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For photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, politics and art are inseparable

visual art

The unruly, omnivorous eye of Wolfgang Tillmans

For one of the world's most heralded and influential photographers, art and politics are inseparable – now, more than ever, writes James Adams

Politics were on Wolfgang Tillmans's mind the other day in Toronto. They're always on his mind one way or the other. But since the other day just happened to be the day after the final results made it clear that Donald J. Trump was going to be the 45th president of the United States, political thoughts were in the foreground.

At 48, Tillmans is one of the world's most-discussed and heralded, prolific and influential photographers. Born in Germany, educated at the Arts University College at Bournemouth and the Poole College of Art in Britain, he gained attention in the mid-1990s with (mostly) colour images of the world he was inhabiting – a world of raves, nightclubs, squats and squalour, of sexual exploration, drug experimentation, electronic music, gay activism and the proverbial "much else." Like images of his mom's sausages nestled in a frying pan; jeans flopped over a stair post; the Concorde supersonic jet leaving and landing in Bristol. He had – and continues to have – an unruly, omnivorous eye.

Last year, Wolfang Tillmans received one of the world’s most prestigious photography awards: the Hasselblad Award.

Last year, Wolfang Tillmans received one of the world’s most prestigious photography awards: the Hasselblad Award.

Seth Fluker

In 2000, Tillmans became both the first foreign-born artist and full-on photographer to win England's reliably contentious Turner Prize. Last year, he received the Hasselblad Award, one of the planet's most prestigious photography honours, numbering Richard Avedon, Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman among its laureates. More recently, ArtReview magazine named Tillmans, who's relentlessly peripatetic but based mostly in Berlin and London, the ninth most influential individual in the international art scene in its annual Power 100 list. This ranking was just ahead of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and one position below Adam Weinberg, director of New York's Whitney Museum.

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Tall, trim, quick to grin, with close-cropped hair and three days worth of gray-flecked facial stubble, Tillmans was visiting Toronto to give a sort of lecture/visual and audio-visual presentation Nov. 11 at the University of Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre. This was followed by a question-and-answer session with Tom McDonough, art history professor at Binghamton University, N.Y., and a collaborator with Tillmans on the recently published book, What's Wrong with Redistribution? As befits Tillman's stature, the 500-seat Bader theatre was pretty much filled to capacity, reprising what had happened two weeks earlier when Tillmans appeared with McDonough at Vancouver's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

Interviewed in his hotel room, Tillmans confessed to being "really concerned about right-wing populism for a long time," with Trumpism being only its most recent manifestation. Beginning in 2005, he began to install what he called "truth study centres" in individual exhibitions – tables upon which he placed, under glass, texts, photographs, photocopies and ephemera that both seriously and amusingly questioned the then-prevalent notion that the world had, with the collapse of communism, entered a post-ideological/post-historical age.

Photos from one of Wolfgang Tillmans’s books. These images are among those that first brought Tillmans recognition.

Photos from one of Wolfgang Tillmans’s books. These images are among those that first brought Tillmans recognition.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this year, Tillmans vigorously campaigned against Brexit, including producing T-shirt designs and more than two dozen pro-EU posters available as free downloads. Another concern has been the rise of the Alternative fuer Deutschland party that now has representation in 10 of Germany's 16 state parliaments and, a year ahead of the country's next federal election, the support of 16 per cent of the electorate, according to polls.

"I don't think Germany's going to go like France where Marine Le Pen's Front National is within striking range of forming a government [in 2017]," Tillmans said. "But there is a vitriol and a particular nastiness, especially in parts of eastern Germany, that is absolutely shocking.

"While I'm not equating what we're seeing now with direct National Socialism, the situation does make you wonder how far down the line we are in 'transferring' the 1920s and 1930s," he continued. "A particular concern for me is the 'post-truthfulness' of where we are at" – the willingness of the Trumps, Putins and Erdogans of the world to tell outrageous lies with seeming impunity, even acceptance by millions of their followers.

For Tillmans, "what's so super-scary … is when people who hold a misconception are confronted with the truth about that misconception." The result isn't the adoption of a "neutral stance or a change to a more truthful view," he said. "Instead, it causes them to more strongly believe in the misconception. I'm extremely scared by that. Some sociological studies say the phenomenon is true in 40 per cent of people and if it is, you have no safeguard against a Hitler or any other demagogue.

