Wolfgang Tillmans

Interview by
Stuart Comer
Photography by
Heinz Peter Knes


If there’s anybody who needs no introduction for BUTT readers, it’s German artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Collaborator since the very first BUTT cover photo, Wolfgang has been responsible for some of the most exciting photos and interviews in BUTT. The winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 2000 has published a pile of beautiful books, is a devoted boozer, looks surprisingly hot in lederhosen, and is a good laugh too. He likes solar eclipses and he recently opened his own gallery, Between Bridges, below his studio back home in London.

Stuart: So, today is the last day of your first exhibition as a gallerist. Any plans to be the next Larry Gagosian?
Wolfgang: No. (laughs) There’s absolutely no commercial interest in this. I mean, it’s really just something that I want to do as a kind of community project. I want to give the space over to artists who, in some way or other, work or have worked with the public and have an interest in social issues and society as a whole. I’m not going to represent anyone. I’m sure that I will never go to an art fair or alternative art fair either. A number of people I plan to show are unfortunately dead anyway.
Such as David Wojnarowicz, whose show at Between Bridges ends this evening. How did you get interested in him?
On my first proper trip to America, when I was 22, I was in Los Angeles and passing by a cinema on Santa Monica Blvd with a sign that said Silence = Death…
What year was this?
1990. August 1990. The sign said Rosa von Praunheim and David Wojnarowicz and Silence = Death. So, I put my foot on the brakes and went in, not knowing anything except for the name of Rosa von Praunheim, the film director. And then I was confronted with this Tongues of Flame piece, which featured monologues of David Wojnarowicz over this strong imagery. The intensity of the AIDS crisis in America was flying right in my face. I mean I knew about it before, of course, but I don’t think anybody expressed it with such an unavoidable intensity as he did. It was a formative art experience for me.
And what kind of cinema was it in on Santa Monica Blvd, was it the Tom Cat?
I think it wasn’t a porn cinema. (laughs) I think it was more like an art house cinema. I only recently found out that the screening was part of the first and only Wojnarowicz retrospective that happened in his lifetime, that toured America in ’90 and was at the Santa Monica Art Museum. His work is being rediscovered now. In a way the anger and rage he expressed at the shortcomings and violence of American politics seem from a time long gone, but they’re also extremely relevant today. If you read his book Close to the Knives, you really wish somebody would write something like that today. One can get pretty complacent in a comfortable gay metropolitan environment today, but those wanting to take it all away from us are always only a stone’s throw away. Look at Russia and Poland’s situation just now.
And even closer to home, like the recent homophobic attacks in London on the South Bank, right in front of the National Film Theatre. I thought it was a bit shocking that the attacks were not really reported that much compared to the level of attention other crimes can get in London.
Yes, even though I think they were reported in a few papers. But then again The Evening Standard…
…sensationalizes everything…
Yes, but also can be quite gay friendly.
How much do you think the pink pound guarantees or gives gays respectability in the media then?
Strangely I don’t think the media so much cares, even though there are, of course, outspoken anti-gay papers. I think it’s more a general cultural shift in England, which is one of the good things Labour brought in. I’m so glad that window of opportunity was there in the late ’90s and early ’00s in a lot of European countries before a swing to the right could happen again. It was a lucky window. I really think this is a historical moment which has nothing to do with gay assimilation, trying to be hetero, or family values. I think that writing gay marriage and equality and non-discrimination legislation into proper national laws is something that could last forever. At least it’s forever on record. It can’t be undone just like that. The fact that it exists and that a state is now bound to that law, somehow makes that state have to act accordingly in international relationships as well.
Mmm, that’s true. How does the German media compare?
They are surprisingly pro-gay, having enthusiastic, positive articles about the gay pride parades in the respective cities and showing how ‘colourful’ the community is. There is a definite desire to be open — and wanting to be seen as open and tolerant is still perceived as a value. Because there are no religious values in Germany.
Not officially.
No dominant religious values. It’s not like in America where those would play a role in people’s thinking. And also people who think homosexuality is morally wrong, they would shut up in Germany because they don’t have a platform. Of course now, with a German pope, the Catholic Church feels a bit more powerful. But I think it’s so good that Schröder and Blair really pressed ahead with the gay agenda more than many other leaders, as soon as they got into power. It somehow was a moment where even the conservatives couldn’t object, because it would look like they were spoiling the party. I feel protected by that. It used to be that America was the driving force for civil rights and was putting ideas over the Atlantic to Europe — and I was so pleased that what we do in Europe has very actual effects in America. That Holland and Denmark allowed gay marriage had a real effect on legislators in America. I mean, people moan a lot in places like Holland, Germany and Denmark, but I think they’re great!
Is that why you have a Danish boyfriend?
Well, Anders means much more to me than that, obviously. But the fact that he’s a liberated Northern European is certainly an added plus…
You have a lot of green office furniture in here! Is that a personal fetish? In fact, isn’t that the chair a skinhead pisses on in one of your photographs?
Oh yes, but I washed the cover afterwards, so no need to get too excited. I really like used office furniture, you get so much for your money, and you don’t need to look after it. So when I took that picture at my place it was almost entirely furnished with that stuff. Only recently did I realize that quite a few people thought the picture was set up in some office space and they read much more into that context than I ever intended. I was just fascinated by the image of pissing on this intimate space potentially occupied by a person, shaped after a body, but without the body actually being there.
What kind of furniture do you have at home? Do you spend more time there or at your studio?
My furniture at home is more domestic, like a big L-shaped sofa that fills most of the living room. For some years now I’ve been living apart from the studio. The whole live/work thing did my head in, because I would work late, and I like to get drunk when I work late. Especially when editing books I get myself quite excited, so to speak. It’s kind of a working tool, to lower the threshold; when I’m only sober I may not risk enough. Just like you can ‘drink a guy beautiful’ in a club you can also drink your own ideas beautiful. Then the next day it’s necessary to strip away all the bullshit and see if there were some good bits in the excitement. I do enjoy going home and coming back. It’s not so nice to wake up in last night’s rubble.
One of the things I’ve noticed — especially since I first started seeing your photographs in the ’90s — is how they depict the way gay society functions. The way you represented a particular subculture that was gradually moving towards becoming a more public culture, I found enormously appealing. Whereas in the States it just felt at the time like people were subscribing more and more to certain stereotypes and certain agendas that weren’t particularly interesting to me…
I think that is one thing that I am genuinely proud of in my work: that my strategy to present my personal utopia as reality succeeded. I mean this was a utopia that existed, but only in little nuggets and pockets and areas. But by photographing them in such a matter-of-fact and inclusive way, blending them all together into one reality where people were happily taking ecstasy together or partying in a park, as well as being solitary, serious individuals, or sitting naked in trees, as well as sucking cock in some dark toilet corner, with Moby lying in the sun. You know, like music…and political activism…and demonstrations. It all is there together, but actually, at that time, it was not sentimental but driven by my own memory of, and desire for, what I grew up with in the ‘80s. Because in Germany, the height of communitarian ideas and all the ’60s values seeped way into all mainstream education from the late ’70s, throughout the ’80s.

