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Wolfgang Tillmans, “Moviment” (2022)
Wolfgang Tillmans, “Moviment” (2022)Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; and Maureen Paley, London

Wolfgang Tillmans on New York, his latest show and AI in art

As the artist’s new solo exhibition Fold Me opens at David Zwirner in New York, he discusses the works on show, the future of digital photography, and what he listens to when he installs

A large portrait of a highway leading to New York City hangs on the back wall of David Zwirner’s 19th Street location. The photo reveals the arteries that connect the city’s systems, suspended above construction zones and factories that make it all possible. New York from New Jersey (2022) is riddled by the expectation of what might lay ahead in the cluster of skyscrapers, visible just under the clouds. On the other hand, this is an ever so slightly out-of-focus photo of New York from a distance on a gray day. Such is Wolfgang Tillmans’ world. “The clouds are everyday, not this spectacular scene. What I’m trying to achieve is a negotiation between the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of things which are all around us.”

Fold Me is the legendary artist’s first exhibition in New York since his major retrospective at MoMA last year. 77 images are presented in a wide range of scales, placed idiosyncratically across five rooms and three corridors. The variation in size keeps you glued to the wall, pacing back and forth to adjust from postcard to life-sized portraits. Among these images are depictions of geographic contours from afar in “Elk Creek in Meade County, South Dakota” (2023), and “Power Station (Low Clouds)” (2023).

On other walls, we see more intentional work that explores creases and folds through still life portraiture such as “Lagos still life II” (2022), an intimate portrait of bruised mangoes and plantains strewn across a bed. Similarly, “Watering, a” (2022) is a carefully constructed still life depicting bottle caps alongside a water sachet, the safest form of drinking water in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Dispersed throughout the show is the series Lighters, which features photographic paper slumped over and bent behind acrylic glass casing, a more technical approach to his fascination with photo printing.

Continuing the artist‘s interest in celestial bodies (in 2021 he released the album Moon in Earthlight – 53-minute-long soundscape inspired, in part by the night sky), Seeing the Scintillation of Sirius Through a Defocused Telescope (2023) is a video installation that captures Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which he filmed in real-time. The star’s scintillating, colourful light glitters in a dark, bare room, working like a sedative as you gaze up from the carpet. In this regard and countless others, Tillmans is a master of mood, a poet with a curiosity for the tensions produced by the ordinary and the marvellous. He tells me that his work is often thought of as a quotidian, diaristic journey. But this isn’t his intention, and he doesn’t want to be misunderstood. “People talk about my work as if it has this one direction of being everyday. But it is more the contrast that lives in everything and in us, and in me.”

Fold Me opened last Thursday, and though the city was suffering with a hangover from Armory, fashion week and a heatwave, a bustling crowd took to Chelsea, desperate to see what new work had been hung by one most influential photographers of our time. The vivacious artist, whose international career has spanned almost four decades, was swarmed by dealers, collectors, zealots and friends from around the world. A few hours before his opening, I sat down with Tillmans to talk about his new body of work, the future of digital photography, and what he listens to when he installs.

Folds are a recurring visual trope that you’ve experimented with throughout your career. Can you talk me through why this concept felt important to you now in bringing forth a new body of work?

Wolfgang Tillmans: The word popped into my head, just like melodies do sometimes. ‘Folds’ struck me because it feels so actively done, but it’s also asking to be done. Of course, we are constantly folding our limbs, and lovers are folding into each other. It’s something that has quite a warm connotation. On the other hand, it’s omnipresent. The folds of clothes, and also folds as the location of desire. The folds in the surface of landscapes, the mountains. They are always the negotiation of pressure and the distribution of space. If you have a given distance and you push the object together to a shorter distance, the object has to somehow fold.

Your installation for MoMA last year is something of a legend these days. Can you tell me about your installation process for this show? Did you have a New York audience in mind?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I see my exhibitions as a response to the architectural opportunities that the gallery offers. Photographs are great in books, but the spatial opportunities that you can explore are unique in each gallery I exhibit in. I make a model out of cardboard, usually in the scale 1:10, which is quite big. Over time, the model has become a tool that I’m quite literate in. Large parts of the exhibition I have decided and placed already in the model and exactly transferred onto the walls here. Then other elements take several days to settle and move around.

You have mentioned that your choice of placement and scale are chosen to elicit a particular conversation between images. In terms of placement, how do you make these decisions? Is it straightforward? Do you ever waver?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I understand the desire to see where these different sizes come from, because obviously we are geared to judge things by scale and to understand the meaning of things also partly through their scale. I’m playing with ‘more is more’ and ‘less is less’, and trying to avoid ‘more is less’, and to somehow find the right way to fill the volume of the space. At MoMA, I couldn’t have a super sparse room because the works had to tell a story of many years. So for this exhibition now, eight months later, I felt I definitely wanted to have a different rhythm. I want people to feel from the start that this has a different way of navigating space.

