Alex Kitnick on the art of Wolfgang Tillmans

WOLFGANG TILLMANS HAS CREATED an image of contemporary Europe that a lot of people carry around in their heads. Not the Colosseum or the Arc de Triomphe or even the Eiffel Tower, but easyJet, English, Berghain. These keywords are both the technologies and the coordinates of Tillmans’s practice, the atmosphere and infrastructure that support his work, though they are not necessarily visible in his pictures. And yet he has created images—indeed, icons—that are somehow correlates for them, that use these things as scaffolding. I know this is a big claim to make about an artist, given that the profession today no longer has much to do with the way things look. The task of imaging has largely been left to the stylist, the executive, and the influencer. But by leveraging photography’s many lives (as art, as document, as fashion editorial, as reportage, and as publicity), Tillmans has been able to thread the needle through an increasingly vast network of image production, and its sites of display, in order to create a new kind of image—a moving image not simply in the affective sense, but in the circulatory one, too. His images get around, change shape. They are promiscuous. We can call them images in motion.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Markt, g, 1989, medium and dimensions variable.

The artist’s career—currently the subject of “Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear,” a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York—corresponds to a time of new connections and movements in Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 led not only to the reunification of Germany but also to a larger promise of togetherness: The Soviet Union collapsed under the pressures of glasnost and perestroika soon after, and suddenly global tensions (i.e., the Cold War) promised to diminish. These big geopolitical changes show up in small, casual ways in Tillmans’s work. Rather than heroic pictures of sledgehammers smashing the graffitied wall, Tillmans offers quotidian events, including a series of photographs, taken in 1989, depicting transactions at the open-air Polish Market in East Berlin. (Tillmans first exhibited these works in 2005 in Berlin.) Large groups of people stand outdoors bartering over meager things, a sausage laid on the ground over a sheet of crumpled paper, a folded shirt, a mug, a toy motorcycle. The sky captures a twilight mood. Tillmans, who was just twenty-one at the time, describes items “so poor or used or cheap that it was a blurry border between what is a commodity and what is just dirt and trash on the ground. Polish people travelled Saturday night through East Germany to sell whatever they could Sunday morning.”1 A feeling of desperation pervades the bazaar; it is a site of necessity and precarity, and as such offers a riposte to the West’s promise of a free market.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Thuy in make-up room, 1993, medium and dimensions variable.

But these images are exceptional. A few years later, in 1993, we get a very different scene: Tillmans photographs fashion designer Thuy Pham wearing an I LOVE GORBY shirt while holding a bottle of Budweiser (Thuy in make-up room). One wonders if Tillmans gravitated first to the shirt or to Thuy’s smile, or if it was the designer’s involvement with underground fashion labels like Bernadette Corporation and United Bamboo that piqued the artist’s interest. Certainly, Thuy had something to do with the look of things, and his symbiosis of American beer and Russian kitsch tells us a lot about the world to come. The shirt is ironic, but many in Russia (and elsewhere, too) thought Gorbachev betrayed the revolutionary dream, though in fact he hoped it would survive the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev spoke of a “common European home” that would preserve communist ideals after the dissolution of the Soviet state. When this didn’t come to pass, he entered a period of mourning. (In the 2018 film Meeting Gorbachev, directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer, the former leader is forlorn, even tragic, quoting the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov.)

This is Eden 2.0. Europe 2.0. There is a new sense of the possible, a new idea of the everyday.


Wolfgang Tillmans, playground, Luxembourg, 1986, medium and dimensions variable.

