang Tillmans remembers the exact date he first saw a total lunar eclipse: 16 September 1978. He was ten, and had recently received his first “cheap little” telescope as a birthday present. Through it, he watched as the moon moved into the Earth’s shadow. “Astronomy was my first love in life,” he said. “I see it now as my initiation to learning about the importance of careful observation… questioning what I see, and what do I want to see? Astronomy is really about seeing at the verge of visibility. Is this actually a celestial nebula, a phenomenon, or is it just a little blur in your eye? Is it a grain in the film, or is it a star?”
Tillmans, now 55, became an artist rather than an astronomer. But this “sense of locating myself within the solar system” remains fundamental to his practice. The photographer, who was born in Remscheid, western Germany, was speaking in the plant- and poster-filled kitchen of his Berlin studio. It was a snowy December evening and he had arrived in a bright green puffer coat, clasping a packet of Gauloises cigarettes. Now he sat in a multi-coloured hoodie, with glasses of non-alcoholic beer and an apple-flavoured soft drink on the table in front of him.
Tillmans lived in Hamburg before moving to Bournemouth to study in 1990. He then lived briefly in New York before finding a home in London. “I’ve always taken myself very seriously and at the same time I had a sense for absurdity and humour,” he said, with one of his frequent, boyish smiles. He read existentialist French authors such as Albert Camus, while also “putting on make-up in the toilets in Victoria station and loving Culture Club”. This mix of playfulness and sincerity merge in his photography, with which he made his name in the early Nineties via editorial shoots in i-D and Spex. In Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees (1992) two of Tillmans’ friends sit atop branches, naked except for open overcoats. It’s both a quirky image from a fashion shoot and a slyly provocative questioning of what we consider “natural”. By the late Nineties Tillmans was exhibiting regularly throughout Europe and the US, and in 2000 he became both the first photographer and the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize.
It is not easy to trace a clear, chronological development in Tillmans’ artistic work – and you get the sense that he doesn’t want you to try. He is fed up, for example, of people asking him about the two days he spent photographing Kate Moss for Vogue in 1996, preferring instead to discuss the artistic process behind his less glamorous shots, such as Weed, which he took in a London courtyard in 2014, or Rat on Trash Bags, which he took in New York City in 1995.
During his 35-year-long career – which was celebrated earlier this year at a MoMA exhibition in Manhattan, “To Look Without Fear”, now showing in San Francisco – he has photographed raves, lovers, genitalia and Black Lives Matter protests. You might recognise a portrait of Frank Ocean in the shower, which featured on the sleeve of the American rapper’s 2016 album Blonde. Tillmans’ ongoing astronomical obsession is evident too, such as in Sensor Flaws and Dead Pixels (2012), a view of a galaxy from a telescope in Chile, or Venus Transit (2004). And then there are remarkable images that don’t use a camera at all, such as his “Freischwimmer” series, which he makes by shining lights at photographic paper in a dark room.
The development of his body of work is “completely collapsed and over-arching”, Tillmans said. To map out a logical timeline would be reductive. Though there are issues that recur, such as “the politics of representation”, women’s rights and gay rights. Tillmans came out as gay when he was 16, the summer Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” – which he describes as “the first fully out gay pop song” – was in the charts. “I feel a great sense of gratitude for having been born when and where I was,” he said, though his life has been touched by tragedy: his boyfriend, the painter Jochen Klein, died of Aids-related illnesses in 1997. Tillmans lives with HIV. He does not tend to make work specifically about the disease – 17 Years’ Supply (2014), which depicts a box full of empty pill bottles, is an exception – but his photographs have accrued a political significance in the public sphere. The Cock (Kiss), a 2002 portrait of two men kissing, was the subject of a homophobic attack when it was exhibited in Washington DC in 2006. Ten years later, when 49 people were murdered at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Florida, the image was widely circulated online by way of protest. The photograph was most recently used as the cover for Young Mungo, a gay love story by the Scottish Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart.
[See also: Matthew Ball’s cerebral ballet]
When Tillmans won the Turner Prize for his photography, “there were still people questioning if that is even art”. His approachable style meant that his work “was misunderstood… it was often seen as diaristic or that it was just taking in what passes along my way. But I see photographs more like building blocks in the books that I write and the installations that I compose in galleries.” Tillmans is known for his innovative installations, which have been compared to the walls of a teenager’s bedroom, or the page layout of a magazine. He often affixes his prints directly to the gallery wall with pins or tape, eschewing conventional framing practices.
This method of display is “almost as important as the work itself”, said the British artist Jeremy Deller, who won the Turner Prize in 2004, four years after Tillmans, and remembered going to the German artist’s early exhibitions after seeing his pictures in i-D. “No one had really shown work in that way, that apparent looseness. For me it was impressive in that it was very considered but quite casual at the same time. It seemed to me quite poetic.”
Decades on, the way in which Tillmans displays his work remains unusual, Deller said. “The photography world is so conservative. So for someone to go into a museum and then break that down, that framed way of showing photographs – they have to look like this and they have to be matted in a certain way – he exploded that, expanded it, fragmented it. His use of scale, height, and space is really important. Today, still, you walk into these installations and it’s shocking and exciting. It still has that freshness about it.”
Tillmans lived in London until 2007. Since then, he has moved back and forth between the British capital and Berlin. The London that Tillmans found in the early 1990s “had this introspection”, he said. “The YBAs [Young British Artists] were taking all the bandwidth.” After the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993 and the European Union was established, “London’s art world opened up to the rest of the world, and other Europeans opened up galleries there.” In the late 1990s and 2000s “London thrived… from being indisputably the cultural capital of Europe”.
Brexit, Tillmans said, ruined that. He did not have to pay to study in Bournemouth in 1990. Now EU citizens must pay overseas fees, a rule change that has resulted in a halving of EU students enrolling in British universities. This aspect of Brexit “is something that few people care about”, but it dramatically impacts the UK’s arts scene. He looked downhearted. “And that’s – I mean – we don’t need to count, run down, the list of how Brexit impairs cultural exchange.”
Tillmans began to speak up against Brexit when he saw that “the Leave campaign spoke with such passion and Remain didn’t have any poetry, any passion, any positivity. I realised that if this is the distribution of passion in this campaign, then Leave will win, and I personally realised I want to do everything I can up to referendum day to defend this idea that has been the underpinning of my life, European reconciliation and co-operation.”
He launched his own Remain poster campaign. At the time, he understood Brexit as “a Russian project”. One of his posters asked: “If people like Vladmir Putin, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Marine Le Pen and Isis want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?”
“I felt it was a gift to hand it to Russia, who want to break European unity,” he said. “Of course nobody cared at the time, and so much as one can criticise the EU, I see it in the bigger picture, that it is a bulwark of democracy in an increasingly authoritarian world. Now that’s well established. But in 2015, 2016, the writing was clearly on the wall.”
Does Wolfgang Tillmans believe that all artists with public platforms have a responsibility to speak up about politics? “No,” he said. “I think every profession, every baker and every car mechanic and every banker should be more engaged in politics.
“This expectation that all artists per se should have a particular responsibility to be overtly political flies in the face of what I believe about art being directionless research. Or sometimes I like to say that art is useless. And that’s one of its absolute strengths, that it is free of an application, it’s free thought. You can’t box it in [and say] this is good for that: this umbrella is good against rain and this bread is good for eating. Art doesn’t have this one-to-one translation of purpose.”