24. May 2016

Stereotypes are something artist Wolfgang Tillmans avoids at all costs. Because in his photos he is interested primarily in people as a multifaceted individuals.

By Teresa Köster

These days there is no shortage of photos of parties and of everyday life, of excesses and of the (seemingly) commonplace, of people, their cultures and subcultures. And their number is increasing by the day. The double whammy of digital photography and Internet gives birth to an omnipresence of the visual; driven by the pressure to capture everything and share it. Sometimes it is friends, party guests, or objects left behind that are in front of the camera lens – relics of a night that has come to an end. Sometimes it is the photographer him or herself that has been immortalized by the camera. They all revolve around what they represent: around themselves.

So if this is where the roots of a subject lie, what then essentially differentiates photographs of everyday life and existence from and among one another? When are they art and when are they mere documentation by an amateur photographer? There is no clear definition that offers us a ready answer here. And yet some such images undoubtedly have something of an artistic character about them – entirely without the “help” of a gallery wall. Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographs are just such works. After all, photography is Tillmans’ method of communication, his eyes and his not only artistic language: “I aim to express my thoughts about the world through my images.” 

Wolfgang Tillmans is a photographer of society, but unlike predecessors such as August Sander, he is little interested in pure documentation. No stereotypes for him, but rather multifaceted individuals are the persons we encounter in Tillmans’ photography, each one representing a unique part of a whole of which the photographer himself, who was born in 1968 in Remscheid, is also part. Thus the people represent merely themselves, and yet in his portraits in particular, which are not portraits in the classic sense, they are at the same time a launchpad for much more: “I believe portraits are always particularly interesting specifically when they go beyond the individual portrayed and make more general statements about humanity,” Tillmans insists – he now divides his time between London and Berlin.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Still Life Talbot Road , 1991, Image via amaurer23.wordpress.com

“By statements I don’t mean clear interpretations, but rather propensities, feelings, sensitivities. What I attempt to achieve in my portraits is, on the one hand, to present the person in the way I perceive them, but on the other hand to see the human being per se in that particular person.” The aesthetic with which Tillmans captures life, the being-in-the-world, is as sexually or spiritually charged as it is politically and socially ambitious. This interaction, at the heart of which lies the portrait, has now been defining the photographer’s work for more than 20 years – be it his images of the sub and Pop culture of Bournemouth, London, Berlin, Hamburg or New York, of friends as much as strangers, of celebrities or of himself.

This is the case, for example, in his self-portrait “Lacanau (self)” dating from 1986, which is currently on display in the “ME” exhibition at the SCHIRN. This is an image that resembles a chance snapshot, taken in the French municipality from which it draws its name, which is near to Bordeaux. The photographer sets up his self-image as a close-up: sand on his feet, a section of his black shorts that also reveals the manufacturer, a faded pink bit of material indicating his T-shirt. The “I” meets Lacanau. The “I” in Lacanau. Or so the title suggests. But also: a fragment is representative of the entire self. Is it the environment that forms it or even the clothing? Or is it more the perspective, namely that of the photographer, through whose eyes the observer looks on here, which gives the “self” its raison d’être in the title of Tillmans’ work?!

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lacanau (self), 1986, Wolfgang Tillmans / Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin, Köln

We can’t expect an answer from the artist himself. Yet it is precisely here that the assertion lies – that of the “ME” exhibition curated by Martina Weinhart as much as that of Wolfgang Tillmans himself: “One should be able to decide for oneself what is ugly and what is beautiful, what is acceptable and what is not. That is perhaps a fundamental subliminal statement I want to make”. After all, it is not classic definitions, prefabricated points of view or solutions that the observer should discover. “My hope is always through my perspective to encourage other people to trust their own eyes and to endure truth or life.” 

The fact that the artist is true to his word is demonstrated by his new project too: his exhibition space “Between Bridges” in Berlin will from now on be a forum in which art can commit politically and socially. Can champion the integration of refugees, mutual understanding and familiarity, and oppose the increasingly strident right-wing voices. Here Tillmans returns to his intellectual roots, to art understood as societal, social and sometimes political – and thus attempts to play a role in forming the future with the help of an art community. As an initial event on April 21, a discussion is to be held between Wolfgang Tillmans and Kreuzberg-based art therapist and author Gülây Akın, who will talk about her work as an activist and with unaccompanied underage refugees. More information can be found on betweenbridges.net.

Anti-Brexit poster, Woflgang Tillmans, Image via tillmans.co.uk