Wolfgang Tillmans’s Beautiful Awareness

This is your first retrospective in New York. How does it feel for you to be in New York and showing in New York?

I noticed, while hanging the exhibition, how present New York is in it. It was very inspiring in the mid-nineties, when I first visited and then moved here. And it was super productive, it was a very productive time. And, in a way, when you’re once a New Yorker, I feel like you’re always somehow one. Throughout the past twenty-five years of not living here, I felt a strong bond and connection, also because it’s such a strong art-gallery place, and the visits in the past have also always been visually stimulating, and the scene, and the different evolutions of night-life moments—you know, that photo of the Spectrum that’s in there. And it’s a special audience—I find my New York audience maybe even the best-informed of all cities because there are people I meet that have seen every single show of mine since 1994. I find New Yorkers really go to galleries and really see exhibitions.

Did the fact that the exhibition got delayed change a lot? I mean, it’s, like, a totally different world from the one that it had been planned for—or maybe not. But so many themes you have engaged with for decades in your work seemed to have exploded in the past couple of years.

What I want to avoid is saying that [history] had to come out this way. But, that year, 2014, I visited St. Petersburg three times and very much took this Crimea invasion more seriously than the general public, and then dealt with the censorship there and the issues of gay persecution or the taking away of L.G.B.T. rights. That was a bellwether, you know—L.G.B.T. rights are always a bellwether. And I felt, in the last years, I sometimes felt like, Oh, my God, we’ve made so much progress, and, like, it was assumed that these rights were here to stay. And now we see that the hard right in America is actually willing to take them next, after Roe v. Wade and, of course, in Russia, it’s going backward. And so, having always looked at the world through these particular civil-rights glasses that being gay gave me, I somehow could see the trouble brewing in the world maybe in a more acute way, that it really can affect me, and it will affect me.

With the pandemic, I mean, this is the second pandemic in my life. That was an awareness that people who lived through the AIDS pandemic had: we’ve been here once before, but we’d been here all alone back then—in that eighties period, where people were literally left alone and the President of the United States didn’t mention the word for years after it was discovered and named. These questions of immunity and disease, they’re something that I’ve thought about all my life. I personally didn’t like all this change rhetoric [about the pandemic], only because I think, like, why really does everything have to change? I want to go back and be in a sweaty club, or I want to be able to hug other people, and I didn’t want to ever get into some sort of lust for catastrophe or for permanent change. But one realizes that some things are broken, no? Or haven’t really come back.

Like what? Anything in particular?

I think the fragility of supply chains. The speed of consumption is actually not sustainable, and there are not enough people to deliver the services that hyperconnected metropolitan life requires. I find that unsettling.

There was a little bit of, like, a glitch in the matrix after the pandemic or something, like the thing appeared to be seamless and then wasn’t.

Yes, and somehow, I don’t know. Does it feel like this glitch continues?

It’s got a lot better, but the summer of 2021 was really weird. People had been damaged from the isolation. And then when people gathered again it took a while for it to feel like it was happy. I’m not saying it wasn’t happy, but something hadn’t been addressed. I don’t know how it felt in Berlin.

Yes, the mental damage is larger than I anticipated initially, with people having lost their way or lost hope. And now this super existential threat from Russia is adding to that mindscape. In Berlin, I find it very unsettling that there is this imperialistic force on our doorstep that is not arguing in any reasonable way. The philosophy, if you can call it that, that Putin and his crew have, it’s, like, completely beyond grasp. I feel Western Europe is a small island in a field of diminishing democracy and diminishing freedom. We still have a political discourse of courtesy and reason, which has completely broken in the United States, and to see that this leading country that saved the world in 1945 is coming so close to accepting autocracy is super unsettling. Obviously, I can’t change American politics. I can’t change China or Russia. But what I can do is try and work in the Western European context, where stability and openness somehow are staying, and remind people of the value of those things.

“Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader” includes a poem you wrote in 2020, in response to the protests after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. And I was struck by a line about not being able to look back at history.

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