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Wolfgang Tillmans, “Mond in Erdlicht” (1980)
Wolfgang Tillmans, “Mond in Erdlicht” (1980)© Wolfgang Tillmans, Courtesy Regen Projects

Wolfgang Tillmans on his eclectic debut album inspired by celestial bodies

The celebrated multidisciplinary artist reveals how he created Moon in Earthlight, the genre-defying record that reflects his lifelong love of electronic music and his endlessly experimental approach to making art

Wolfgang Tillmans is an artist who resists definition. Whether it be defying the supposed limitations of magazines to act as repositories of art, confounding critics by moving seamlessly between journalistic documentary photography and staged images, creating his own unique installation practice that draws our attention to the physicality of the photograph as an object, or bringing techno music into the venerated spaces of the art establishment, he cannot be categorised into a neat box. 

The scope of Tillmans’ work is vast, encompassing a huge range of subjects and ideas as he moves between figuration and abstraction through a variety of mediums and forms of experimentation. Yet it’s not without recurring concepts and qualities that make it distinctly Tillmanseqsue. From his celebrated depictions of clubbing culture, and his table-top installations incorporating newspaper cuttings and printed ephemera, to the poignant and powerful pro-remain posters and t-shirts he designed and disseminated in the run-up to the referendum, Wolfgang Tillmans is beyond a polymath.

While he manages to coalesce impactful meaning with the freedom and space of ‘cautiously deferring’ the decisive moment, Tillmans’ work is underpinned by a sense of purpose and deep thought. It’s an agile and delicate dance between reaching resolutions and reserving the right to keep asking the question. But even this interpretation is possibly too reductive, and fraught with the trap of possible complacency. Though “steering clear of absolutes” may be a vital component of his practice, he also tells Dazed: “The challenge is to not appear vague or evasive or willfully obscure… This state of deferring can't be a purpose in itself.”

Music has been a seminal and visible influence on Tillmans’ life and work over the past decades. After releasing five EPs over recent years and seeing one of his tracks feature on Frank Ocean’s 2016 album, Endless, the multidisciplinary artist has now released his debut album. Moon in Earthlight is a compelling 53-minute long soundscape that ebbs and flows between moments of pure pop, ambient field recordings, spoken word, dancefloor-driven techno, studio-produced tracks, and moments of captured musical improvisation. Appropriately, it’s a genre-defying album, hypnotically composed of eclectic music and noise, harmonious yet occasionally discordant, with a cinematic quality that generates streams of images appearing unbidden across the silver screen of one’s consciousness.

The release of the album coincides with two concurrent solo shows (at MUMOK in Vienna and Regen Projects in Los Angeles), both featuring Tillmans’ ‘Playback Room’ where visitors can experience the album in a specially-created environment, played with the highest sound quality. Take a look in the gallery above for a glimpse of the album artwork and some of the work currently on display at Regen Projects. Below, we talk with the Turner Prize-winning artist about Moon in Earthlight, the comforting harmony of celestial bodies, and his unique style of “audio photography“.

I thought I had an existing comprehensive knowledge of your work, but when I came to do some research ahead of our conversation, I began to realise how vast your career has been, how much work you’ve made, and how little I knew. 

Wolfgang Tillmans: Wow, that is actually nice to hear. You know, we all like to hold on to what we think we know. I personally read reviews of artists or musicians I do know and it’s so hard to get into reading about things I don’t know, so there’s something that reinforces what one already knows. And, on the other hand, one doesn’t really question the picture one has of a person. 

That’s been something that I’ve been really dealing with from the start in the early 90s, where I moved into magazines as an artistic venue. At the same time, I moved into the field from a journalistic calling, I staged works and I completely found works, but then they were perceived as authentic, so there was always a narrative that tried to put them under one umbrella. And I found myself, since the mid-90s, since a larger discussion of the work was happening in different countries – very differently in different countries, actually – to sort of move things and to emphasise, ‘No, no, it’s not just like this, I’ve done this.’ And then there’s all the work without the camera, which is harder to talk about because language prefers narrative. 