"That's why I really think we're in a wide, unmoored-at-sea situation" – a situation he's been allegorizing recently in large-format photographs of moody, Courbet-like seascapes with high, distant horizons, shot using a full-format 35 mm digital camera. Tillmans, in fact, featured just such a sea shot on the invitation poster for the Nov. 5 opening of his latest exhibition at Regen Projects gallery in Los Angeles. The line of text at the bottom of the poster reads: "Only the Americans have the power to stop Trump."

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"I don't want it to be seen that there's this political activity and then there's the art. It's completely connected," he stressed. "I've always understood my work as this amplifier. Why would I speak about anything any way? Making pictures is speaking about things."

Twenty-five or so years ago, he said, "I took the liberty – and maybe I had the talent – to choose photography and to work in print and the gallery for exactly political reasons. I liked the changeability, mobility, the adaptability of my medium and that I could speak about very concrete things in society."

Tillmans gained attention in the mid-1990s with mostly colour images of the world he was inhabiting.

Tillmans gained attention in the mid-1990s with mostly colour images of the world he was inhabiting.

Being gay, HIV positive and from Germany – a country whose embrace of Nazism he described as "the biggest destroying force ever" – Tillmans says he was always aware of the hard-won "social developments" that "allowed me to live the life I live." Developments that were invariably "accompanied by art and music and were inseparable from art and creativity." Developments that "should not be taken for granted."

Tillmans acknowledged art is an "extremely individualistic field." But "as of [Nov. 9, the day after the U.S. election], artists and people in all of the arts have to get a little bit over their strong sense of uniqueness and social exceptionalism and rarity and purity and territorialism. It's about alliances and speaking together in a smart way. That's what I really want to focus on in on the future: how to make this ongoing urgency not a single man's cause or the cause of the select few, with all the 'do-gooder' accusations that can come with that."

Garry Winogrand famously said he photographed "to see what things look like photographed." Tillmans's motivation is, if anything, even more subjective: "I want to approximate my photography to what it feels like to look through my eyes," he told me. "That interest in subjectivity that is at the same time interested in evidence, in naturalism. … It's not about showing me as the great creator, so stylistically, it's sort of deadpan."

Tillmans says he wants his photography to give viewers a sense of 'what it feels like to look through my eyes.'

Tillmans says he wants his photography to give viewers a sense of ‘what it feels like to look through my eyes.’

Tillmans stayed loyal to shooting on film until 2012, when he found it almost impossible to obtain the fine-grained Fuji colour film he preferred. Switching to digital, he's impressed with high-definition capacity, but continues to see himself as an analog photographer. Which for him means no digital manipulation whatsoever. "I think analog, in its origins, means kind of an A-to-B translation or correlation," he explained. "So when you look at the lens, on one side is an object in reality and there's that ray of light travelling through the lens right to a particular spot on the film or the digital sensor. That spot defines analog for me: The lens puts it there, no one else. It's the rules of optic that put it there. … I trust what the lens puts on the sensor is exactly what the lens put on film 10 years ago."

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Amazingly, for a guy who's travelled from the Faroe Islands to make a video of the total eclipse of the sun to Ushuaia, Argentina, a city on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and seemingly all points in between, Tillmans's recent visits to Vancouver and Toronto were the first he'd made to Canada since 1994. And even though the Art Gallery of Ontario has 24 Tillmans prints in its permanent collection, and the National Gallery two, he's never had a major exhibition in this country. That visit to Canada almost a quarter-century ago was an assignment for Britain's i-D magazine – an early Tillmans booster – to shoot DJ Richie Hawtin (a.k.a. Plastikman), then 24, at Hawtin's parents' house in Windsor, Ont.

Tillmans acknowledged his rather low profile here to be "a bit shocking." The situation, he predicted, would be rectified, but not any time soon. In the meantime, there's always that show in Los Angeles through Dec. 23. And the Tate Modern is hosting a major four-month solo exhibition in London next year, beginning Feb. 15. It's going to focus on his output of the past 14 years, while also looking at his "expanded practice" into digital slide projections, video, art-book publishing, curatorship and recorded music.

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