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Like a virgin... A young Wolfgang celebrating his 20th birthday, at a swimming pool in Hamburg, 1988

Leading up to the fall of the Wall, basically.
I’m not sure that is connected somehow, but yes, I grew up enthused with the idea that one lives life for a greater good together. You know, it was totally clear that all that is defined as good has to do with realizing yourself and your own potential within the group, within the collective, furthering equality and justice and having fun together and not having fun at the expense of others. And somehow any hedonism was still linked to it all being a greater good for society. And education was totally geared that way. But then this whole market-driven idea of just bettering yourself was in full swing in a way in England when I moved here.
Mmm. How so?
Well, Thatcher saying there’s no such thing as society. She was going against communitarian ideas. She fell shortly after I moved here, but I was very aware that people were chipping away at exactly that. In fact, maybe actually moving to this Thatcherite England made me appreciate much more what the whole Western European, continental social democratic world was about. Only now that there’s no money left and it is disappearing do most people in continental Europe mourn the ’80s and the ’90s and realize how good they had it.
You definitely seem to be an Anglophile, though. Some of your early photographs of new-wave clubs here are fantastic. What drew you to London in the first place?
I first came here in 1983, when I was 14. My parents sent me to learn English, but I really used the time to walk up and down King’s Road in self-made fabulous outfits. Dressing up after school in the toilets at Victoria Station. I liked the smell of English homes and bathrooms, the mix of a damp carpet and apricot scented potpourri. (laughs) I liked the draughty windows, the crazy patterns of the carpets in airports, Marmite, the repressed but omnipresent sexuality, weak milky tea on a rainy afternoon by the sea, the spongy bread — basically all the things people don’t like, and what one would see as signs of how pathetic and backwards England was, or is, I liked. Then on top of that there is of course the music, youth culture, magazines and so on. And I found the men always the hottest, but in the end I never ever had a lasting affair with an English guy, not to mention an English boyfriend… Only casual contact with the locals I guess. I think they turned me on visually. When I was 16 I was madly in love with Larry, the keyboard player of Bronski Beat, and I ended up in bed with him before a gig they played in Cologne.
Oh wow, small town boy indeed! Could you describe his penis in full detail for us?
It was big and fat and uncut and I swallowed it all, that I remember well. I think I deep-throated for the first time. Not the timid ice-cream sucking which I’d had with my classmates after swimming lessons in the changing rooms. Thoughts of having Larry’s cock up my throat became my favourite wank fantasy for a long time after.
And what else?
I think the shaft’s shape was not all round but more oval, flat-ish. Which I find very horny indeed.
Right… So, back to your earlier work, which often depicted people lying in the sun and going to clubs. Do you think it was ultimately about a certain kind of leisure time? And now that I suppose you’re much busier yourself, has that affected your work?
Of course, I’ve always been on quite the workaholic side. The new work is about study, visual study or study through words. The abstractions are like research and study through experimentation. My book Truth Study Center actually addresses that a bit. I have always liked the names of research centres and institutes. They come with this fantastic authority and onomatopoeia. And so, somehow, this name Truth Study Center came into my mind one day. I realized how attractive the idea is, because it’s, of course, an impossible idea. I’m interested in the absurdity as much as the possibility of it. It would be great if there really were a Truth Study Center that could simply establish certain truths in a scientific way. So the fact that leaders of organized religions can vilify homo-ness as unnatural would not be possible anymore. (laughs) This might sound terrible to say, but I’m interested in values. I am interested in a moral rigor that is a different moral than the church’s and a different moral than the market’s. Basically I’m convinced that what we do matters. You know that what I do in my everyday life and in my work does matter. It does have social and moral consequences and so, if that is the case, then everything matters.
Yes. I think a drink could really matter right about now…
