When Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize in 2000, he became the first ever photographer, the first non-Brit, and the first in a new millennium to be awarded the accolade. But way before then, the artist has always been one of “firsts,” a restless and hugely hardworking talent that pushes his medium as far as he can take it.
This week sees the opening of a new exhibition, Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 at Tate Modern, showing work created across various media including photographs, video, digital slide projections, publications, curatorial projects and recorded music since 2003.
Tillmans, who lives and works between Berlin and London, made his name in the late '80s and 1990s as a fashion and club photographer. On moving to Hamburg, he was drawn to the city’s clubbing and rave culture, and through his images managed to document the sense of togetherness and community at the heart of those scenes. These notions remain central to his work: nothing about what he does is introspective – instead, Tillmans looks out to others, and to the world.
"He's an artist who asks you to be an accomplice - he believes an artist should contribute something to the world,” says the show’s co-curator and former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. He attributes this sense of responsibility to Tillmans’ continued engagement with global and political issues, making work around issues such as the Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the anti-war demonstrations that surrounded it, and his recent series of images encouraging UK youth to vote in the EU referendum last June.
"Wolfgang is someone who has an instinct. He's not a prophet but he sees how things will go and has an eye on the world,” adds Dercon. "He’s a 21st century Renaissance man. He cares not just about photography but about the world."
The multifarious concerns Tillmans explores in his work make for a superb array of diverse and unexpected images in the Tate show: we see an installation made up of fashion shoots for Arena Homme +, travel documentation, lots of pictures of airports and aeroplanes, snapshots of queer nightlife and day-life, clubs, lobsters, a vast steel grey sea that gives you a chill just by looking at it. As show co-curator Helen Sainsbury suggests, Tillmans “uses the exhibition itself as an art form,” and as such some images are hung as vast plains, others tiny and pasted onto the walls in clusters as if recreating a teenage bedroom, if that particular teenager found themselves shooting the likes of Morrissey rather than tacking up a Smash Hits centrefold bearing his countenance.
Barely any images are framed; instead they sit flimsily on the walls, making them into physical objects rather than just images, and ones that both feel tantalising accessible and quietly vulnerable. This vulnerability is a central tenet throughout the show and throughout Tillmans’ career: in his early days as a club photographer he worked under the pseudonym Fragile, and much of his work explores the vulnerability of man-made images to imperfections and glitches.
One of the highlights of the show is the 2015 video Instrument, a split screen showing a man dancing about in white y-fronts to a tribal percussive rhythm. It seems to sum up what Tillmans can be about: it’s deeply hypnotic, somehow powerful, compelling yet wryly humorous. He’s a rare artist who makes you look at the world in all its facets – be they big, political issues or small but significant everyday occurrences – in a whole new light. The ability to open our eyes anew is a skill indeed, and we can’t wait to see what the next 14 years will bring from Wolfgang Tillmans.