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Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern
“astro crusto,” a 2012© Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans on Tate show: this isn’t about politics

Keen to assert himself as an artist first-and-foremost – the multi-hyphenate talks about what he hopes visitors take away from his new exhibition, opening today

Chris Dercon, curator, art historian and ex-director of the Tate Modern, yesterday morning introduced Wolfgang Tillmans, the subject of the museum’s newest exhibition, by describing the German-born, Turner Prize-winning artist and photographer as “a renaissance man of the 21st century”. With work that’s difficult to define and, as Dercon admitted, equally as difficult to curate (albeit no less rewarding) it’s no surprise that Tillmans is one of the world’s most innovative and engaging artists working today.

Entitled Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017, the exhibition explores Tillmans’ production across different media from 2003 to the present day – but this is no retrospective. “Each room in the exhibition has been specifically configured by Tillmans as a personal response to the present moment”, reads the exhibition’s booklet. It adds, “Ever conscious of his role as an artist, his works engage us with themes of community and sociability, empathy and vulnerability.”

Spanning 14 rooms, visitors will find Tillmans’ sculptural pieces, curatorial projects, performances and recorded music, as well as his photography work. His early magazine work – which documented youth culture and saw him initially shunned by institutions such as MoMA – will also be on display.

“Politics are part of my life and have always been an interest of mine, but working here, day and night, for the past two weeks, reminded me again of how making art is really the centre of what I do” – Wolfgang Tillmans

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Tillmans strongly believes changed the world, until the present day (last year, he staunchly and creatively led the “Remain” campaign in the lead up to the UK’s Brexit vote) politics have been prominent in much of his work. Therefore, they will naturally hold a presence within the show.

However, speaking at the show’s press preview yesterday morning, Tillmans was keen to re-assert his position as an artist first-and-foremost. “I want to really draw your attention to the fact that this exhibition is about art, it’s not about politics. Politics are part of my life and have always been an interest of mine, but working here, day and night, for the past two weeks, reminded me again of how making art is really (at) the centre of what I do,” he said. “It is about working in these spaces, like this room, it’s something that we cannot reproduce in a book, we can’t see that online, on a smartphone, all these aspects of architecture, of detail, of perspective… all that can only be experienced here, it cannot be boiled down to some content line, ‘this is about this or that’.”

When asked to clarify the distinction between his art and his politics, he explained: “My work has always been motivated by talking about society; how we live together and how we feel in our body, in our sexuality... that’s never not political. And the question of beauty is a highly political one because beauty is ‘what is acceptable in society? What is supported in society?’ Two men kissing, is that acceptable? These are questions of beauty and (are) political. The exhibition is not about politics; it is just as much about poetry it is about art, installation art and it is thinking about the world. I never felt that the private and political could be separate because the political is an accumulation of many peoples’ private lives.”

Defining what he hoped visitors would take away from the exhibition, Tillmans spoke about human connection. “It is worth always looking at things from different perspectives; that there is a closed view and a far view, there is a side view and they don’t deliver opposite truths. This is not about ‘anything goes’, this is about particular points of view in how I look at the world and I hope that we connect at some places and points. I don’t expect anyone to understand this exhibition 100 per cent and think exactly in the same way. But if here and there, there is a resonance of you seeing something and thinking, ‘I know how that smells’ or ‘I know how that feels’, that is (a) connection between us. I want you to feel encouraged by the curiosity that I have for the world to also not be afraid of the world, and to not let fear be implanted in your brain, with all the problems. This is also a positive world and there are a lot of things that connect us and we can enjoy together – being aware of the problems of the world should never stop us celebrating what is around us.”

On 3 March, the second part of, what is being dubbed, “Tillmans’ presence” at the Tate Modern will be unveiled in its Switch House building, which opened last year. The photographer will turn the building’s former oil tanks into an experimental space for ten days of performances by musicians and artists, as well as Tillmans himself.

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 runs until 11 June 2017 at Tate Modern

Read Dazed’s ultimate guide to Wolfgang Tillmans