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Wolfgang Tillmans: Magazines nurtured me

INTERVIEW! The world-famous photographer offered some of his favourite magazines – including Exberliner –  a lifeline by donating a selection of posters to be sold through crowdfunding campaigns. We hear the origins of this idea.

Image for Wolfgang Tillmans: Magazines nurtured me

Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2020Solidarity has helped raise much-needed funds for creative projects affected by the coronavirus lockdowns. (Photo by Dan Ipp.)

Four weeks ago, Wolfgang Tillmans reached out to Exberliner with a plan. Realising that his favourite magazines were in trouble, he was donating a selection of posters to offer as rewards for crowdfunding campaigns. Those posters came from artists from Berlin and abroad, a mixture of established and lesser-known names who would each contribute one design to sell for €50. Magazines, including us at Exberliner, hand-picked their favourite designs from a pool of over 40 artists, and put them up for sale through online shops and crowdfunding sites. [Browse our selection of 2020Solidarity prints here.] The list of artists involved is constantly shifting, and now features world-famous names like Jeff Koons alongside local Berlin favourites like Spyros Rennt.

This kind of solidarity isn’t new for Tillmans, who has a history of doing good through art. In 2016, for example, he used his Between Bridges project space to foster dialogue with newly arrived refugees. We gave Tillmans a call earlier this week to hear about the new solidarity project and his passion for print media.

Why is showing solidarity important to you?

Part of my motivation to get involved in art in a multidisciplinary way is because I strive to contribute to the discussion of social and political topics, and to art, in that way. That’s why I chose magazines as a place, or venue, for my work, just as much as gallery spaces.

I didn’t want to be seen as a political artist – just as I didn’t want to be seen as a gay artist [ … ] First and foremost, I pursue a kind of visual poetry.

The potential for art to reflect and promote social change has also always touched me. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be seen as a political artist – just as I didn’t want to be seen as a gay artist. This is always within my work, but it hasn’t been  labelled as such. First and foremost, I pursue a kind of visual poetry. That’s one answer. 

What’s the other?

The other is: because I can. I feel I have a certain level of spatial and financial independence to do certain things. That’s what allowed me to have Between Bridges as a space. I’m also interested in other art and other people. So I thought I could bring several-dozen artists together. Why should every artist just make one edition for one specific purpose? Why not connect them to many purposes and causes? It felt like it would be wrong not to follow that intuition.

When did you get the idea?

Five weeks ago. When the shutdown happened, it was clear that I would want to help. I could immediately sense the repercussions for a lot of the places I enjoy in my social and personal life. I felt that, if I didn’t contribute, maybe this or that place would find it harder to survive. I don’t want to be in a place where x amount of bars, clubs and spaces are closed – including the publications I enjoy having around. It’s also self-interest.

Image for Wolfgang Tillmans: Magazines nurtured me

Marlene Dumas – James Baldwin (from the series Great Men) [Available here.]

Why are magazines, and independent media, so important to you?

In one of the essays for my [untitled, upcoming solo] exhibition at MoMA, Paul Flynn, a writer from London, wrote about this particular camaraderie between people who have been nurtured by independent magazines. In Germany, there’s a particular type of person who’s been nurtured by SPEX magazine. In the UK, or worldwide, there’s something about people who grew up with i-D magazine in the ’80s and ’90s. 

I have always been really passionate about magazines. They’ve nurtured, informed and excited me. 

There’s something about the fusion of something visual, something literal and something physical. That crossroad of three things – the flat topography of design, the words and the material – means a lot for some people. Other people, probably the majority, don’t seem to pick that up. I have always been really passionate about magazines. They’ve nurtured, informed and excited me. With Exberliner, it always feels like there’s an excitement about the object. Even though I’m German, I moved here from London, so I always like to read about Berlin from that perspective.

How did you select the artists involved in the 2020Solidarity project?

It’s a mix. It started with Siegessäule as the umbrella, which had a stronger Berlin-centric focus. But that focus immediately opened up. There are now 50 people, not only close friends. People I’m not social with at all, but whose work I respect and who would make an attractive poster or bring a body-positive attitude. It’s a diverse crowd in terms of attitude and perspective. It also somehow evolved naturally, of course, by speaking with friends and the team here – [my studio assistants] Evelyn, Alison, Shahin, Armin. It’s also diverse in terms of career progression. The point was not to make a difficult poster, or think around the corner, but something that is attractive, something you would want. It’s about raising funds.

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Wolfgang Tillmans – still life (Bühnenbild) [Available here.]

That seems like a rare approach for artists.

I’m also a pragmatist, so this case doesn’t feel contradictory. I don’t think others found it hard, either. I think the positive attitude to the project, and the situation, made everybody choose something that expresses how they feel at the moment, and how they want to contribute. That made the choices just as diverse, interesting and beautifully strange. It’s a wonderful variety of things.

What’s your own routine been like since the lockdown?

I had a bad car crash almost exactly a year ago – with a bad knee injury – so I was grateful about the loose nature of the Berlin lockdown. I walked and cycled for hours, so it did my knee a lot of good. I would never usually walk in the middle of Alte Jakobstraße, or Alexandrinenstraße, and look up at buildings and discover new details.

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Thao Nguyen Phan – March on a Honda Dream. [Available here.]

Did you find any new favourite areas?

Lots. You know, there was once a wasteland between Heinrich-Heine-Straße and Stadtmitte, which was just beautiful green shrubs for years and years. Now it’s packed with apartment buildings, but they connect in interesting ways with old Plattenbau and Western post-war buildings. This whole neighbourhood north of Oranienstraße – it’s weird how it goes from Kreuzberg to Mitte, old buildings and new buildings. It’s so close to my studio, but in all those years I never took a close look.

Have you been working every day?

Yeah. I’ve also been working on music, so it was good to be able to devote more time to that. I’ve been able to look at photographs that, in the usual swing of an ongoing exhibition schedule, I don’t often have extensive time for – to edit, and closely focus on what I’ve done for the past year. My exhibition at MoMA in New York was planned for March next year, but that’s been postponed to 2022.

The retrospective?

We don’t call it a retrospective, but the nature of the exhibition is retrospective. That’s what I like to say. I hope to look to forward to my life as much as I do backwards. Last year, when I turned 51, I realised I had been working for 30 years as an adult. There’s possibly another 30 years ahead.

Image for Wolfgang Tillmans: Magazines nurtured me

Thomas Ruff- nudes kn30 [Available here.]