Not everyone was so bereft, however. The European Union officially formed in 1993, the same year Tillmans shot Thuy in make-up room, but the idea of a border-free Europe had taken shape even earlier, in 1985, when the Schengen Agreement began to dissolve passport control for European nationals. Schengen is a village in Luxembourg where from the hilltop one can see three countries at once; this view offered a real metaphor for the natural oneness of Europe. In Tillmans’s playground, Luxembourg, 1986, an aerial shot pictures a patch of land, featuring an octagonal sandpit, some kids, a slide, bushes, that we might imagine is a proxy for this new world. The angle is askew, with shadows lurching out to the right, recalling precedents in avant-garde photography. It’s a bare, even bleak scene, especially for a space of play, and yet the emphasis on recreation clearly suggests freedom, even social democracy, with this glimpse of Luxembourg somehow standing in for an image of Europe. For Tillmans, this new world was an Eden, a land of plenty where individuals could live without shame. Indeed, many of his early images emphatically conjure a prelapsarian state, picturing a fecundity that challenges the spareness of the playground scene. A number gaze at genitalia: vulvae slouch in chairs, a cock and balls are defamiliarized under skirts. We are invited to learn the body again. Somehow, when you look at something closely, the sexiness falls away. Alex, outfitted in a golden scarf-cum-skirt, grabs Lutz’s dick matter-of-factly. A boy puts his head in a girl’s crotch without making any fuss about it. A mustachioed man with a cock in his mouth looks up in a remarkably straightforward manner. This is Eden 2.0. Europe 2.0. There is a new sense of the possible, a new idea of the everyday.


Wolfgang Tillmans, indian corn & pomme granate, 1994, medium and dimensions variable.

TILLMANS IS A GENRE PHOTOGRAPHER. He works in landscape, portrait, and still life. Still lifes are metonyms made of talismans. They are a way to talk about something else. The Dutch, for example, used tulips and snails to craft compact allegories for commerce, trade, and the transience of life. Sometimes Tillmans’s still lifes speak of fusion and togetherness, as does his 1994 photograph indian corn & pomme granate. Seen from above (again, like an aerial landscape), an ear of corn and pomegranate seeds rest in a bowl, while a bent knee hovers in the lower left corner and a butter knife, red chile, and glass of water gather around. The corn and the pomegranate share a bloody hue, and the phallic ear of corn lies in the bowl of seeds as if consummating a relationship with the pomegranate, a fruit historically associated with female sexuality. Indian corn is from the New World, pomegranate the Old. A kind of Pangaea is reforming. A bit hetero, yes, but the continents are coming back together again.


 Wolfgang Tillmans, Dunst I, 2004, medium and dimensions variable.

What makes this scene convincing, as all Tillmans’s scenes are, is that it’s caught in the act. The parts just happen to be there—maybe only for a brief moment. (Note the shiny white glare coming off the corn’s dark kernels.) Genre has insinuated itself into daily life, or at least we see it that way, but life is what makes genre more than a staged convention. Tillmans’s work feels emphatically not constructed; the idea is that he was lucky enough to see it. (Whether or not this is true remains an open question.) His pictures are the opposite of Christopher Williams’s adamantine photographs, which include the specifics of their construction in their titles, and they oppose, too, much other art photography, especially German photography, which prides itself on a black-and-white objectivity. Think of August Sander’s twentieth-century people; Bernd and Hilla Becher’s grids of gas tanks and cooling towers; Thomas Struth’s streetscapes. Note how in the latter two bodies of work, human beings never appear. And in Sander’s work, people are less individuals than types.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Lacanau (self), 1986, medium and dimensions variable.

