‘If We Are All That Lonely, It Can’t Be That Bad’: Wolfgang Tillmans on the Universal Thoughts Behind His Heart-Breakingly Visceral Photos
To mark his MoMA survey, we spoke to Tillmans about installation-making, the sneaky power of language in his art, and the allure of outer space.
Few pictures in Wolfgang Tillmans’s new retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York are presented in a frame. Most are pinned or taped up. They adorn nearly every one of the museum’s sixth-floor gallery walls—even the interstitial ones—and are arranged not by row but in clusters, like constellations in the night sky.
The analogy is one the 54-year-old artist himself might appreciate, given his abiding love of outer space. “Astronomy,” he once said, “was my visual initiation into seeing.”
A cosmological awe pervades “To Look Without Fear,” as MoMA’s exhibition is called—even though Tillmans’s subject matter is often quite quotidian. More than 300 of the artist’s photographs are included, each culled from his own collection or printed by him specifically for the show. They span his three-and-a-half-decade career, from his experiments with a photocopier as a student in Germany in the late 1980s and his editorial efforts for Index and i-D magazines in London and New York in the ‘90s, to his darkroom abstractions of the early 2000s and beyond.
But Tillmans’s practice has always resisted strict taxonomies, and that’s true here, too; what’s on display is not a series of discrete bodies of work but a kind of diaristic journey through the artist’s life: his friends and lovers; his work and play; his experience with loss and living with HIV—and his constant consideration of what it means to interpret it all through the technology of photography. No lens-based artist revels in the simple profundity of the medium like Tillmans.
On view now through January 1st of next year, “To Look Without Fear” is a sprawling, years-in-the-making presentation that rightly casts Tillmans among today’s most important working artists. Ahead of the show’s opening, the artist sat down with Artnet News’s Taylor Dafoe at MoMA for a conversation about language, looking back in time, and how staring into the cosmos taught him to appreciate life on earth.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity. To hear the full audio version, download the newest episode of the Art Angle podcast.
I suppose we should begin with the title of the exhibition, “To Look Without Fear.” It reads almost as a kind of mission statement. What does that phrase mean to you?
It comes out of a sentence that I sometimes say. I encourage myself or others to use their eyes without fear, to be playful, to change perspective, to not be afraid of the evidence one sees, to not be afraid of looking life in the eye—which is, of course, also a hope because this can’t always be the case. The world is not always benign and good in that way. It is also a demand, a demand to be in a world where I can look without fear. But the main point comes from this encouragement to use your eyes freely.
You’re someone for whom the totalizing models of surveys, retrospectives, and monographs feels counterintuitive. Your practice is so varied and rarely do your works stay static; you’re often remixing images, changing scales and mediums, and so on. This show isn’t your first career-spanning show, of course, but I think it’s your biggest?
It’s the biggest in scale and in breadth. It’s also rare in the way that it is laid out chronologically—the first time, I think, since “If one thing matters, everything matters” in 2003 at Tate Britain. In my mind, I often think chronologically; I have a very good sense of years, of what happened when and what led to another. But in exhibitions, I often like to have different pictures from different times speak to each other and mix up these temporalities.
For the show at MoMA, it was a welcome change to that. I realized that many people who visit the exhibition won’t even have been born in the 1990s. They don’t know what a room in a gallery in 1994 felt like—or in 2003 for that matter. And so making rooms that transport the feeling through the works from that time—often with the actual original prints that I keep in my studio—was a real eye-opener, a challenge, and a great opportunity for me and the audience.
Do you feel a tension in trying to adapt 30-plus years of your work to the survey format?
It’s an honor, in the first place; I never forget about that. I feel fortunate that there is enough space here to really delve in deep. The tension has been to find ways to feel good about all the works that I had to eliminate. It’s surprising how many there are. It’s been a long process of honing in on what finally constitutes the show as it sits on the sixth floor. It involved, on the one hand, careful work on a model in my studio, but then I also brought more work than I could hang and sounded it out on site. That process took 16 days and nights, hanging the entire show myself with my assistants and with the MoMA team. Many positions and compositions of rooms stayed as planned and others were surprising changes. Altogether, I find that the exhibition feels very free to me. I can actually talk you through each wall and how things connect, though maybe not exactly what they mean. There is a lot of research that went into this and I think that shows.
