Wolfgang Tillmans hobbles towards me, his left leg strapped into a fearsome contraption designed to allow his broken bones and ligaments to heal.
He is mobile, but only just, reliant on crutches to move around his studio, and a wheelchair to cover longer distances. Tillmans, it turns out, is recovering from a serious car crash. For now, this most light-footed of artists — a prominent anti-Brexit campaigner whose works have explored themes such as dance, flight and space — finds his freedom of movement sharply constrained.
I have arranged to pick up Tillmans from his studio in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, where he rents the first floor of a 1930s department store with a notable Bohemian pedigree. Tillmans and his 20-odd assistants occupy a succession of white, airy rooms. The largest contains a vast model of the exhibition space at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is preparing a retrospective of his work; it seems destined to confirm Tillmans as one of the most celebrated artists living today.
The 50-year-old German is in shorts and a purple T-shirt that proclaims in bright pink letters: Votiamo insieme. Votiamo per l’europa (“Let’s vote together. Let’s vote for Europe”). The slogan is part of his pro-European political campaign work, an increasingly important part of his life in recent years. As we head for the nearby restaurant, Tillmans is talkative and scrupulously polite, equipped with a disarming, slightly mischievous grin that lights up his still-boyish face.
Our lunch venue is not without controversy. Orania is an ambitious restaurant, known for its subtle blend of German and Asian flavours, in a luxury hotel on the leafy square that abuts Tillmans’ studio. This is the formerly rough heart of countercultural Kreuzberg, just up the road from SO36, the most storied punk club in Berlin. Like much of the rest of the capital, the neighbourhood is gentrifying rapidly, sparking angry — and occasionally violent — opposition. Orania is a highly charged symbol in that battle. Several windows are shattered by stones, other parts of the façade are marked by paintbomb splashes.
Tillmans seems keen not to pick sides in this urban conflict. He says he chose the restaurant because his broken leg makes it hard to move farther afield, and because it is quiet enough to allow for a conversation. “Also, the people here are really nice,” he says.
The waitress arrives with a clutch of menus. Tillmans finds what he wants in seconds. We are in the midst of Spargelzeit, white asparagus season, which exerts a near-mystical pull on Germans. Tillmans and I are no exception, and we each order a plate of the delicate vegetable, which is harvested in Beelitz just outside Berlin, accompanied by boiled potatoes, ham and Hollandaise sauce. As a starter, he picks Orania’s quirky take on a tomato and mozzarella salad. I opt for grilled octopus with gin-infused tomatoes.
As we wait for our first course, I ask about Tillmans’ turn towards political activism, which started with Brexit and has since grown into something of a full-blown campaign organisation that produces slogans, posters and T-shirts for a variety of events, including the May 26 European election.
“What changed is that I suddenly saw my whole world and my entire way of life under threat,” he responds. “Friendship between the peoples of Europe is of absolutely central importance to me. It is the basis of the freedom and prosperity that we enjoy, and I wanted to do whatever I could to preserve that.”
It is easy to see why Brexit matters so deeply to Tillmans. Born and raised in the small town of Remscheid in West Germany, he moved to England in his early twenties and lived there for more than a quarter of a century. Today he spends most of his time in Berlin but keeps a smaller studio in London. “I didn’t leave Germany because I felt I had to leave something behind. I left because I saw something positive in England ... I found something in England that touched me, but I also never wanted to leave behind my Germanness.”
He emerged on the scene in the early 1990s, publishing photos of young ravers as well as strangely subversive fashion shoots in magazines such as i-D. In the years since, Tillmans has built up a body of work that is instantly recognisable yet fiendishly hard to summarise or define. Hours into our lunch, he offers an attempt of his own, saying he wants to “make pictures that talk about what it feels like to be alive today”. The phrase captures the scale of his ambition, but also the difficulty faced by anyone looking for a simple key to his work.
Tillmans’ decision to venture into the political arena may be new, but his art has been political from the start, he says. “The acid house and house music revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed highly political to me. People were trying out a new utopian form of living together, between women and men, a new approach to sexuality ... That is something I wanted to amplify. Photography was an amplifier and it still is today.”
In Tillmans’ mind, the political lurks everywhere, even — or perhaps especially — in the superficially beautiful. “Beauty is what society deems to be worthwhile or desirable. Ugly is what society deems to be non-desirable. If you take the example of two men kissing, that is a picture I can find beautiful even if someone else is disgusted by it.”
The irony, of course, is that the recent surge in rightwing and nationalist sentiment across Europe is at least in part a backlash against the cultural and social shifts that Tillmans was documenting at the time. “This has to do with men and it has to do with sexuality,” he says of the current political tides. “We are living in a moment when, at least in some parts of the world, equality between men and women and attitudes towards different sexual identities have reached a level that some regard with abhorrence. And there is an authoritarian part of society — mostly men, of course — who have seen society move in this direction for decades and who hate it.”
We have made swift work of our starters — both delicious — and are halfway through our plates of asparagus when the conversation shifts back from Tillmans’ politics to his art, which is far broader in scope than many of his casual admirers realise. In some of his best-known photographs, Tillmans tries to draw meaning and beauty from the seemingly mundane: apples and potatoes on a window sill, a folded piece of paper, the wing of an aeroplane, a fly sitting atop a pile of crab shells. He has also devoted long stretches of his career to abstraction, using chemicals, light and photographic paper to produce works of pure colour and movement.
In 2000, he became the first photographer and the first non-Briton to win the Turner Prize. Yet Tillmans insists that he is no photographer. Indeed, some of his earliest work was produced with nothing more than a photocopier. He has returned to this humble machine time and again since, including in the works that make up part of Tillmans’ current solo show at Maureen Paley in London.
