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Can art and space speak to each other and to us? Rebecca Tucker goes behind the scenes with German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans as he mounts his new show at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans hangs his photograph "I don't want to get over you.", 2000, before his show at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, Friday, on March 24, 2023.

Wolfgang Tillmans knows how to start a conversation.

At Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario on a recent Friday, the German photographer was “98 per cent finished” the installation of To Look Without Fear, an enormous photo retrospective that takes up the AGO’s entire fifth floor. The show comprises more than three decades of Tillmans’s photos, which span portrait, documentary, candid and more experimental work; curating these images, he says, is akin to facilitating a dialogue.

“But there are many of them speaking,” Tillmans clarifies, chuckling. “So it’s a multilogue.”

Tillmans, then, is an expert moderator of the enormous and disparate conversational threads contained within his body of work. Since the late 1980s, the Turner Prize-winning photographer has been using his keen, often playful eye to explore – and invite – different ways of seeing, offering sharp, exploratory images that ask the viewer to consider (or reconsider) their perspective. And his subject matter is vast: from nightlife revellers and lovers in embrace to extreme close-ups of the natural world, Tillmans’s lens is imaginative, and, indeed, without fear.

At the AGO, the images on display range not only in composition and subject matter but in size: Giant photos that occupy nearly entire walls share the same space as 4- by 6-inch prints. Involved in the conversation, too, is the gallery itself: For Tillmans, the entire space is part of the composition. The photographer is well known for his installation style. While some of his pieces are hung in frames or behind glass, most images (of all sizes) are suspended on the walls using only nails and binder clips or, sometimes, simply affixed with Scotch tape.

Tillmans has long been as interested in his medium and materials as he is his messaging, which may help explain why he prefers to display his images so sparsely and without barriers. “I’ve always loved paper,” he says, smiling wryly, before elaborating: “The photograph is not just a way to carry out information,” he says, “it is a thing itself. And that has usually been not considered. By making the photograph an object, the photograph is saying ‘I’m not representing anything. You’re looking at me.’ It’s a fundamental reversal, because we are always looking at [photographs] to tell us about something else.”

At 54, Tillmans is not old, but his photographs document a generation of enormous societal and political change. His work does not shy away from his point of view. Some of his earlier images feature images of his partner, the painter Jochen Klein, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1997. One image, titled 17 Years’ Supply, shows a cardboard box filled with HIV medication, with some bottles showing his name (Tillmans is HIV positive). For his “truth study centre,” a continuing project that begun in 2005, tables are collaged with printouts of news articles, social-media posts, magazine clippings and other ephemera that present differing versions of the “truth.”

The project, Tillmans admits, is more relevant than ever, in the era of “fake news,” anti-vaxxers and widespread disinformation. A location-specific truth table is created for each city where this project is displayed. The Toronto table features, among other clippings, a printed-out Instagram post decrying apparent plans for development on Hanlan’s Point in the Toronto Islands.

“Some people don’t like the open-endedness, that I don’t offer a decision,” Tillmans says. “But that’s the point.” Here, and throughout the exhibit, Tillmans only asks that we look. The dialogue, then, is up to us.

Open this photo in gallery:

Wolfgang Tillmans' photograph "Ostgut Freischwimmer (left)", 2004. "To Look without Fear" opens at the AGO on April 7, 2023.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

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