Unlike most monographic shows, which bring together objects already in circulation and therefore often necessitate loans from collectors and other institutions, this exhibition exclusively features prints from your own studio—many of which you made specifically for the occasion. I know you’ve done that in the past for large-scale shows too. Can you tell me about that process and why you like to work with your own prints for a presentation like this?
It is sort of an accumulation of prints—some, from the ‘90s, were literally handmade by me while other prints might have hung in Tate Modern or in Tate Britain or at the Beyeler [Foundation]. So it’s a cumulative pool of exhibition prints that I keep, really to be able to make the installations that I do. The installations are part of my work; they’re inseparable from what I do. And in order to be free in handling the work, they have to come from myself because otherwise, the museums would not be able to guarantee the lenders. Also, the light levels would be not possible to do the way I want them.
What I can do in an exhibition here that lasts three-and-a-half months is totally responsible and okay for the material; the way I use them, the prints will last many, many years. But in a collection setting, the works are much better if they are C- prints in frames. The unframed inkjet prints from the early 90s, I devised them conceptually to be re-printable. It was, even then, an interest of mine to have low transportation bills and a low environmental footprint. The largest pictures in this exhibition—one is six meters wide and others are three-by-four meters—would be a huge task to transport in stiff segments. So the lightweight inkjet print has had an attraction to me for various reasons now for over 30 years. It’s a trust in the fragility of the object that one can enjoy it whilst knowing that they can be reprinted.
On the other hand, I don’t believe that everything has to be reprinted every day. I enjoy the beauty of the chemistry squares which I made 25 years ago and the value of the paper in the original photocopies from 35 years ago. They looked like they were made yesterday and kept incredibly well. I don’t believe this thought that photography is always a perishable good. There is a beauty to the original materiality. But I can only make these exhibitions if there are not a lot of constraints in place.
Early on in your career, you developed a system of presentation wherein your photographs are printed on varying types of paper and at varying scales, then hung in varying intervals. So what can seem, to some people, like a chaotic cluster of pictures is actually the product of a well-honed formula. When preparing for a show like this, do you have certain formats in mind—say, a specific scale and placement for a specific picture—or do you bring various versions and improvise on the gallery walls?
All exhibitions since ’92 have, underlying them, a matrix of formats that have been present throughout. I haven’t changed it. It’s the 12-by-16 inch or 30-by-40 centimeter C-print, the A3 photocopy, and the 20-by-24 inch or 51-by-61 centimeter C-print. Then the large-format prints are governed by the roll sizes. Initially, they were 119 centimeters; for the last 20 years now they’ve been 135 centimeters. Then there is the postcard size photograph, which is the size at which I originally met the image when it came from the lab. So all the exhibitions have an underlying order of industrial print sheet sizes, which I happily subjected myself to and within which I felt free to do whatever I do—to place an image with all borders on the left, with no border on the right, or with borders all around. I also insist that the paper is the work and that you can’t just trim that off.
The formula creates a rhythm on the wall that is actually not all that mad or chaotic. It’s really an attempt to reflect the way that I look at the world from this chair, looking out that window there, or looking down, seeing a still life on the table, or looking you in the eye, seeing a portrait—all of that is not necessarily linear perception at a 150-centimeter height on the wall. You’re always welcome to try and playfully crack the code but I think it’s important to not to want to read it in the one way that it was intended. Because there are really many points of entry—color, for example, being one.
The show features a new iteration of Truth Study Center, your installation of wooden tables on which you place collaged literature, images, and other found materials that interrogate the ways in which media shapes and distorts the narratives around certain political issues—the Bush-era War on Terror, for example. Included in the MoMA show are two versions of Truth Study Center—one a recreation of a version you first staged back in 2005, and the other a new version, comprising recent materials. How has this project evolved for you since you first created it? Why did you choose to include two versions in this show?