Tillmans’s work, by contrast, is deeply peopled in both subject matter and point of view. Walead Beshty insists that it shares “the greatest affinity with the hybridized cinematic practices of Hollis Frampton, Morgan Fisher, Chris Marker, and Yvonne Rainer, each of whom wove together found images, quasi-autobiographical narration, and materialist abstraction into a materially based subjectivity—a sensitivity to repressed connections to which Tillmans seems acutely aware.”2 Many critics note that Tillmans’s photographs, while possessing a distinctive look, generate their power through accumulation, through their connections to one another, through something like a narrative or a concatenation of events. But how does narrative emerge from discrete pictures? Installation and display certainly play a part, but over time the viewer also notices some force behind the camera. The photographs emanate from a body, some mostly absent center, though the artist offers glimpses of his own person, especially in his early work (see, for example, Lacanau [self], 1986, and me in the shower, 1990) and occasionally, too, proper self-portraits (see August, self-portrait, 2005). His friends (the bookseller Conor Donlon and the sculptor Isa Genzken are recurring characters) also play an important role. Tillmans’s work combines aspects of the travelogue and of the bildungsroman to create a story about the post-’89 world. Though Tillmans has long resisted the framing of his project as autobiographical, the best description for his work may be “autofiction,” that genre in which the artist imagines alternate realities through the versioning of herself. Start with what’s in front of you and go out from there. Photography is particularly well suited to this task: It is almost unable to resist the meshing of self and world.


View of “Wolfgang Tillmans: Fragile,” 2019–20, Contemporary Art Gallery, Yaoundé, Cameroon.

The filmmakers Beshty lists all work with voice-over. Frampton places photographs on a hot plate and talks about them off-screen as they turn into ash in (nostalgia), 1971, and Rainer discusses the romantic dynamics between dancers in Lives of Performers, 1972. Both films insist that photography can do only so much. Language fills in the gaps, making manifest what is only implicit in pictures. The voice stands on the back of the material. No subjectivity but in things, one might say, and yet things must be narrated in order to make them meaningful. Memory and affect accrue through storytelling. Tillmans, too, chafes against the limits of the photograph, and though he doesn’t literally add his voice, the feeling of a subject gathers through a process of image accretion, hovering in the blank spaces between pictures. One imagines a person pinning these images to their wall, crushing on them, lending them sentimental value. This, I think, is the “materially based subjectivity” of which Beshty speaks, the subjectivity forming in the interstices of photographs. Significantly, in 2018, Tillmans made an audio work called I want to make a film. The work doesn’t have any pictures in it. I want simply haunts a darkened room. The voice, which is Tillmans’s, speaks of a desire to make a film about the workings of the iPhone, a device for texting and imaging alike. There is a wish to understand the imaging of the world, but the darkness of the room calls into question whether such a practice is possible, or if the power of technology has somehow eclipsed the strength of subject matter.

Though Tillmans has long resisted the framing of his project as autobiographical, the best description for his work may be “autofiction.”


Wolfgang Tillmans, me in the shower, 1990, medium and dimensions variable.

The interconnectedness that Tillmans channels is not only geopolitical and subjective, it is technological, too. Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web launched in 1989, making it easier to search and gather the internet’s information, and soon after, photography shifted from analog to digital, which not only produced new kinds of images but linked them in new ways—in files, in folders, and eventually in stories. Tillmans began his work in the 1980s with a photocopier, which, developed at midcentury, had quickly become a tool for office workers and countercultures alike. Given its nature, the photocopy required the artist to deal with flat things already out in the world, but Tillmans wanted to create his own pictures and soon turned to analog photography. Though he didn’t shoot digitally until 2009, he began making digital ink-jet prints in 1992 as a way of exploring other kinds of scales and sites for his artwork. At the same time, he shot editorials for various art/culture/lifestyle magazines, such as i-D, Purple, The Face, and Index, which required him to consider the different surfaces and supports that might hold his pictures. “Fine-art photography” no longer had to be bound by frames—it could gather and cluster and disperse. So Tillmans was ready for the digitalization of photography, and its attendant effects, when it came: Photography ceased to be light writing (as the word’s etymology suggests) but a picture industry, producing what media theorist Vilém Flusser calls a “technical image,” “an image produced by apparatuses.”3 An industry of pictures, in other words. Tillmans’s work is industrious in this regard.4 His work conjures an ease of imaging and organizing that anticipates the digital.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Movin Cool, 2010, medium and dimensions variable.

