Wolfgang Tillmans on framing photography as we know it: “I want to bare reality” – Wallpaper* | Ad On Picture

Wolfgang Tillmans shaped the world of photography as we know it. Over a prolific 35-year career, the German photographer has infused his images with an unvarnished intimacy and playful sense of observation. Today his fascination with the everyday is reflected in so many images that surround us. The full extent of his far-reaching influence is felt by walking through his first major survey in New York, which now occupies the entire sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Entitled To Look Without Fear, the impressive retrospective brings together some 350 photographs, videos, and multimedia works, presented for the first time in a loose chronology.

Curated by Roxana Marcoci, Senior Curator of Photography at MoMA, the exhibition is a profound and emotional look back at Tillmans’ career. Spread across 11 galleries, it showcases the artist’s representations of identity, sexuality and gender, his political and social engagement and activism, his fascination with astronomy, science and technological advances, and his passion for music, instruments and composition. An accompanying catalog and a separate volume of interviews and writings entitled a readercomplete this in-depth look at Tillmans’ multi-faceted practice.

Installation view by Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photography: Emile Askey

A culmination of eight years of work – including five dedicated to creating the show and a more than year-long delay due to Covid-19 – To Look Without Fear is intricate and multi-layered. Beginning in 1986 with early abstract experiments using a photocopier, including Tillmans’ first self-portrait, it soon gives way to images documenting the development of his non-confrontational style representing sexuality and gender in the mid-1990s. Notable works include his odes to club culture, as seen in chemistry squares (1992) a series of intimate close-ups captured in a single evening at the weekly Chemistry party at London’s Soundshaft nightclub. Elsewhere, the artist’s obsession with Concorde is captured in a wall grid of 56 photographs taken in 1997, documenting the plane’s takeoffs and landings. There’s a nice tension in drawing attention to the mundane—rather than elevating it, Tillmans acknowledges it for what it is.

“This insistence on honesty was at the core of what I wanted to convey in the early 1990s,” says Tillmans a week before the opening. “To look at life honestly and to take me and my generation seriously, not to look at us as a passing phase or as crazy young people, but to look at the seriousness of life, which I now say without fear. I felt all the joy and exuberance of celebrating, but I also felt the burden of existence. It’s hard to be alive and hard to endure this misery. I think that’s what sets [those pictures] a part. It’s not something that can be claimed because it can’t be faked. I want to expose reality. Somehow the pictures show reality and life in its complexity and beauty, but it’s not glossed over either.’

Wolfgang Tilmans, The Rooster (Kiss) (2002). Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

This authenticity is particularly pronounced in Tillmans’ design of the exhibition, which he personally set up with his studio team in 16 days. Contrary to institutional conventions, the work oscillates between sticking it on, hanging it up with bulldog clips and mounting it in frames on the walls. There are also magazine pages and collections of newspaper clippings by the artist, printed and displayed with equal deference. The scales and formats in which images were printed and displayed were also designed specifically for MoMA and reflect Tillman’s desire to create a visual democracy. By ignoring institutional norms and signals, the installation assigns new values ​​to the works on display.

“I like it when the viewer ascribes value [to images in] how they see things for themselves and are not guided by a system [like] the largest picture is the most important and the smaller ones are flotsam or side dishes,” he says, while explaining how a small picture of a Shaker building in Maine (Shaker Rainbow, 1998) was actually presented as a 12 foot high print in another major museum exhibit. “It’s really a matter of game; I wanted to keep a playful nature in creating this exhibit because that element also led to other exhibits that people loved and just because I did those exhibits I ended up in MoMA. It was important not to let the unusual nature of the environment bother you.”

Installation view by Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photography: Emile Askey

He adds: “When the first discussions started, MoMA was still holding two parallel exhibitions on the sixth floor. In 2019, this policy changed with the opening of the new building [by Diller Scofidio + Renfro], and since then they’ve opened occasional one-person shows throughout the floor. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been brought forward as the first exhibit to reopen the sixth floor, [which] was closed since the Donald Judd exhibit [in 2020].’

“Now that I’m looking at 35 years of work, it justifies me actually putting it in chronological order, which I don’t normally do in exhibitions,” he continues. “A large part of the audience probably wasn’t old enough or even born to have seen my shows in the 1990s, so I wanted to give people that experience, to see the work in the context of their own time and to revisit it its relevance.’

Installation view by Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photography: Emile Askey

Because so much of Tillman’s past and present work focuses on forging togetherness and human connections, there is an added poignancy that comes with opening up retrospectively after people have weathered prolonged periods of isolation. The opening rooms of the exhibition and a wealth of candid portraits and documentary imagery depicting youth subcultures, fashion and music from the late 1980s and early 1990s revive the original theme with a deeper resonance, simply by capturing what we were recently deprived – exuberance, spontaneity, physical contact.

“There’s something quite spiritual about the kindness of people going out and sharing a safe space in a club,” Tillmans muses. “I often feel like a loving club moment isn’t that dissimilar [to a spiritual experience] because there is a feeling of solidarity, that’s the only thing we have. The word sounds kind of socialist, but solidarity really just means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes or thoughts.”

Wolfgang Tilmans, silver 152chromogenic print, (2013). Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

Empathy is a fundamental element in the artist’s work, even beyond Tillmans’ portraiture. His ‘Silver’ works from the 2000s, in which photographic paper is run through an intentionally uncleaned developer, capture unpredictable chemical reactions, encounters and reflections, which are then magnified and provoke introspective reflections on existence and humanity. There are also newcomers Truth Study Center (since 2005), featuring collections of photocopied news articles, printed online stories, photographs and other ephemera, collage-like intermingling on architectural display tables, continuing the artist’s interrogations of what we believe to be truth.

The survey also notably includes Tillmans’ very first listening room, which housed his first full-length album, moon in earth light, created mainly during the pandemic, makes its debut. Each of the album’s 19 tracks is accompanied by a video work that ranges from shots of hermit crabs on the beach to strips of paper arranged on a photocopier’s bed, creating a complete, sensual experience that deals with the interpersonal and at the same time both articulating the strength and fragility of relationships.

Installation view by Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photography: Emile Askey

“Wolfgang’s interest in new forms of technology stems from his very early involvement in astronomy and his passion for understanding his own position [in] in a larger planetary context,” says exhibition curator Roxana Marcoci. “One can really understand how his work transcends genres and explores the intersections between nightlife and portraiture, cameraless abstractions and documents of the social.

Regardless of format or medium, Tillmans continues to bring authenticity and sincerity to his images, which is especially powerful in an age when almost everyone has a camera in their hands.

‘As I look through them [MoMA] I can really tell why something is where it is and what it means in this ongoing contemplation of thought [about] what pictures mean today and what making pictures means. When I started, I had no idea that photography would become so central to everyday life, and [that] the work [would] it’s still its own territory,” he muses. “I’ve always wanted my photos to look like what it feels like when I look through my eyes.” §

Wolfgang Tilmans, Freischwimmer 230 (Freischwimmer 230, 2012). Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

Leave a Comment