The New Confusion
Wolfgang Tillmans in conversation with Bálint Rádóczy
Bálint Rádóczy: Contrary to you, I’ve never been excited about pictures in terms of their physicality. I just want to have a machine that takes pictures of things exactly the way I see them, and that’s it. I don't care about any other part of the traditional, artistic process—developing, printing, exhibiting, arranging. I think that my quasi-disgust towards these other qualities of a photographer arose partly because of the elitist, glossy, noble connotations that usually accompany the practice of photography.
I feel you successfully got rid of a lot of these mannerisms that have accumulated over the past 150 years. You made a statement against photography as the rarified art object, you made a move against the photo series as the basic unit of photography. Most of all, you made us look at reality as it is, again, with a beginner’s eye. And then you changed your mind, you’ve gone back and forth, you played with the scene, embraced it, rejected it, you contradicted yourself, you’ve done everything. You were always very keen on arranging and re-arranging things, which probably comes from the idea that pictures are objects of full value to you. You compare them to sculptures. It’s as though you’re somehow saying that pictures are not pictures.
Wolfgang Tillmans: But they are, too—they are, of course, pictures, among other things. The reason why I’m interested in arranging is not because I see them as objects, but because they are pieces of image information and as such they become building blocks of a syntax. You can make an online pdf and arrange pictures even though they are immaterial. I like both. And that may be why you see it as an ongoing contradiction, but I don't feel it is one. It is a co-existence of things being more than just one at any given time.
BR: To me they are more like “semi-objects”.
WT: Well, they’re not the real thing, right? They’re not the pipe itself, but that doesn't make them semi-objects. Rather, they are like two things at once: they are new objects in their own right, but they are also representations of something else.
BR:. To me they are reminders. Their purpose is just to represent. I often say, “don’t look at the photograph as a picture. Look at what’s in the picture”. I think it’s funny how it switched. 50 years ago you wouldn't have to remind people that these are not images or pictures, because they would just look at them and say these are…
WT: …leaves in a pool.
BR: Exactly. And now I’m in a position where I have to pronounce, and stress, that these ARE leaves in a pool. And this is, at least partly, because of you. When you said, “It's much more radical to see and show things as they look instead of making them somehow subversive through alienation or estrangement”, there was suddenly nowhere else to go, no other position to take but to say, no, these things are almost nothing. I have to accept how people look at them and how the brain functions and embrace this analytic view. This is a piece of glass in the grass.
WT: When I am looking at leaves in a pool, I am actually looking at leaves in a pool. I’m not looking at an image, and I don't think of them as a picture object. When I look at them, ideally I am in the here and now, seeing them as the three-dimensional things that they are. The photograph is there to translate that actuality.
BR: What do you mean by translate?
WT: To make it relivable?
BR: I don't think that people look at these things in real life, that’s why I take pictures of them. People would not notice these things otherwise, and they would never gain such importance as they have in this book.
WT: Well, that’s just what artists do. We amplify things, point attention towards things that people might not be aware of, or might be aware of, but have forgotten… this early Bruce Nauman neon sign that he made in his room in San Francisco, if I’m not mistaken, is a spiral which reads: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”. It makes a very contentious statement, evoking an old-fashioned idea of the artist as the “seer”. If we look at it now, it could be seen as satire. The post-Duchampian artist has rejected this position and at the same time of course it’s still happening.
BR: Yes, exactly. What we say and what we do… So where do you think we are now? What is happening?
WT: There is this tension between wanting to be post-Duchampian and the reality of actually being moved by a certain spiritual presence or the appearance of things. And then there’s the existence of talent that was also contested in the last century… Do you need skills? Is there such a thing as talent? That’s a tension that cannot be dissolved and it depends on what currents you are surrounded with, locally and socially. You could cynically call it fashion: the philosophical fashion of a given moment and place.
BR: Which brings up fragmentation, another debatable idea—that there is no general solution after the postmodern.
WT: The postmodern has a bad name. But of course I’m a child of postmodernism. As a teenager I was seeing it as a total liberation. To put X and Z together and to see them merge in a pop video to the beat of Y. It was liberating, but it created confusion and a lack of values. In terms of values, I see myself very much as a child of modernism. I like to believe that there is a moral compass, when at the same time, in a visceral way, I’ve been shaped very much by postmodernism. It’s a duality that is getting ever crazier today. Postmodernism was a Western invention, but of course now we are faced with Chinese, African and Russian tastes—we are confronted with cultures that have not been affected by the Western canon of taste.