EVERYBODY KNOWS Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation that the events of 1989 marked the end of history. What many people don’t remember is how Fukuyama thought it would feel. “The end of history will be a very sad time,” he wrote.

The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technological problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.5

In other words, the end of history will not be a triumph, but a time of fine-tuning, working on the stereo, fixing the printer, regulating climate control. (Of course, it is a period of rampant speculation and privatization, too.) Much of this prophecy comes true in Tillmans’s work. Technological problems, environmental concerns, and sophisticated consumer demands are the very content of his practice. Movin Cool, 2010—a silvery shot of a pair of portable air conditioners—delivers all this in one potent image. While some artists challenged Fukuyama’s thesis by digging into archives, uncovering hidden histories, and continuing unfinished struggles (think, for example, of the work of Tacita Dean, Cheryl Dunye, and Walid Raad), Tillmans took another tack by delivering a series of touching moments. He went searching for meaning and found it in youth culture, techno, acid house, the nightclub—spaces of excitement that countered the malaise of post-history. “My generation had overcome the cold war and were coming together in a new spirit of inclusion,” Tillmans told a reporter from The Guardian in 2017—and he made this literal in staged photographs of balled bodies tied in knots (see, for example, Knottenmutter, 1994).6 Rather than argue with Fukuyama about history’s fate, he offered another idea about what that end would feel like. As had the German artist Joseph Beuys before him, Tillmans fought for direct democracy, but instead of fat and felt, he used images of sweaty boys and girls to spread the energy. In place of the abstract, he zoomed in on the monumentally specific, finding ecstasy in sweat-matted armpit hair and intimacy in a pile of clothes draped over a chair. (Even the abstract became specific—a beautiful bend of paper, a bit of pigment dropped in solution.) And in contrast to an earlier generation of photographers who examined their social worlds, such as Larry Clark or Nan Goldin, Tillmans presented his as abuse-free. No black eyes. Only tenderness. This is not to say there are not painful scenes in his work—AIDS is a constant theme, as is, more recently, the refugee crisis—but even these images are shot through with a pathos and poignancy that separate his oeuvre from that of his forebears.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees, 1992, medium and dimensions variable.

I think we can describe much of Tillmans’s work as at once utopian and deeply presentist.7 Liberal in spirit, it makes room for many things. How else can we imagine a world in which neoliberal Iraq War hawk Tony Blair and the high-priced transatlantic Concorde jet, a plate of fruit and a Shaker house, share close quarters?8 The utopian seems like the wrong designation for his work. The utopian is always ahead of us. But there is no future here—everything is right now. It’s notable that in recent years Tillmans has continued to show old prints in new installations, suggesting a temporal blur, a suspension of chronology, and yet one of the powers of Tillmans’s work is how it expresses its contemporaneity. We see something of this in the photograph AIDS, General Idea, 1991, which examines a sculpture, by the Toronto-based artist group General Idea, made of four blocky letters, two above two, AI on top and DS below. This image offers a pocket history of queer art: General Idea’s design is indebted to Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE image, first made as a holiday card in the early 1960s, then turned into a painting, a sculpture, and an edition of stamps. (This versioning would seem important for both General Idea and Tillmans.) Some critics saw General Idea’s Imagevirus project, which transformed LOVE into AIDS, as a conservative gesture, as if it blamed the carnage of the AIDS epidemic on the free-love ethos of the ’60s, but General Idea spoke of it as a way of slyly introducing silenced language into public discourse.

General Idea installed their sculpture in Hamburg, in what was then West Germany, as part of a citywide public-art initiative launched in November 1989.9 The wall fell that same month. Whether or not the organizers knew what was coming, public space was clearly charged, and while some fantasized about the end of history, crises continued. A black-and-white photograph by Wolfgang Neeb presents General Idea’s sculpture as part of this new transactional space. Fashioned out of aluminum and sitting on a concrete pedestal, the sculpture obliquely fills the picture’s frame from top to bottom, while a Burger King sign jutting out perpendicularly to the right adds another vector of signage and commerce. (A blur of young pedestrians appear in the lower right-hand corner of the image.) Imposing and monumental, the sculpture is something to be reckoned with—and it’s significant that the work was installed on Spitalerstraße, one of Hamburg’s busiest shopping streets.