Absolutely. I mean, I have to pack up some stuff but um…yes. I think that’s a fantastic challenge that should really keep us busy for the next twenty years or more. (laughs) Completely redefining what is politically correct and what isn’t. And what is moral and what isn’t. And what is Christian and what isn’t. And what is patriotic and what isn’t. There is this incredible struggle of words over definitions. It has now become common knowledge that conservative and right-wing forces have used left-wing and civil rights strategies in order to subvert the meanings of words. They completely pervert and invert meanings.
Inverting the perverts.
(laughs) And so we need to pervert the inversion.
That sounds kinky. You have always been interested in publications, not just gallery exhibitions, as a different forum for presenting what you do. Can you ever envision yourself using the Internet as a medium or as a forum for your work? I mean obviously your photographs do exist online.
Yes, but I don’t think I’m an early adopter…
Aside from your Gaydar page, that is.
Where my photographs used to appear as well. (laughs) No, I think Gaydar is ridiculously oppressive in its organization. You know that if you type in the word ‘Romeo’ you’ll get kicked out of Gaydar?
Because they don’t allow people to mention in their personal messages: “You can also look me up on my GayRomeo profile.” Do you know GayRomeo?
Is this the German equivalent of Gaydar?
It’s a free German website and has a much better search engine. Gaydar is this totally market-oriented, profit-driven tool, and GayRomeo is a site set up by five pervy enthusiasts, and they now serve 200,000 people for free — or for like a minimum amount — with much better search powers. They really work super hard to keep it free. On Gaydar, if you type in the two words ‘gay’ and ‘Romeo’ in one message, your entire profile will immediately get deleted. Within one hour, you are out of Gaydar. It’s the most insane and sick censorship ever. And the queens just accept it. So, anyway, I’m not an early adopter. (laughs) I’ve given digital photography ten years to mature, and now it’s got enough megapixels to finally compete with film. I recently bought a digital camera, and I have also recently come to realize that there are people who only know my work through the Internet. For example, I was in Macedonia last year supporting their first-ever gay pride week with an exhibition of my work there. Because they don’t have the money to have the books there, they only know my work from seeing it online. I’ve realized more and more that it’s no longer a question of choice or taste, as in, “Is it cool to have a website or not?” Millions and millions of people actually do access the Internet and do use it. I’ve also thought I don’t want to have wolfgangtillmans.com. But now that I’ve got the gallery, Between Bridges, I’ve now got the domain betweenbridges.net, and I want to use that as a platform.

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Bon appétit. Picture called 'AA Breakfast', by Wolfgang, from 1995

You’re in the luxurious position of having major monographs and large publishers like König or Taschen behind you, but your photographs were published early on in magazines like i-D, and more recently in Groove and BUTT. Do you find it essential and liberating that you still have these different positions as a means to disseminate your work?
Magazines have always been an active platform which I can use to disseminate my work, but also a generator of work when I’m commissioned to do something. If I approach these pictures as a potential to make actual work rather than just as a job, then this is good for my practice. That’s an element that never really gets thought about in terms of my magazine work. I use magazines as a tool to make work.
One of my favourite photographs of yours is a portrait of Rem Koolhaas.
Well, that’s a good example. I could have called Rem Koolhaas and asked him to sit for me, but because it was a commission, I just ended up doing him…
You ‘did’ Rem?
Obviously. (laughs)
Some of the work you have published in BUTT so far has tended to be subtle pornography, if you will. It’s erotic, but it’s not in your face. Are you interested in porn? Does it factor in your life?
No. I find the newspaper much sexier. (laughs)
Do you view porn as a damaging thing or a healthy thing?
I guess it’s a reality. I think it’s too complex to give a moral verdict on that because there are probably exploitative elements in it that are not right. I think it’s OK that it exists. It’s good that it exists. But probably not the pornographization of gay mainstream culture; I’m not sure how great that is — like in Boyz magazine, for instance. I mean, I think the only porn magazines I like are sort of super filthy.
What contutes super filthy?
There is one called Toy. I think it’s German. It’s really interesting. I just like real perversion and really kinky people and people that are totally devoted to their fetish. And I think there is an honesty and, again, a truth in it. A twisted truth. That I find quite touching and human.
So pornography is its own Truth Study Center?
Yes, exactly. I mean they are…
…testing out their own reality.

