tue 11/08/2020

Interview: Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans

Interview: Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans

Surprising collisions of light and time in the work of a unique photographer

Old meets new: 'Freischwimmer and Paper Drop', 2008, by Wolfgang TillmansAll photos: Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre/Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, except those featuring Wolfgang Tillmans: Sue Steward

The 2010 Brighton Photo Biennial has seen unprecedented numbers of visitors flock to the coast, and tonight will host a talk by one of the most original fine-art photographers working in Britain today. Wolfgang Tillmans will explore his unique and hugely influential approach to photography and the relationship between contemporary art and documentary and will undoubtedly cite his latest projects, the refreshing summer exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and the recently launched, more audacious event at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery.

It’s easier to imagine a Tillmans show in the city’s Docklands Culture Quarter where glass and steel have replaced the Walker’s stone and marble and Tate Liverpool is the hub for international contemporary art. But the visionary decision of the Gallery, the Arts Council Collection and especially Tillmans, has resulted in a brilliant and unpredictable transformation which will doubtless be imitated often.

After living for 20 years in London (and in 2000 he won the Turner Prize), he has developed a highly personal visual identity as a photographer and almost equally significantly as a curator. When invited to work with the permanent collection at the Walker, he chose nine pieces owned by the Arts Council Collection, and three lent from his private collection, and set about inserting them respectfully, ironically, even amusingly, amongst portraits, landscapes, still-lifes and abstracts spanning almost four centuries.

Like many other 19th-century northern galleries, the Walker largely follows the traditional curation formula of crowding paintings together on richly coloured, fabric-clad walls. And with such large collections, it is obviously the way to exhibit the maximum stock. That approach is the antithesis of Tillmans’ minimalist and seemingly random but carefully planned displays against white walls. He didn’t request a white-out but still undoubtedly leaves many loyal gallery visitors frowning and tutting at the challenging sight of contemporary conceptual works lodging like cuckoos amongst their favourites. Yet in almost every case, it works brilliantly. Ann Bukantas, Head of Fine Art at the Walker, says, “The installation functions like a work of art in its own right.”

Wolfgang_Tillmans_Dan_2008With great courage, Bukantas and the Arts Council Collection directors offered Tillmans freedom to shift works from their familiar resting places or to remove them altogether. In advance of his first visit, he studied the permanent collection through old catalogues and then marched in partly aware of some ideas for "an intervention". It’s an appropriate term because his Modernist portraits and seemingly mundane scenes do intervene, wedged between familiar 18th and 19th centuries and including Impressionists, to create an entirely new design for the rooms and contextual meanings for both parties (Dan, 2008, pictured above).

A typical Tillmans exhibition is self-curated and meticulously designed with careful placing and spacing and the all-important flow. Isolated single images, well-spaced clusters of related pieces arranged in careful patterns, cheap prints pinned or stuck to walls, and exquisitely framed images hung like the most priceless portraits in the Walker gallery, all add up to his curatorial identify. Here, he had just 12 photographs to "play" with.

WOLFGANG_TILLMANS_WIHT_DAGUERRE_PAINTING_When I arrived in the gallery where Tillmans was involved in hanging two works, he was standing facing the radiant orange glow of a Turner sunset and the gothic gloom of an oil painting by Louis Daguerre entitled The Ruins of Hollyrood Chapel, c 1824 (pictured left). He was holding two small, square, glossy pieces of photographic paper from his Lighter series (Lighter, red II and Lighter, AC3), part of a mathematically arranged installation at the Serpentine Gallery. Here, he was focussing on the Frenchman: “He was a painter first and about 15 years later, he invented photography through the daguerrotypes. The Turner is also about light - and about abstraction, but he wouldn’t have known that as a concept then. Next to those, I will put these two other studies of light, photographs that are completely refusing to represent anything like the role of photography for those last 150 years, that has always been to represent, document, show something else other than itself. And these resolutely answer back, "I’m not showing you anything"."