And I think, in general, people love to be reductive, don’t they? We’re all sometimes guilty of wanting to try and make everything simple by organising and categorising new experiences in our minds.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Yes, and I’m not blaming... No, no, no, because the moment you say, ‘I’m not blaming’ there is some blame. It’s a double negative. It’s just human, no? But it’s also, on the other hand, something that one can choose to observe in oneself and then notice and react, or one just stays in the pattern and doesn’t notice it. And this way how perception works – how I take in things, how my eyes and ears take in things, how I think, how I think I’ve seen it, how I remember it – that is actually an ongoing fascination of mine and is literally the core of my work... trying to have an ongoing dialogue about what is true and what is real. And what feels real. While at the same time steering clear of absolutes, and keeping an openness to how relative things are, how relative they are from different standpoints and point of view. In a literally spatial point of view, I’m always sort of playing with opening one eye and then the other – the phenomenon called parallax.

“The moment I give an affirmative ‘yes’, I feel I open the trap to actually believe that I am mastering something” – Wolfgang Tillmans

It must take a lot of agility and self-reflection to stay in that state and to not fall into that pattern of reductive, simplistic thinking.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Uh-huh. And I just said ‘uh huh’ because I feel awkward to say yes to this. The moment I give an affirmative ‘yes’, I feel I open the trap to actually believe that I am mastering something. The moment I say, ‘Yes, I’m aware. Yes, I am attentive’ there is exactly the danger to be, tomorrow, just full of yourself and not be attentive anymore.

So it’s like constantly deferring the point of reaching that conclusion, in a way?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Yes. Which is maybe a better way than the word ‘doubting’, which I sometimes use to describe this process of not affirming too strongly. But doubting is actively doubting. And so, what you say – this deferring – is more like cautiously deferring. Because we know the moment I say, ‘I’m sure’ I’m no longer having that flexibility of thinking, and this certainty makes people blind.

For people who haven’t yet experienced your music, please could you introduce them to the sensory experience of your debut album?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Well, it’s a 53-minute piece of music of 19 distinct different parts, that are sometimes fully produced pop songs in the studio, to acoustically-modified recordings of my heartbeat through a cardiogram, or the sound of a traffic light in Nairobi, raindrops on an on a metal gutter, creating an intricate rhythmic pattern that I have really just observed and thought was nice, but I let it go. And it kept going, making its beautiful play. And I thought, ‘I need to record this’ the same way that I need to sometimes photograph something. And so, I made a recording of this raindrop that is not unlike a photographic record. 

Describing everything from the studio to field recording are the two extremes, but in between their journeys through jams and very tangential recordings of music sessions, some spoken word, and things that are also, for me, atmospheric recordings of reality – like a jam or a live concert moment – that cannot be redone. And so I have brought this sense of audio photography, like ‘Oh, I want to capture this.’ 

Whereas, I found when I started working with other musicians five years ago that they often said, ‘Oh, we can do another take later.’ And that was conflicting with my feeling as a photographer that I can’t necessarily take this shot again tomorrow. And so I’ve had this sensitivity for sound, whenever and wherever I hear it and in the varying degrees of me creating it. 

That was the starting point, five-plus years ago where I wanted to use field recordings I made of a printing press – a huge machine in a factory where they made books – and somehow ‘musicify’ the rhythms of the machine. That was the moment when I went back to make music for the first time in 30 years. 

Then, over the last two or three years, I felt I wanted to bring together more like ten really rounded, singular songs. And I’ve been sequencing, working, and putting them in order... something that I do with my books and exhibitions, of course. But strangely, it never really came to a moment where I felt, ‘This is it, this is exactly how it should be.’ So I put a stop on it this summer, only for two weeks later to suddenly think, ‘You know what, let’s just go back right to the beginning and pull in all these different ephemeral recordings, these bits of that traffic light, that raindrop, that little jam recording, and bring them together.’ Then I decided to actually take to the keyboard myself and I wove them together to this 53-minute flow. And people find, when you ask them to describe it, it seems very filmic, they get a lot of pictures.