In contrast to an earlier generation of photographers who examined their social worlåds, Tillmans presented his as abuse-free. No black eyes. Only tenderness.

By the time Tillmans photographed the sculpture less than two years later, it was already the worse for wear. Uprooted and pushed against the side of a building next to a blue portable toilet with a white heart on its door, it was defaced with graffiti and flyers bearing the image of the American flag. Tillmans’s color photograph pictures the plaza in a moment of reconstruction, with piles of flagstones cordoned off with red-and-white tape, echoing the flag’s stripes. The Burger King sign protrudes from the side of the building, but now there is a kinship among it, the AIDS sculpture, and the flag—a trio of logos in the service of some massive medical-commercial complex. At the same time, there is a way in which the sculpture is lost in the scene. It appears diminutive, which is to say that AIDS doesn’t look out of place here: It became part of the city at the very moment that these spaces were remade. And in this manner, the image offers a prognosis, too. A few years later, the artist and activist Gregg Bordowitz would tell a story of seeing an advertisement for protease inhibitors that spoke to the changing life of AIDS in the world: “The first time I saw one on a subway platform, I felt welcomed as a member of the ‘general public,’” he writes. “I looked around at my fellow commuters wondering who else might have HIV. It figures that PWAs [People with AIDS] would become welcome members of the general public when expensive drugs emerged. We went from being an ostracized group to a marketing demographic.”10 Inclusion, in other words, is driven less by altruism than by the market’s demands, and thus it is always a double-edged sword. It feels good to belong, to be spoken to, to be seen, but recognition, it seems, only happens under the aegis of capitalist assimilation.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Silvio (U-Bahn), 1992, medium and dimensions variable.

SOMETIME AROUND 2016, things changed in the world, or at least became newly visible. Latent tendencies bubbled up to the surface, became official and impossible to deny. Though Tillmans had been addressing current events for a number of years in his “Truth Study Center,” 2005–, simple tables across which he organized news clippings and works from his own photographic archive, tracking connections between them, this new moment seemed to require new tactics. It turned out history hadn’t ended after all. In Germany, there was the increasing visibility of right-wing extremism (the legacy, in part, of the former East’s isolation in a supposedly reunited state), and in England (where Tillmans lived for many years), a resurgent wave of nationalism known as Brexit. In the US, this tendency delivered the monstrous figure of Donald Trump; in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. Other ciphers appeared: Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an assumed power in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary.11 Strangely, this nationalism had a distinctly international dimension to it. Some called it “the end of the end of history.”


Poster from Wolfgang Tillmans’s pro-EU/anti-Brexit campaign, 2016.

Tillmans touched on the resurgence of right-wing hate at the beginning of his career—his 1992 photograph Silvio (U-bahn) depicts a memorial to a man killed by neo-Nazis—and, perhaps because of this long-standing attention, he was ready to mobilize his influence when the time came, explicitly addressing a public beyond the art world. In 2016, in response to these crises, Tillmans produced a series of posters in which he repurposed images from his archive (a dreamy seascape glimpsed from an airplane window, in one example) and tagged them with succinct poetic messages in Helvetica font. The posters were pasted on streets, given away, and circulated on social media. The idea was to add affect to institutions often seen as moribund on the eve of a precipitous vote. Here are three lines used for his anti-Brexit campaign:

No man is an island.

What is lost is lost forever.

Rupert murdoch can buy the british government. But not a union of 28 countries.

