Few artists have shaped the scope of contemporary art and influenced a younger generation more than Wolfgang Tillmans. He has been such an inventive and prominent visual artist that it has become dangerously easy to take his work for granted. You often feel privileged to be there with him, appreciating fleeting moments, sharing a laugh at the picnics with friends or waking up after the sweaty nightclub. Through seamless integration of genres, subjects and exhibition strategies, the artist conjures a youthful, messy utopia and expands conventional ways of approaching the medium. So what does it mean to create pictures in an increasingly image-saturated world?
Who is Wolfgang Tillmans?
Born in 1968 in Remscheid, Germany, Wolfgang Tillmans studied at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in England. In 2000, Tillmans became the first photographer and the first non-Brit to win the prestigious Turner Prize by Tate. He also has been a member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, since 2012 and a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Since the early 1990s, Tillmans’s work has been the subject of prominent solo exhibitions at international institutions including Tate Modern, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, MAM, Kunsthalle Zürich, MUMOK and others. He is deeply involved in the publication of artist books and monographs, and regularly contributes to magazines. In recent years, Tillmans has been more directly involved in political activism. In tandem with his Truth Study Center project (begun in 2005), he has created posters for the anti-Brexit campaign in Britain and in response to right-wing populism in Germany.
What is so special about Tillmans’s Art?
Tillmans first made a name for himself in the early 1990s through photographs that have attained an iconic status for their evocation of the mood of an entire generation, with its carefree urge for freedom and its desire to seize life’s moments. Many motifs derive from the techno and LGBTQ+ scene of the 1990s. Over the years, he widened the range of his work, experimenting with the means of photography to develop a new visual language, creating works with or without a camera and also using a photocopier.
Tillmans revolutionized established techniques of photographic presentation, making connections between his pictures in response to a given context and activating the space of the exhibition by hanging photographs above a doorframe, in the corner or next to a fire extinguisher.
What are his works about?
In a career spanning more than thirty years, Wolfgang Tillmans has tried his hand at a range of genres, including landscape, street photography, portraiture, still life, and abstraction. He’s best known for his photographs chronicling European youth culture, particularly the LGBTQ+ scene in the late 1980s and ’90s. His visual language is characterized by a close observation that opens up a deeply humane approach to our surroundings. Familiarity and empathy, friendship and community can be seen and felt in his images.
Tillmans’s artistic work is based on an unstoppable curiosity, intensive research and constant engagement with the technical and aesthetic potential of the photographic medium. For the artist, photography is part of his search for a deeper understanding of the world, where he wishes to root out, illuminate and convey the existence of a visual truth to his audience.
What is happening in MUMOK?
Curated by Matthias Michalka, a “Sound Is Liquid” exhibition features early photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans produced in the pop-culture milieu of the 1990s along with abstract images, high-resolution photographs of the globalized and digitalized reality of the early twenty-first century. The two-channel video installation Book for Architects will also be on view, as well as several recent music recordings and videos. The exhibition is on view until August 28, 2022.
Is Tillmans into any other medium besides photography?
Wolfgang Tillmans works on sound installations, set designs, and photocopy prints. He’s also experimented with directly exposing photographic paper to the light. Since his youth music has been always an important form of expression for him as a connective medium with its own language and the ability to make a strong political statement. The techno scene of the early 1990s left a deep mark on him. During the past years, Tillmans has been involved in collaborative ventures in the field of music having his band called Fragile. For the space at the Fondation Beyeler, Tillmans has designed an installation made up of several music videos he has created in recent years.
Wolfgang Tillmans is very active on his Instagram, using it to draw attention to a range of issues. In September 2022, a major solo exhibition of Tillmans’s work, To look without fear, will be held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, before traveling to the Art Gallery of Ontario and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2023. You can find more here.