As you’re talking now and you’re describing the process of making the album, it feels incredibly reminiscent to me of how you have previously described putting together your exhibitions... the sense of seemingly disparate subject matter sitting side by side, displayed in different ways, and the idea of staged images alongside documentary photography. To me, it’s comparable with the mixture of field recordings, studio recordings, and jams. It seems like they are very similar approaches. 

Wolfgang Tillmans: I guess, when that happened, which is sort of where I naturally am located and which was also where I positioned the “South Tank” work at my Tate Modern show 2017, where I actually presented a 100-minute sound collage of exactly that sort of mix between recorded and field recordings of all sorts of overlapping levels of influencing things. When I returned to that, four years later, it came to me as like something new and I realised, ‘That’s exactly who I am. This is exactly what my album sounds like.’ And I felt confident this should be the first album and then I didn’t hesitate much. It was clear, really just like an exhibition. 

I work on exhibitions for a long time, but then when it happens – in those 10 days in the gallery or in the museum – at the end of it, I never then feel like I wish I had more time, or that I don’t like it l, or that I want to change it next week. And this – this realisation to treat it just like a moment in an ongoing, lifelong development, rather than a sort of definitive end of an era, which an album can be for some – felt really liberating. 

And so, instead of putting those 12 polished songs on one record, I now have six. This is the right mix to space them out and to let those other moments shine, just like in an exhibition where there are these different entities that refer to each other. I see this almost like a start of a more frequent practice, just like I have not just one exhibition a year.

Which kind of comes back to what we were saying earlier about deferring continually a definitive conclusion? In a sense, not reaching the end of the story, and constantly trying to stay in that space of treating everything as an ongoing project.

Wolfgang Tillmans: But the challenge is to not appear vague or evasive or willfully obscure because that’s also not what I like. If everything was just held in a state of the same level of elevation and not really solidly grounded – really being there with a thud and the other with a hum – it would not have any colour. And so this state of deferring can’t be a purpose in itself. And that's why I think like this ‘popness’, like a song such as “Insanely Alive” you wouldn’t expect on an ambient album and this is clearly not an ambient album, there are real pop moments as well.

“I felt passionately touched by electronic music and felt that it’s extremely soulful – exactly what detractors would say it is not” – Wolfgang Tillmans

I’m interested in your own musical lineage. Could you please share with us something of your own history and relationship with music? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: I mean, there are sort of... what would you call them? Maybe certain moments in love. Do you know that song “Moments in Love” by Art of Noise? Yeah, I would call it almost moments in love when music comes into my life by a band, a singer, or a choral that I have been following, such as these French monastery chorals from Taizé. And, for example, this song I mentioned, “Moments in Love” by Art of Noise. Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” was probably the first song that stuck in my brain after hearing it in my brother’s record collection. They are just standing out. 

I guess a fundamental thing in the 80s was the divide between people who liked electronic music and people who didn’t. I felt passionately touched by electronic music and felt that it’s extremely soulful – exactly what detractors would say it is not because they say it’s just machine-made. On the other hand, you know, Neil Young’s guitar can make me weep. But just as much could an Italo disco track, which people would think at the time was just trash. Nowadays, it’s often considered some of the coolest music. 

I enjoyed things across the border between serious electronic music and non-arty or consumer electronic music. And there were people like the Pet Shop Boys or New Order who had, I think, this similar sensitivity. They could see the beauty and the magic in the productions of Bobby Orlando, who did all the Divine records in the early 80s, and translated that into their own English languages, from London and Manchester. Both bands were very influential, providing a soundtrack to my life for many, many years. Just like Soft Cell and Marc Almond and numerous electronic and techno house acts that are too many to mention here. 

But it’s a passion of mine that I felt is also an art form. Dance music is an art form that, for a long time, was not taken seriously, just like in the 80s Italo disco or pop electronic music wasn’t taken that seriously. In the 90s, there were still people in highbrow culture thinking that techno is all the same. 