Up until, let’s say, 2000, it was still a clear confusion between the modern and the postmodern—the confusion was contained within the general frame of the Western tradition. Now we are in a world that doesn't care about this duality. I find that challenging, and it makes me nervous on a sentimental level because I don't see any interest in preserving what is dear to me. “Neue Welt” was my attempt to face this new confusion. I travelled to a lot of places for the first time, with a changed paradigm of looking at the outside world that I didn’t already know—contrary to my first photographic take on the world which was much more about my personal life and extended neighbourhood.
BR: “I want to make new pictures” was a very clear and simple statement from you and it’s been quoted a lot, but with capitalism’s increasing obsession with “the new”, at least for me, it gained a slightly disturbing layer of meaning. Is “new” still what you want, after it’s been misused in so many ways?
WT: Yes! I think curiosity can exist outside of capitalism, and an interest in experimentation and play and discovery is something deeply human and, I think, something that’s always been there. It is a value in itself that is not just a marketing tool. I’m not obsessed with the new: I’m also interested in continuity, and I have no illusion about the impossibility of reinventing the wheel. But I also see where newness happens. Newness is a very simple notion, it can be a paradigmatic invention, but it can also emerge purely by shifting parameters.
Portraiture would be dead for thousands of years now if there wasn't still a potential for newness within the genre. Art is the product of awareness, circumstance and intelligence, but also just play and surprise. We are always influenced by the times, and today simply hasn’t been there before. When I look at your book [No Ledge - Proposals for a New Sublime], I think you are too much of an exceptionalist. I’m clearly not free from exceptionalism myself, I have the desire to somehow see my generation, this year, my experience or this life, as somehow pivotal. But I personally find great comfort in looking at a drawing by Adolph Menzel, or let’s say a late nineteenth century naturalist painting of some weed on the roadside.
BR: Being placed next to one of your photographs?
WT: I don’t need to place it there to find comfort in the fact that I’m actually not that special when I’m looking at weed. These naturalists may have been the first to paint it in oil, but then again, I’m sure that two hundred years earlier, there were children playing with weed, saying, look, isn't this beautiful, as opposed to flowers in a vase? This is what I mean with exceptionalism: we should never think that we are now for the first time seeing something in a certain way. At present, we are part of a continuity that can be traced back to Gustave Courbet and others: seeing things the way they are, trying to show them “the way they are”, whatever that may be, and at the same time still having deeper meaning or charge.
BR: Charge sounds better than meaning. You once asked “When does meaning emerge?”—and I kept thinking that it was not the right question. For me it’s more a question of how to deal with meaninglessness.
WT: Yes. It’s about bearing the meaninglessness of all this information that we’re seeing in everything. That’s the greatest work there is for the mind: to not be dislodged permanently by the meaninglessness of all this detail, and at the same time not give up caring, not become a nihilist. This is a strange tightrope walk that I do, on one hand being a theoretical nihilist—because at the end, all this clearly has no meaning—and on the other hand, being enthusiastic, because of a sense of morality.
BR: If there’s a morality, there should be a responsibility of the artist as well. What do you say?
WT: To talk about this “Spannungsfeld”, this field of tension, is difficult. So many people can’t bear the idea that they don't know the meaning of it all. I think there is huge morality in admitting that you don't know. And still wanting to know, but not wanting to impose your rhetoric. And when I say this, it can turn into a rhetoric of knowledge right away: I know that I don't know, but when I stipulate this as another dogma, it becomes powerless and ugly—it would again assert power. So the responsibility might be to make people not fear not knowing. It is the fear of not knowing that drives people crazy. So if you ask me where are we now, this is it. People feel insecure in many ways. There is no longer a comfort zone between their need to know and their need to feel secure, and at the same time to be free and elastic and accepting of what they don't know. I personally feel a certain shift in what the necessary response should be, from here on. It might be a more hands-on approach.
BR: I feel the same way. Desperate times, desperate measures? I think we are too abstract and vague. We could be more outspoken as artists.