And, of course, any fetish is only the result of the society that it’s in…any perversion… I mean, just for the record, we use the word ‘perversion’ in a non-judgemental way. But I find leather bars, for example, very comfortable places to have a conversation in. (laughs)
Do you prefer chaps or lederhosen?
Oh, neither! For example, my gallerist Daniel Buchholz and I, we end up having the deepest conversations in leather bars.
Is that how you got your first show?
Uh, no. (laughs) He wears a suit jacket and shirt and jeans and always looks completely out of place. But that’s one great thing about the gay scene. There is always some strip bar or some sort of trashy, cheap place or fetish, leather place where there is this ‘anything goes’ atmosphere. Where you’re just totally surrounded by human desire and there’s just so much reality and fantasy around you that it really is like a big comfort bubble that allows my thoughts to run very freely about things other than sex.
So we can subtitle this interview: Wolfgang Tillmans: German photographer finds comfort in filth?
(laughs) Yes.
And what is your filthiest fetish, assuming you have many?
Oh. Um. Maybe…
For the record, Wolfgang is blushing.
Maybe men of religion.
Specifically of the Middle Eastern persuasion?
No. I find them rather a turn-off. I like a good Lutheran.
“If you’re feeling sinister, go and see your minister.”
A good Lutheran and a vegan hippy.
This is beginning to sound like Little House on the Prairie. So you find comfort in filth, and filth in religion…
Actually I had a great Catholic moment when I was 17 on an InterRail trip in Nice. On a late afternoon I wanted to visit a church in the old town just as the caretaker was in the process of locking up the doors. He was kind enough to still let me in. After he locked the door from the inside he volunteered to give me a guided tour, his eyes transfixed on my shorts as we walked around. When we arrived in the room where the clerics assemble before mass, he gave me a blowjob. As I came, I looked up and saw the Pope’s portrait on the wall and his generous smile seemed to very much condone what was going on. I mean, it’s a funny story, but that Pope and the new one really need some sorting out! As if Jesus had wanted these men to spread nasty judgment over people in his name. I feel that we have to somehow really do very basic enlightenment work. The strange thing is, I am, by nature, more a religious person than a non-religious person.
Did you grow up religious?
No, not at all. It’s totally by choice. Or actually by genes, as scientists have now found out. (laughs) Or it just sort of came to me somehow.
So to speak…
Yes… But it’s weird like how anti-religion I am…
But do you participate in heavily organized religion?
Heavily organized? No, no. That’s the thing. I find in the end the only Western religion I can condone is Quakerism. Because their whole point is that there is no man on earth who can tell me what God thinks. You know that’s the whole sort of bottom line. They have no preacher and there is no priest and they don’t even sing hymns because it’s all words created by other men telling you what God thinks and that is the actual blasphemy. I mean I really believe the Pope is blasphemous because that is, in a way, the total perversion of…
But do you believe in a monotheistic God then?
Um. Yes in that sense, not that it’s in the sense of the word, that he is defined by words — or it or she. But the idea of different gods is such a human construct, somehow. Again, if you look at the commandment that you shouldn’t make a picture of God. I mean I think for example that’s a totally good commandment, no? Because it’s beyond you — so you just accept that there is something beyond you. You can’t just say that it has — or she has — a long white beard. (laughs) It’s just so simple.
And when did you become a Quaker?
I’m not a Quaker. I’m not that involved in it at all. I mean I go to Quaker meetings four times a year. But another spiritual home for me, so to speak, is the writings of Krishnamurti. He had nothing to do with the Krishna cult. His is a spiritual philosophy totally opposed to organized religions. I can only recommend reading him. I named my recent show at P.S.1 in New York, Freedom From The Known, after a book of his.
And when do you feel most free?
I would say in transit, but actually the strongest sense of freedom I get is from doing something unexpected in London on a normal day. In other places it’s normal to do different stuff, but in my own town I never do something even the slightest bit wasteful, like loitering. This sounds so boring, but I sometimes just stay sat on the Tube, don’t get off at my stop and go to the end of the line.

Originally published in BUTT 17