In 1994, I was invited to one of the first major museum shows of my career – a group exhibition called The Winter of Love at Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In the building, there is a gigantic painting, which is actually the biggest painting in the world, by Raoul Dufy called “La Fée Eléctricité”. I felt so passionate about the strength and quality of these new sounds out of Detroit, and Frankfurt, and the UK that I called this room “Salle techno” and installed a wall of speakers and played a soundtrack of 10 or 12 selected songs that I thought were great works of art. And that was really the first playback room that I made... something that I returned to 20 years later, with a series of installations called “Playback Room”, where I played other people’s music on a high-end stereo system. Just to open this discussion of why is there not a space reserved for recorded music? Why only live music? 

The idea of a public space to listen to recorded music communally is such a wonderful idea. And it’s never occurred to me before that I’ve never really actually experienced that... 

Wolfgang Tillmans: And really listen to it on a really fine sound system, like as if you’re listening to a concert? Of course, you do this in a great club but that’s a whole different social thing and a distraction. In LA and soon to be opened – hopefully after COVID restrictions – in Vienna, I play my album as part of the exhibition in its own sort of listening space.

Talking of your current exhibition Concrete Column in LA, I’m so interested in your images depicting changing states of matter – objects and subjects in metamorphosis, alongside the Moon in various stages of transition.

Wolfgang Tillmans: I have an intrinsic interest in questioning, asking myself, ‘If things are like this, how did they come into being like this?’ And then knowing from simple physics that, for example, water has three different aggregates of the frozen, the liquid, and the gas form, and what we consider rock-solid – something like rock itself and the land that I walk on – for people in an earthquake area, it’s not so solid at all. And all sorts of things that I perceive in their material stability or certainty, I can also look at and wonder. I mean, this cloud is a super transitory experience, or this horizon line is actually not hard and sharp when you zoom in on it. And this has become a sort of ever-developing – I don’t want to call it a ‘meditation’ because, again, that suggests that there isn’t a punch – but that concrete column certainly is a splash, quite a big splash, in the pond. 

It’s better thinking about something that is liquid now becoming solid within an hour, and other things can, as you say, metamorphosis or change back and forth between different aggregates. And that is, one could say, in itself is like a truism. Like, what’s so special about that? But I guess that’s a little bit what informed my different works through the last three decades, because it’s, on the one hand, the generalness of the observation, but then the specificity of the translation. You could say like, ‘What’s so special about photographing the ecstasy on the dance floor?’ But exactly how one does it is where we all differ and that’s where my language is and that’s what I really spend my days and months thinking of and working on. 

Especially with photography, one often just talks about the subject matter that’s depicted but that in itself doesn’t explain why a picture is special. It is the how that makes it special. Like, how is something translated? And I guess that’s something I’m grateful for that I am still allowed, after 30 years, to continue to develop a language of how to speak about something like concrete, or water, or the Moon. The Moon has been a constant in my life, something that I, in the corner of my eye, have noticed every month. But this year, for the first time, really included it in an exhibition.

“I’m grateful for that I am still allowed, after 30 years, to continue to develop a language of how to speak about something like concrete, or water, or the Moon” – Wolfgang Tillmans

And also in the title of your debut album, Moon in Earthlight. Could you tell us about your relationship with the Moon as an emblem of simultaneous permanence and transition? I mean, in the sense that it’s ever-present while also appearing to wax and wane.  

Wolfgang Tillmans: I think what I love about astronomy since I discovered it as a child, is that it stimulates my sense of space in terms of trying to locate myself in space. And as a teenager asking myself, ‘What is the point of life? Where do I come from? And what is this all about?’ You know, you’re asking all sorts of questions and being alone at night, looking through the telescope in the daytime watching the Sun through a sun filter, seeing every day how the sphere of the Sun has moved, rotated a notch further with the sunspots moving a little bit further from left to right on the disk of the Sun. 

Or understanding the Moon as this body that orbits us and you can see the different phases of waxing and waning is really an expression of this spatial constellation we’re in. And I mean not space as in celestial space, but really like three bodies in relation to each other – the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. The geometry between us is, on the one hand, super fundamental and gave me comfort, feeling like, ‘Okay, I’m this tiny little bit in this huge clockwork but it is some kind of clockwork, we are not completely without knowledge about where we are, while at the same time, of course, ultimately, I have no idea what this is all about.’