This seems to be a favourite corner, “a nice bracket of experimentation with the exploration of light and how to represent it”, he smiles. "The Lighters are made by blasting photosensitive paper with light so that it goes black. It’s completely an analogue process,” he stresses. Before hanging them, he stares at the wide, empty expanse of red fabric and the faded Rothko-esque rectangles representing previous occupants. He confides that he would love to leave it blank, as he would usually, a suggestion of Rothko’s explorations of light. He doesn’t.

Wolfgang_Tillmans_at_Walker_GalleryOf course, some regulars who visit their favourite paintings will find these switches unsettling. But it’s temporary, Tillmans reminds me as we move into a gallery lined with portraits of the 18th and 19th century’s land-owning aristocracy. A gorgeous Gainsborough portrait of a lady had already been uprooted and moved. “I carefully asked if that could be maybe moved and they said it has to stay on show because it is one of the masterpieces in the collection. But they figured out that it could go here.” The substitute was Tillmans’ beautifully toned, incongruously scruffy image amongst the exhibitionism of wealth and glamour. His dusty-pink crumpled T-shirt and pair of jeans lying on a floor hang next to a portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby, the elegant Mrs Frances Hesketh, in a silk dress whose smoky-pink tone precisely matches the T-shirt’s (pictured right: Wolfgang Tillmans and a passing art lover). Sheer chance, he says, and a link which delights him. We study the painter’s textural achievement and his direction and control of reflective highlighting of the silky folds. He seems to almost envy the luminosity achievable with oils. “I’ve always looked at the Gainsboroughs and Reynolds really only for the drapery,” he confesses. “They seemed to have got much more off on the display of how to treat the fabrics, and faltenwalf, the German term for drapery (and the title of this piece), has also been running through my work for 20 years. I think it works for [the painters] because they observed very carefully.”

We move to a hushed and densely packed room featuring religious scenes and biblical narratives and encounter the most breathtaking installation in the collection. The end wall is filled with one of Tillmans’ greatest, most sublime – and technically confusing - works, Freischwimmer (main picture, above). With its liquid effect and abstract swirls and rhythms, it comes closest to total abstraction, and to painting rather than photography, and it replaces a vast 500-year-old Flemish tapestry now in storage. The most audacious intervention, it transforms the atmosphere in the room; Tillmans notices how the blue tones of the very different skies are all now similarly highlighted.

For a complete change, we visited the John Moores permanent collection which was launched with Pop Art, and find the gallery stripped empty of all but a Patrick Caulfield and a Michael Craig Martin painting. Here, Tillmans adds a perfectly appropriate, perfectly mundane and scruffy scene focusing on two upturned transparent blue plastic chairs. Their transparency chimes across the room with Caulfield’s typically skeletal, 3-dimensional representation in a harmonious pairing which lacks the ripples created elsewhere in the show.

Tillmans_Empire_Punk_and_The_MowerAnd similarly, in a small intimate room used to accommodating Romantic portrait painters including Degas, he makes a dramatic stage-set-like installation by introducing a life-sized, blackened bronze statue of a farmhand. The Mower, 1894 by William Hamo Thornycroft (pictured left) stands facing a tall photograph titled Empire (Punk), 2005 and possessing an interesting history. It was faxed to Tillmans in the early Nineties, converted to a Xerox copy and recently scanned at “super-high resolution” and printed onto photographic paper. The effect close-to is of such magnification as to suggest a textured geological lunar surface, but further away focuses as a life-sized young man lolling against a wall in Doc Martens. The Mower's pose, with hand on hip and bent knee and his scythe casually slung over one shoulder, today interprets as a gay come-on. “Yes,” the photographer laughs. “There is a slight queer subtext! I think they will possibly leave him here.”

The significance of this dual encounter between the two men spanning a century, reaches beyond gay iconography and into class issues; Tillmans points out that this was one of the first sculptures in European art to depict a worldly, working-class subject. "I’m interested in that time of naturalism and the shift of emphasis away from church and class," he explains. "The Degas portrait of a girl sitting again fits the mood [of the room].”

As I left the gallery inspired, refreshed and whirling with thoughts to process on the train, I turned to Caroline Douglas, Head of the Arts Council Collection, for a broader view: “I see its significance as demonstrating that art is a continuum across centuries, a conversation that goes on beyond generations and one that we are all a part of.”

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