I ask him about the now-famous picture that apparently marked his beginning as an artist: taken during a beach holiday in Lacanau, France, it resulted from Tillmans pointing the camera downwards into the sand, creating an almost abstract image that includes bits of his leg, a swath of pink fabric and black Adidas shorts. He was 18 at the time. It could have stayed an experimental holiday snap, except — as Tillmans realised when he put together one of his first major exhibitions a decade later — it was not.
“What made it special was that it was an immediate moment of self-perception. It was a moment of doing something and reflecting it at the same time. It was also a moment of doing something irrational, and doing it so consciously,” he tells me. The picture, Tillmans decided, belonged in the exhibition. Today, it forms part of the MoMA collection in New York.
“That is one definition of art: to do something that shouldn’t be done, to do something that others shouldn’t see you do. But when you do all this on purpose, it no longer works. Then it becomes artificial,” he adds. Tillmans has wrestled with these questions for more than 30 years but insists there can never be a formula. “This is a game that — unfortunately, thankfully — can never be mastered,” he concludes.
Tillmans has decided against wine, leaving me to drink a glass of crisp Riesling on my own. I am tempted to order another but decide a clear head is preferable. Even in a state of sobriety, I find Tillmans’ thoughts are not always easy to follow. He speaks slowly and carefully, stopping frequently along the way to offer a clarification or correction, though occasionally he soars to levels of abstraction that leave me slightly bewildered. There is also, I realise, an inherent contradiction between my desire to nail down precisely the meaning of Tillmans’ work, and his determination to leave room for uncertainty, interpretation and association. As he remarks at one point, “don’t kill it by naming it”.
One thing that comes across clearly, however, is Tillmans’ fascination with questions that have become increasingly acute in today’s world of total image saturation: What makes a picture? When does a picture become possible? And how can a mechanically produced picture — that has never even been touched by the hand of the artist — still be charged with meaning and emotion?
For Tillmans, one response has been to look at the ephemeral, and to “extract great impact from very fragile things”. At other times, his answer has been autobiographical. Indeed, among the many highly charged pictures that Tillmans has made over the years, two stand out for their painful personal connotation. “Forever Fortresses” dates from 1997 and shows two hands clasped on a hospital bed. One looks healthy and belongs to Tillmans himself. The other — pale and thin, the thumb attached to a pulse oximeter — belongs to Jochen Klein, a German artist and Tillmans’ partner at the time. The picture was taken just hours before Klein’s death, of Aids-related pneumonia.
“It is not normal to take a picture like this — on the hospital bed, on the day Jochen died. But it seems I had to do it,” Tillmans recalls. “It shows a moment of devastation in my life but it is a quiet picture, a moment of sadness that is absolutely truthful. If you know how to read it you cannot avoid feeling a lump in your throat, even if you don’t know exactly what it shows. It is clear that something serious is happening.”
The second picture I want to ask Tillmans about was taken long after “Forever Fortresses” but is closely related. It is called “17 years’ supply” and shows a large cardboard box filled with empty pharmaceutical packages. The drugs they once contained were taken by Tillmans as part of his own HIV treatment and to prevent the outbreak of the disease that robbed him of his partner 17 years earlier.
“I kept those packages out of respect and fascination for modern pharmacology. I am of course extremely grateful for the British and American companies that make these drugs that keep me alive. But I am also curious about the substances, and what these substances do in my body to keep it from falling ill,” Tillmans explains.
Once again, he sees an unmistakable political connection. “This picture also marks the arrival of HIV in the group of treatable diseases. The fear of death, that was so pervasive for people in the 1980s, is no longer there — as long as these medicines exist and are taken regularly. But if those medicines are no longer made and paid for, then my life is over. So this is a very existential question for me.”
We have been speaking for almost three hours. Tillmans’ appetite — for conversation, for ideas and for food — has turned out to be prodigious. Our desserts (a luscious combination of marinated strawberries and cream) have come and gone, our coffee cups are drained. We have covered vast and varied ground: from the role that Bronski Beat’s music in the early 1980s played in his coming out, to the awkwardness of photographing seafood on a park bench in Tasmania. He has tried to explain the order behind his seemingly disorderly manner of hanging pictures, and the difference between a loud but small image and a quiet but large one. I think with regret of all the questions that are still on my list, but Tillmans is already running late for an appointment with his physiotherapist.
I pay the bill. Tillmans settles into his wheelchair, and I push my guest back across Oranienplatz, drenched in mild late afternoon sun. We have almost reached his studio when Tillmans asks me to stop and wheel him back a few metres. He has seen something that is of interest: a patch of recently laid pavement, still dusted with fresh sand.
The spot, Tillmans tells me, was occupied until recently by a Litfaßsäule, one of the Berlin advertising columns that were once ubiquitous across the city but which are now gradually being dismantled. Armed with that knowledge, the unremarkable scene before our eyes suddenly takes on a different character: we are looking at a former hub of information that has now fallen silent.
He gets out his mobile phone and takes a few pictures. “Das muss man dokumentieren,” he says matter-of-factly. That has to be documented.
A few minutes later Tillmans is back in his studio, and I am left to ponder an unexpected question: Did I just witness the making of an enduring work of art? Or will the pavement picture be swiftly filed away, never to reappear? I suspect it is the latter, but with Tillmans you can never be sure. If there is one lesson that can be drawn from his art, it is that pictures — beautiful, meaningful, unforgettable pictures — can emerge when we least expect them, and in the most unlikely of places.
• Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.