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Lutz & Alex holding cock, 1992
Lutz & Alex holding cock, 1992Photography Wolfgang Tillmans, taken from the July 2010 issue of Dazed and Confused

Wolfgang Tillmans on his first time, ecstasy and empowerment

As Tate Modern announces a major retrospective of the photographer, we revisit a 2010 interview in which he discusses his journey to abstraction

Taken from the July 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused:

“I grew up in Remscheid, an industrial town that is the centre of tool-making in Germany. My father spent about nine years in South America on sales trips throughout his life, and my mum worked as an accountant and was also a local politician. My brother, sister and I enjoyed a lot of freedom because the parents were not always around.

At the age of ten, I became obsessed with astronomy to the degree that I could not think about anything else. That is what I have kept with me since then: the importance of exact observation and factualness. When I was 13, I went to summer camp with a group from church, and that was another life-changing experience. It was all about disarmament, demonstrations and pacifism.

In high school I discovered the first Canon laser copier in a coffee shop, which could photocopy photographs in a much clearer quality than before. I made a little fanzine using it, a collage of images combined with my own lyrics and a lot of teenage angst. The grey shades of early digital photocopies were where I really found my expression – I didn’t own a camera until I was 20, after I had already done my first exhibition in Hamburg.

I came to London for the first time in 1983 on a language trip and saw Culture Club play. I think that was a lucky moment to grow up as a latently gay boy, in a time where the whole of pop music was about sexual ambiguity. It wasn’t called ‘gay’, it was just stylish. It was all about making clothes and putting on make-up – I wore a hat made from perspex melted in my mother’s oven.

“(Pop music) wasn’t called ‘gay’, it was just stylish. It was all about making clothes and putting on make-up – I wore a hat made from perspex melted in my mother’s oven” – Wolfgang Tillmans

I have known Lutz and Alex, my best friends from school, since we were about 13, and they are still my best friends. We were never going out with each other – Lutz was gay and Alex was straight, and there was never any drama. After school we moved to Hamburg, because if you didn’t want to do the 15 months of national service with the army you had to serve 20 months in community service.

Hamburg had the most sophisticated club scene in Germany. I was, on the one hand, working on very reduced photocopy work, and on the other hand feeling I wanted to record what went on in these clubs. I was photographed by i-D at their party in Amsterdam for making an eco fashion statement by wearing a hat made from living moss. When they came to Hamburg, I took my first club pictures for them because I wanted to show them how happening the city was. I was right in the middle of the whole club explosion and that seemed to be the most exciting thing, the ecstasy feeling. It was so empowering and so meaningful in a truly political way. Lutz and I thought, ‘Everyone should experience this.’

I went from club pictures to taking full page spreads for magazines, but I never actually wanted to do that, so I quit a successful career and left to study photography in Bournemouth. I really just wanted the innocence of a student. Plus I always had a soft spot for the English men!

The first love of my life was the keyboard player of Bronski Beat. I guess I was some kind of groupie. We had a night of romance in Cologne when I was 16, when I was under the age of consent, which was 18.

Alex, Lutz and I moved to London in 1990, when gay rights was still a big issue. I went on the demonstrations that mattered to me, like the Criminal Justice Bill or the Anti-Nazi League. It felt as if hedonism and activism were not exclusive – that was my strong personal belief. I didn’t see my own vision represented in the photography that I saw; that was my motivation. A lot of photography was either stylised or overly artistic –  I photographed what I saw with little artifice. What got a lot of people mad about my work was how un-artificial it looked, and that is exactly what I worked hard to control. They were anything but snapshots.

“A lot of photography was either stylised or overly artistic –  I photographed what I saw with little artifice” – Wolfgang Tillmans

I moved to New York with the opening of my first solo show there in 1994. I met Jochen Klein, my then boyfriend, and I had a great opportunity to develop my work in a different direction: still lifes and pictures of folds and fabrics and landscapes. Being with Jochen, who was a painter and conceptual artist, opened my eyes to old art and to understanding Caravaggio and the like as potential friends – as young men who were dealing with issues of their time in their way. I could learn from Jochen about Lacan and Žižek, and I would tell him about The Haçienda and New Order.

I had started a green card process, but the next year I realised, no, I actually don’t want to be an American. I was longing for something a bit darker, without this constant ‘upness’. I moved back to London with Jochen, and he was totally healthy at that point. The great tragedy of his death is that we had no idea that he was ill until five weeks before he died; there must have been a faulty test. He suddenly fell so ill with pneumonia that he wasn’t able to take the combination therapy that had been invented the year before. It was only really in 2000 that I came out of that totally overshadowed period.

I had my time of greatest happiness in 1997 with Jochen, when I embarked on the Concorde series, which is as abstract as it is figurative. Abstraction has always been inherently there in my work, but in 1998, I exhibited pictures made without a camera, the most important development in my work. It was me questioning what a picture is. People interpret the pictures as something underwater, something with pigment... That’s why they are so powerful. If I had painted them, you would not engage with them the same way.

I wasn’t surprised that I got nominated for the Turner Prize, because at that point I had shown extensively internationally, but I was a bit insecure about the press – 2000 was the first year that foreigners were nominated. It was nice the way that Britain dealt with a foreigner that they liked, embracing me and calling me German-born, London-based, rather than German. In 2004, I got a place in Berlin and met Anders Clausen, the Danish artist. When artists are partners they talk about everything a lot, so the influence on one another is quite intense. He plays an incredibly important role in detecting weaknesses. A bullshit detector! I don’t get upset about it. Maybe a little, but not really.

The US got on board with my work in 2006, and in my North American museum tour I included ‘Memorial for the Victims of Organised Religions’. That time was fuelled by outrage over 9/11 and also the Iraq War, the warping of truth and the election of George (W) Bush. I always find myself in disbelief about being subjected to men telling you that they know what God wants.

The same year, I realised the entrance of my studio could be used as a gallery, and I felt that there were certain kinds of art not represented in London. Since I had always liked political art, I wanted to show artists that are engaged in social processes. I see my practice as political, even though it’s not campaigning in its majority.

Last year I took a sabbatical, and rediscovered the camera. I found myself travelling a lot but also photographing London and Berlin as well as South America and Asia. I’ve got a great hunger to see what has changed in the world after me looking at it for 20, 25 years. My new pictures, some of which will be at the Serpentine exhibition, are informed by the non-figurative work of the last ten years, so this is an interesting new period in my photography. I’m really excited about taking pictures now.

Wolfgang Tillmans will be on show at Tate Modern in London, February 15–June 11, 2017