There was a self-portrait that I had planned to be eight feet tall [“Moviment” (2022) – see the lead image above] that felt totally right as an idea. To be big and bold, taking a risk. But then seeing it on the gallery floor, I immediately felt that it wasn’t right. I had this medium-sized version of it with me that I think has just the right presence.

Can you tell me about your relationship with New York both on a personal level and as a subject?

Wolfgang Tillmans: This place is so extreme and fantastic, and one of the most special places on the entire planet. I’ve always had a longstanding fascination. When I first visited in 1985, I came as a day-tripper from Pennsylvania, where I stayed with a penfriend. Once I hit Manhattan I remember I went to MoMA and the Fiorucci store. I spoke to a shop attendant and he probably found me curious, you know, this 16-year-old overgrown kid from Germany. I asked him if he could give me his name and a number, and he wrote down Joey Arias, and I said, you are Joey Arias?! Your name is on the back of the Klaus Nomi album! [Laughs] He’s still one of the leading drag performers.

As a subject, a lot of my work comes from this idea of the even though. Like, I can’t really take a picture of this thing but I do it anyway. Even though the sunset is a cliché, I feel moved by this anyway, and so it’s the same with New York. It’s probably one of the most photographed places on earth, and even though it is so overly made subject of art, I try it anyway.

“I don’t know if there is now a quick antidote to the entire artificial world of AI. There will be subcultures and countercultures that hold onto their senses, but maybe things are quite far-evolved in a downward spiral of visual obliteration” – Wolfgang Tillmans

This photograph in the show ‘New York from New Jersey’ is only possible because the fantasticness of everything in it is not. The camera is a normal, high-quality, consumer camera. It’s top quality, but it’s not like a large format, all-seeing eye. It’s super detailed, but it’s not infinitely sharp. The clouds are just sort of every day, and not like this most spectacular scene. What I’m trying to achieve is a negotiation between the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of things which are all around us.

You can see it in the way that maybe fruit mixes in a yogurt. It’s just there on the breakfast table, but you can also see it as this incredible thing, and then maybe there is a ray of light hitting the table behind it. I certainly see this as being ordinary and extraordinary. Some people talk about my work as if it has this one direction of being every day. But it is more about the contrast that lives in everything and in us, and in me.

I’ve been dying to ask – what do you listen to during installation?

Wolfgang Tillmans: In this case, I actually listened to a few recent recordings of mine, interspersed with an English electronic band called Plaid, and the French electronic musician Lucie Antunes. I came across her album, Carnaval, and had that sort of on repeat this summer. Otherwise, I am in the early stages of working on a follow-up to Moon in Earthlight.

I noticed there aren’t any benches in the video installation room. I perched on the carpet and gazed up at what the telescope had captured, and it felt quite organic and childlike. Was that choice to have people sit on the carpet intentional?

Wolfgang Tillmans: The video is also placed a little bit higher than usual, so you look up a little bit. The reason why there is no bench is purely because I wanted the room to be really dark. If people run into a bench, then they can fall over and then you have to light it. I already put these three little floor lights, where I wanted people to feel safe, but not just preoccupied with orienting themselves in this dark hole.

I always like carpet in the video room because I personally love lying on carpets. It is an invitation to witness a natural phenomenon. Few of the viewers fully understand what they’re seeing, but what I hope comes across is that what they’re seeing, they can trust. This is a recording of something that actually happened in front of the sensor. It’s nothing that was done in post-production, all colours are natural. It is about how the light of this star has arrived at the sensor, and that specificity, while it’s of course a completely random slice of time recorded here.

There is something democratic about Sirius because once you know it, you’ll always recognise it. It’s the brightest star in the night sky, and it’s visible roughly from November to March in the Southern direction. It’s a cold white light that always twinkles, whereas if you see an object that’s brighter than that, it can only be Jupiter or Venus. When you see Sirius, after having seen the video, you know that it actually sparkles in all the colours of the rainbow.

That’s a good segue into something you mentioned in your walk-through that really stuck with me. You said that this show might be one of the last to be viewed by a generation who would not assume that the images have been digitally manipulated. As someone who never manipulates your images and relies on a level of trust between you and your audience, how does this seismic societal shift make you feel about working as a lens-based artist?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I was never afraid of digital technology. I’ve been using digital printing of some sort literally since 1986, since I was 18. But somehow I felt that the recording of light, I always liked to be analogue. First on film and then on the sensor. I find that the limitation of the analogue recording is somehow getting closer to the mystery of life and the mystery of things. I hope audiences will trust me in the future. Maybe our overall understanding of imagery will have changed so dramatically in a short period of time that there is kind of no turning back, no understanding of what’s real.

It’s a little dire. In the past, one felt that the pendulum would swing. Like the 90s were the more gritty, grimy reaction to the polished 80s. But I don’t know if there is now a quick antidote to the entire artificial world of AI. There will be subcultures and countercultures that hold onto their senses, but maybe things are quite far-evolved in a downward spiral of visual obliteration.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Fold Me is at David Zwirner, New York until October 14, 2023