I had no idea back then that the word “truth” would be right at the core of the international political discussion 10 years later. I did ask myself how to continue this project because, initially, it was a collision of sensical and nonsensical items and a reflection of a cacophony of voices. Later tables focus more on how we perceive information, how the brain computes it. For example, there’s one recent table that focuses in on a paper documenting the research of two scientists who found that the visual cortex which connects the retina to the brain is physically not able to transport as much information as would be necessary to see the pictures in the resolution at which we see them, or at which we think we see them. So there is an incredible phenomenon at work where the brain, using data banks of information that it stores somewhere, completes the incomplete picture that is actually translated from the retina.
On the other end of the spectrum are the astronomical advances of the Hubble Space Telescope and the human quest to decipher information at the very edge of visibility. It’s a question of what is information and what is noise. Recently I’ve started interspersing these sentences called “Time Mirrored” that put all of this in sometimes-surprising context. One reads, “Now, from today, 1993 is as far away as the Civil Rights act was in 1993.”
An interest in text and language has always been present in your work, but that interest seems to have grown more pronounced in recent years. MoMA’s recently published book of your collected writings and interviews, Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader, crystalizes this. How has your relationship to language evolved over the course of your career?
Around the late 2000s, I realized that the lectures and talks that I occasionally gave were gathering considerable amounts of people—200, sometimes 500 people—who sat still and attentive for 80 minutes, which is not something to be taken for granted. I started to realize that this is actually a medium in itself.
To jump forward, I have noted and written down thoughts and ideas and sentences with poetic impulses for a long time. And in 2015 I made the jump to music, which was a very early form of expression for myself in the mid-’80s as a teenager.
Even the 2016 anti-Brexit referendum posters, they really came out of language. Initially, I just wanted them to be text posters. And somehow the urgency of that moment allowed me to find words. The role that language played in my work as a slight undercurrent in titles of works and exhibitions in the ’90s and 2000s had become a much more tangible and active element in the last few years. Like this line, “How likely is it that only I’m right in this matter?” It’s just a simple sentence, but when you read it, it just makes you so aware of just how absurd that would be.
Your love of astronomy goes back to when you were a child, and the show includes numerous examples of outer space pictures you’ve made across your career, including one of my favorites: Venus Transit (2004), which depicts the planet Venus passing in front of the sun. That’s a relatively simple phenomenon, but it’s also a profound one. And it seems to me that many of your pictures, even the more quotidian shots, revel in a similar phenomenon of objects coming together or aligning—be they bodies on a dance floor or pieces of fruit on a windowsill. Can you tell me about how your early experiences with astronomy informed your way of looking?
One thing that will always stick with me, which one learns when observing through a telescope, is that not all looking is equal looking. In the eye, for example, we have receptors that are more light-sensitive in the periphery of the retina, while in the core, the receptors are more color sensitive. So in order to see certain objects, you have to look a little bit outside of the object. The way that astronomy taught me how to observe and taught me the importance of exact observation and trusting your eyes—while also knowing the faults and limitations of the eyes— that stays at the core of how I think.
I guess there was also a sense of comfort that came from experiencing the vast infinity and loneliness of space. That can make you dizzy but I always felt that, ‘Well, if we are all that lonely, it can’t be that bad for me personally.’ It’s the same for all seven billion humans and we are in this together. We share this loneliness and there is certain solidarity to that idea that I hope people get from astronomy. The James Webb Telescope is peace work; it brings people together, hopefully. There have been lots of hopes in the space age that it would all bring everybody together. Of course, it still hasn’t done that and the ISS is falling apart and maybe Russians and Americans and Europeans will no longer fly together. But I still full have full faith and hope in astronomy being a really empowering and peace-inducing science and activity.
“Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear” is on view now through January 1, 2023 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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