It was hard not to be seduced by these collective sentiments. But soon after the launch of Tillmans’s campaign against the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), critic Caroline Busta accused the artist’s project of being ineffective at best and virtue-signaling at worst, claiming that it only appealed to those already sympathetic to its signifiers—in other words, that it couldn’t change anyone’s mind (a tall order indeed).12 Busta suggested that a more effective tactic would be to create negative images of the AfD, something like European anti-smoking ads with their gory pictures of blackened lungs, to show how unsexy these right-wing figures really are. While provocative, this idea is antithetical to Tillmans’s entire artistic project. For there is not one grotesque image in Tillmans’s entire body of work. Every photograph, even of the bleakest and most banal subjects, is in some way beautiful and erotic. I see shells, socks, kids in trees, Kate Moss, lobster, Frank Ocean, the Love Parade, and a toucan, but not horror. (And, yes, I think this is true even of the ruined seacraft in Lampedusa, 2008.)


Wolfgang Tillmans, socks on radiator, 1998, medium and dimensions variable.

Many years ago, Susan Sontag argued against interpretation, insisting that we find other ways to experience art. She advocated for an erotics of encounter—a sensory type of making that would turn its audience on. Tillmans has done just that, and his innovation has been to imagine the uses to which the erotic might be put by offering an on-the-ground view of Europe eked out of sweat, music, and affection—and indeed, those should be guiding principles for the fashioning of any more perfect union. In capitalizing on his success, he has extended his embrace beyond the standard geography of the art world—recently, he has staged exhibitions in Orbán’s Hungary and in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—using his work as a form of soft power to present new possibilities in circumscribed locations. But inasmuch as Tillmans has harnessed the energies of unification, he has also to some extent avoided direct confrontation with our most draconian forces. At this point, he is associated with not just a visual language but also a whole way of working and being in the world, for which coolness, casualness, and conciliation are key. Tillmans calls himself an amplifier. We should watch what his work will privilege as we move toward evermore profound dissensus.

Alex Kitnick teaches art history at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

NOTES

1. Email correspondence with author.

2. Walead Beshty, “Wolfgang Tillmans,” in 33 Texts: 93, 614 Words: 581, 035 Characters, Selected Writings (2003–2015) (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2015), 113.

3. Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 14.

4. Michelle Kuo, “Step into Liquid: The Ascendancy of Inkjet Printing,” in Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader, ed. Roxana Marcoci and Phil Taylor (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2022), 263–67.

5. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

6. Sean O’Hagan, “Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘I Was Hit by a Realisation—All I Believed in was Threatened,’” The Guardian, February 13, 2017, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/feb/13/wolfgang-tillmans-photographer-interview-tate-modern.

7. Minoru Shimizu writes that Tillmans’s photographs “‘perform’ the conditions of an alternative, utopian lifestyle. . . . If [the European club culture of the ’80s] definitely seemed to be for a better society, a better understanding, it was a utopian ideal of togetherness.” Minoru Shimizu, “Wolfgang Tillmans: The Art of Equivalence,” in Wolfgang Tillmans: truth study center (Cologne: Taschen, 2005), n.p.

8. Tillmans photographed Blair for the April 2005 cover of Attitude, the UK’s best-selling gay magazine. As a point of comparison, see Richard Hamilton’s 2010 portrait of Blair as a cowboy, Shock and Awe, 2010. Tillmans photographed Hamilton in 2005.

9. The exhibition was “Hamburg Projekt: Künstler realisieren Arbeiten im öffentlichen Raum” (Hamburg Project: Artists Realize Works in Public Space).

10. Gregg Bordowitz, “Operative Assumptions,” in The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986–2003, ed. James Meyer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 80n9. See also Gregg Bordowitz, General Idea: ImageVirus (London: Afterall, 2010).

11. For more on Tillmans’s reaction to these events and figures, see his introduction to Jahresring 64: What Is Different? (Berlin: Sternberg, 2018).

12. “Have Your Say: Wolfgang Tillmans Discusses His Political Posters with Caroline Busta,” in Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader.

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