WT: Yes, absolutely. That’s where I’m at with Between Bridges right now. I’m asking myself whether it is really the moment to use my resources, money, space and time, to show an underrepresented Northern English artist who dealt with social problems in Manchester in the sixties? I feel it is time to be much more of an activist in a direct way. You said “desperate times, desperate measures”—no! Desperate times, great art! Heartfelt, spirited responses to desperate times. This past year, things have become very real and clear. Even though the refugee crisis has been with us for years now, it is becoming ever more clear that it boils down to a question of distribution. Of how much is where in the world. When there’s too much of something here, and too little of it there, there will be shifts before things get balanced again. It is happening.
BR: You once said, “If one thing matters, everything matters,” and at the time I really felt and agreed with that—but now I’m older, and the fact that we don’t have time for everything becomes more and more pressing. We have to prioritize, because we’re going to die. There is this other urgency besides the urgency of the current situation: the pressing of time.
WT: I chose these words deliberately and carefully, but I realize that they triggered a meaning that was not intended. A lot of critics at the time of the exhibition at Tate Britain thought it was about everything mattering equally. I titled my last exhibition at David Zwirner in New York “PCR”, which stands for polymerase chain reaction. It’s a biochemical process of enlarging and duplicating genes, DNA-bits, and amplifying them so that you can study them. An almost invisible bit becomes enlarged so that it becomes clear. In quite a number of reviews, however, it was seen as a symbolism for an infinite amount of re-combinations, but it’s not at all about recombining, it’s actually amplifying one thing. In the exhibition I amplified 150 things out of an infinite amount of things. And the link between this and “if one thing matters, everything matters” is the not-knowing. Because if this glass of water is important to me now, how can I say that the bottle next to it is unimportant? It’s always about the potentiality of everything. I am not saying that we can deal with everything at equal measure. As a matter of deep respect for the world, everything is potentially the world to me, to you, or to someone else.
BR: What else comes to mind of things you’ve said is, “Change in my work happens not in revolutions - it's more evolutionary”. And I believe you, but I also believe one doesn’t just completely redefine a whole genre without having some major transformative impulse. Could you name a particularly significant moment in your life that later on affected your work?
WT: A moment of initiation is what you are asking for… Two things. There was this stop in Zürich on the way to Zermatt with my parents, brother and sister, where we entered the Fraumünster Church and looked at the Chagall windows. I noticed an extra-large sized postcard in the bookshop of all five windows and I remember totally wanting that postcard. That was maybe an experience of the transformative power of art… or if it was not transformative, it was definitely inspirational. And the other one is the astronomy moment. I made people believe for years that I would become an astrophysicist… Just this experience of being alone at night in the garden, with the telescope and looking into nothing, and not feeling lonely.
BR: That sounds a lot like spirituality.
WT: The thing is, in interviews and conversations like these, I absolutely avoid saying “yes” when somebody asks “so you have a spiritual side in you?”—and I know, if I say “yes” now, it’s again all wrong, because the moment you name it, it’s dead, no?
BR: Do you feel like you have baggage to carry today?
WT: Yes, of course there is the perceived responsibility for what I have done. I could be as free as I was in, say, the summer of ’91. There’s no law of nature that stops me, but I choose to care for 25 years of work and history, and its reading and bibliography, and its re-interpretation and exhibitions, and so on. I choose to carry on doing that because somehow it’s still enough fun, and it feels like a responsibility in a good way—but at the same time… it’s so futile! You could say, it’s ridiculous Wolfgang, do you really think that caring about this bibliography, and the new book for the Hasselblad Award, to go again and re-edit and shorten the bibliography and add these new interesting bits, do you really think that matters? I mean, did Picasso really think about this or that painting from 1913, if that one got seen enough?
I should just leave what I’ve put out into the world, because what’s out there is out there, and if it’s any good, it will do its work and come back. This relates to what we were just talking about, the times, and what’s needed now… Will it always be interesting to photograph things? Do I really have to do that forever? This is more of an underlying question of inspiration than a problem. There is a certain open outcome. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in two years’ time. I have no pressure whatsoever to stop photography, but I have the feeling there is a change to come.
Freischwimmer 46, 2004
Installation view, National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan, 2015
Sendeschluss / End of Broadcast IV, 2014
Installation view, On the Verge of Visibility, Museu Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 2016
Silver 170, 2013
The Blue Oyster Bar, Saint Petersburg, 2014
Courtesy : Galerie Buchholz, Berlin; Maureen Paley, London; David Zwirner, New York