So I suppose it’s like simultaneously orientating and positioning yourself while also losing yourself in the vastness?

Wolfgang Tillmans: For example, the full Moon and the Sun – they are always playing out standing in the opposite position of the other, half a year later. So, the winter Sun stands low above the southern sky and, in a full Moon night in the winter, the full Moon is really high in the sky. And when I see that, I think, ‘Wow, this is where the Sun would be in June.’ Look at it, for example, the coming December full Moon – you’ll see it’s really high up. 

And that makes me think, ‘Okay, in six months’ time, that’s where the Sun is going to be. And that’s going to be summer.’ And when you are in June or July and you see the full Moon, it’s very low, and often always shining still with yellow in the southern sky. And I think, ‘Okay, that’s how low the Sun is in December.’

And there’s comfort for you in this symbiosis?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Yes, this interconnectedness. The Sun and the Moon are both moving on the same line of the ecliptic which, you know, has to do with the Earth orbiting at a tilt, which then creates the seasons. And, I don’t know, I’m terrible at physics and mathematics since puberty. Since adolescence started, I never could translate it into numbers and formulas but I had a great spatial sense of it.

I had this half-formed question about your interest in the physicality of the photograph and whether that’s refelcted in your decision the release of the album as a physical object (in the form of CDs and vinyl) as well just making it available digitally. Does that have any resonance for you at all as an idea? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: I mean, when I first put out music five years ago, I did so on digital and vinyl. And it really was quite an incredible experience after months of working with electronic files to then receive this black disk and put it on a record player. Here the mechanical is a translation of these bytes into grooves, dents, teeth, and valleys cut into the vinyl. And I feel that is what, in a sense, a form of archiving a physical copy of the music has over the potential of a provider, a country, and a sensor to take something offline. 

The vinyl format, I’ve never sort of fetishised particularly. But I liked it obviously, from my point of view as an image-maker, that it is a beautiful 12-inch object. And there is a beauty about this sort of physicality of the sound. But I did also notice that I had a relatively open mind to CDs that was totally not matched by many interlocutors in music. Our partners, my distributor for music, Word and Sound in Hamburg, they laughed at the idea of CDs. Most people think it’s just really uncool and totally dead, but in high-end music, for example, CD is still very fine pure sound. Moon in Earthlight will also come out as vinyl, but it really is, for me, only really like a record; the way that it can be found in 100 years, no matter what sound formats might be lost, you can always listen to what is on this strange object that we found in this cellar. Whereas the idea of cutting this 53-minute piece in half on two sides of a record doesn’t really make sense to me. And that’s why the CD is a perfect format for it, because it’s made for a 60-minute volume of sound. I kind of quite like a CD – when it’s very fresh, obviously, not scratched. In this case, went for the classic jewel case, not a modern paper digipack or something. It’s really a traditional object and it feels quite real.

“What I love about astronomy since I discovered it as a child, is that it stimulates my sense of space in terms of trying to locate myself in space” – Wolfgang Tillmans

Could you please tell us about your album title, Moon in Earthlight?

Wolfgang Tillmans: It really is just like when you’ve been out on a full Moon night and you see the landscape being literally illuminated by the Moon, and you can see everything glowing in a pale, pale light. If you reverse that, and you imagine yourself in the night on the Moon, you’ll actually have this huge bright Earth in the sky. And that gives quite a strong, pale light in the night. And the beauty of that being reflected back to us, I find so special – that we see our own light shining on the Moon in those two or three days after and before a new moon.

It’s such a beautiful idea. Without sounding too sentimental, does that idea function as any kind of metaphor for you at all?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I mean, just that it is the collective light of the whole half of the earth that is shone back to the Moon. So it’s reflected light from Saudi Arabia and light from South Africa. I’ve never said this before, and just because you said metaphor, I don’t want to make it up. I don’t think of this as some universalist metaphor. But, to be honest, on the other hand, of course it is. Because what I find so beautiful about it is that I know that it is a tiny bit of my light; of this spot of Earth where I stand... I mean, that’s physically not correct, because you can only see the phenomenon when the sun has gone down. But, anyway, it’s the light from the parts of Earth where the sun is shining. It’s billions of people’s areas of land that collectively reflect this light and it’s reflected back as this glow. I don’t want to make it too esoteric! But it’s just reciprocity. Like I explained about the full Moon and the Sun, they have a certain reciprocity in their positions in the sky, the same is with the Earth and the Moon – when it is a full Moon, it is new Earth on the Moon. And when on Earth its new Moon, it's full Earth on the Moon. 

