This is your first retrospective in New York. How does it feel for you to be in New York and to exhibit in New York?
When hanging up the exhibition, I noticed how present New York is in it. It was very inspiring when I first came here in the mid-90s and then moved. And it’s been super productive, it’s been a very productive time. And in a way, I feel like once you’re a New Yorker, you kind of always stay that way. In the last twenty-five years that I haven’t lived here I’ve felt a strong connection and connection, also because it’s such a powerful place for art galleries and past visits have also always been visually stimulating, and the scene and the different Evolutions of nightlife moments – you know, the photo of the Spectrum that’s in there. And it’s a special audience – I think my New York audience is perhaps the most informed of any city, because there are people I meet who have seen every single one of my exhibitions since 1994. I find that New Yorkers really go to galleries and really see exhibitions.
Has the delay in the exhibition changed much? I mean it’s a completely different world than what it was intended for – or maybe not. But so many issues you’ve explored in your work for decades seemed to have exploded in recent years.
What I want to avoid is saying that [history] had to get out. But this year, 2014, I was in St. Petersburg three times and took this Crimean invasion much more seriously than the general public, and then I got to grips with the censorship there and the issues of persecution of homosexuals or the denial of LGBT rights deals. That was a trailblazer, you know – LGBT rights are always a trailblazer. And I’ve sometimes felt like, oh my god, we’ve made so much progress over the past few years, and it was assumed that those rights were here to stay. And now we see that America’s hard right is indeed poised to take it next, after Roe v. Wade and of course in Russia, it goes backwards. And because I’ve always looked at the world through that special civil rights lens that being gay has given me, I’ve somehow been able to see the issues brewing in the world, perhaps in a more acute way that it can and will really affect me .
By the pandemic I mean this is the second pandemic in my life. That was an awareness that people who lived through it AIDS Pandemic had: We’ve been here before, but we were here all alone back then – in that ’80s era when people were literally left alone and the President of the United States didn’t mention the word for years after it was discovered and named. These questions of immunity and disease are something I’ve thought about my entire life. Personally, I didn’t like all this change rhetoric [about the pandemic], just because I think, why does everything have to change? I want to go back and go to a sweaty club, or I want to be able to hug other people, and I never wanted to fall into some sort of catastrophe or permanent change. But you can tell that some things are broken, right? Or didn’t really come back.
like what Anything special?
I think of the fragility of supply chains. Indeed, the rate of consumption is unsustainable, and there are not enough people to provide the services that hyper-connected city life demands. I find that disturbing.
After the pandemic, there was something like a glitch in the matrix or something like the thing seemed seamless and then it wasn’t.
Yes, and somehow I don’t know. Does it feel like this error persists?
It’s gotten a lot better, but the summer of 2021 has been really weird. People have been harmed by the isolation. And then when people started gathering again, it took a while before it felt happy. I’m not saying it wasn’t happy, but something hadn’t been addressed. I don’t know how it felt in Berlin.
Yes, the emotional damage is greater than I initially expected as people got lost or lost hope. And now this super-existential threat from Russia is contributing to that mindset. In Berlin, I find it very disturbing that there is this imperialist force on our doorstep that is not arguing rationally. The philosophy, if you can call it that, that Putin and his crew have is completely incomprehensible. I have the feeling that Western Europe is a small island in a field of dwindling democracy and dwindling freedom. We still have a political discourse of civility and reason that has completely collapsed in the United States, and to see this leading country that saved the world in 1945 so close to embracing autocracy is very disturbing . Obviously I cannot change American politics. I can’t change China or Russia. But what I can do is try to work in the Western European context, where there is somehow stability and openness, and remind people of the value of these things.
Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader features a poem you wrote in 2020 in response to protests following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. And one phrase caught my eye that I was unable to look back on history.