Talking about collective light that transcends man-made borders and boundaries reminded me – in an esoteric way – of the way you campaigned tirelessly for the UK to remain in the EU. Five years after the referendum, I still feel a very live sense of grief about the result of the vote and I wondered how do you feel half a decade later?

Wolfgang Tillmans: There is a sense of tragedy that is something that – maybe because I had experienced some other personal tragedies before – growing older, one realises that there are historical things that took place without one’s own ultimate control, that have grave negative effects and that and that happened because of causes that you can analyse and dissect but, still, that doesn’t help. History went the other way. 

I am a deep believer in democracy and in one man or woman, one vote. Few things infuriate me more than – of course, nowadays anti-vaxxers – but few things infuriate me more than when people say, ‘Oh, my vote doesn’t matter anyway. It’s just like a game, it’s all pre-selected. It doesn’t matter.‘ And, it really is just an arrogance to think that, ‘If I can’t have it my way and have a guaranteed outcome my way then I won’t engage in this, in the minutiae of the democratic process.’ Which is, you know, not that cumbersome. 

“I am a deep believer in democracy and in one man or woman, one vote” – Wolfgang Tillmans

You have to, unfortunately, register in the UK to vote, which is a hurdle that lawmakers put into place. There was a tragedy that David Cameron put the date of the referendum during term holidays, so students – I think something like 800,000 students – were no longer at the place where they had been registered. It was the time of Glastonbury, where 150,000 people, again, had to make sure they had postal voted weeks before. All those were votes that were largely pro-remain. I don’t understand why David Cameron, who said that he was pro-remain, chose a date where you would jeopardise easily a million votes. 

I must also say, it was misled. People were misled with lies. It was a surprise campaign. Many, many people were not prepared for the viciousness and the degree of lies. So, it didn’t come for me as a surprise that they won narrowly, but to many, it was a surprise. 

What is more unfortunate is that people then consistently twice voted conservative. And in the second vote they then deliberately voted for the party that delivered a more extreme Brexit than anybody in 2016 could imagine. In 2016, nobody even was talking about leaving the Customs Union. This was not even on our radar. 

And so I do feel solidarity, I do feel grief. And we have this situation just yesterday, where women in America were quoted as saying, ‘I feel for the first time in my life, my citizen’s rights taken away from me with the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling.’ And this feeling of having a European citizenship taken away from you is something that is grave and infuriating and it must leave a lot of scars within families and societies. 

But the thing I could see happening and wanted to so avoid was that, of course, once Brexit turns out not to be a success – which, in my eyes, technically can’t be a success – a blame game would start, and fingerpointing would start and, obviously, it’s not going to be the Finnish and the Maltese that are being pointed at, it’s going to be the French and the Germans... all these old cliches and the Irish peace process – it really rips apart at the very causes of European trouble and it was so unnecessary.

Of all the posters you made advocating for the remain campaign, my favourite was the one that stated: ‘What is lost and lost forever’. Do you feel that idea has been lent an extra kind of poignancy, in light of the result? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: I must say, I didn’t choreograph what I did at the time. It just really came out. It was in the emergency action. I realised in April 2016 there were no passionate, positive voices for remain. The pro voices are technocratic and scary and then all the passion lay with leave. And now I sometimes think some of the wordings are maybe a bit over melodramatic? But then I think no, no, no!

Moon in Earthlight by Wolfgang Tillmans is now available to purchase on CD or stream. The album will be released on vinyl in January 14 2022. The exhibition Sound is Liquid at MUMOK is open until April 24 2022. The exhibition Concrete Column at Regen Projects is open until December 23 2021.