Wolfgang Tillmans is in London for less than 12 hours, but the German photographer looks relaxed in his trademark workwear. This morning he arrived from Toronto, and he will be in Hamburg with his parents before the day is done.
His first stop is the Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall where we meet. Tillmans, 54, the first non-British Turner Prize winner, is chair of its board and, says director Bengi Ünsal, has been a force in organising the 75th Anniversary Auction, which takes place on 15 October.
Impressive, considering his greatest retrospective to date, To Look Without Fear, opened at New York’s Moma only a month ago. The smash hit show comprises more than three decades worth of work hung floor to ceiling. The mundane is often his muse, and Frank Ocean, pill boxes, packed bars, toucans and tulips share a stage.
‘I am quite shy,’ he will tell me later. It’s surprising considering the strength of his voice when fighting for his LGBTQ+ community or the EU, but becomes more evident in casual conversation. With a flash of his toothy, charming grin, we begin…
Wolfgang! Welcome back to London. You first moved here in 1992. What’s changed?
So much it’s difficult to answer. What was special at that time was that there were actually places you could rent in W1. I went into a flat share with my four best friends and rented a place in Baker Street for 60 quid a week. It was exciting and for - ward-looking, but not everything was rosy. When we went to go out at the London Apprentice in Old Street, you really had to watch out not to get beaten up. It was rough in a way that’s not just a nice anecdote.
Did you have scary moments?
At the top of Brick Lane there used to be Nazi skinheads on Sundays. But 92 was also the year of the first EuroPride, which then moved from one European city to another. It was a great time of enthusiasm. People feeling like we are together. Dancing and dancing. Partying and demonstrating.
You captured those days so beautifully on film. Are hedonistic nights a bygone era?
Nightlife is having a hard time in London. But I enjoy new places that have moved and opened in old places like Tottenham Hale — as far out as you would never have thought of [going] in 1992. Things like Adonis, which have of course been great parties, and a new energy that [proves] people obviously do want to go out. That young creative people simply cannot afford to live and work in London is a problem of existential propor - tion to the city. Young talent cannot really develop because they have nowhere to go, and have to occupy two jobs just to get by.
What are the greatest threats to young people right now?
The biggest problem for youth is to understand what the effect of social media and digitalisation is on your brain. Literally on the hardwiring. What does it mean to look at this device for five hours a day, and to chan nel your emotions through it, in the long run? Where will you be in 10, 20, 30 years?
Frazzled, I suspect.
It’s this mass experiment which will only be augmented by the next mass experiment: artificial intelligence. [Also] I really do see a big problem for democracy. And that’s where my advocacy for getting involved with democracy comes from. Your politicians are only as good as the people who join parties. That’s what we’ve seen in the last weeks in the UK, when Liz Truss is the best they can come up with. It’s really important that people get involved on a local level. Passively thinking that liking something or making statements online is actually doing anything is not true. You have to get involved.
We are in post-Brexit Britain now, and I admired your pro-EU posters back in 2016. How would you sum up the UK government’s handling of the fallout?
It really is a theatre of Shakespearean dimension and tragedy. If it wasn’t about real lives, one could think it’s funny. Of course, there was an entertaining quality to observing the last prime minister, but it’s actually tragic and sad. The English have fooled themselves long enough by somehow thinking they stay on top of it by laughing about it, and it’s actually quite angering.
You’re just back from New York, where you opened your latest exhibition at Moma. It looks vast. I read it took 16 days to install.
And nights… The weight of Moma as an institution is quite enormous, and even though I had a show at Tate Modern and other major museums, there isn’t anything quite like Moma. I was worried it would make me freeze up and not make an exhibition that has the same ease and flow that other exhibitions had, and people loved.
I’ve never been interested in people who are super self assured. I ultimately never know who I am
How did you tackle it?
I’ve shown the work in chronological order, [which I have not done] since the Tate Britain exhibition in 2003. It’s not that I close one chapter and open another one, there are interests and themes running through 30 years. A lot of my interests are in astronomy, architecture and the intersections of how technology influences the surface of the visible world and the natural world.
There are arresting portraits in there, too. How do you pick your subjects?
What’s fascinated me about people all my life is a sense of their own fragility, combined with a sense of resting within themselves. I’ve never been interested in people who are super self-assured and project an image, and seemingly know who they are. I ultimately never know who I am.
If the commission for King Charles’ coronation portrait came though the letterbox, would you take it?
I wouldn’t refuse, but it’s not something I’m hoping and praying for. I always dreamed of photographing the King of Pop… but that never happened and then he died. An artist you have worked with is Frank Ocean.
Your photograph for the Blonde album cover, with his zingy green buzzcut, is one of the most recognisable of our time. The funny thing about that picture being referred to as the album cover is that it literally never existed as a physical object, yet it’s probably my most widely distributed picture. At Moma it is a two-metre-tall print. At that scale it has quite a surreal quality.
And how is Mr Ocean?
He is an artist. Frank came into my studio and it was clear that we were seeing eye to eye. One can just sense this is a complex, fully formed, interesting character.
Are there any other pop stars you’ve got your eye on. What about Harry Styles?
I like to think I am culturally interested and stay up-to-date, but I must say I have disen gaged with the current top 10 for a long time.
Do you have thoughts on the new Styles brand of ambiguous sexuality?
I think men questioning themselves and embracing a broader spectrum of themselves can only be a good thing. To put it more bluntly, I think all men should be more in touch with their butthole. It releases tensions in a way that few things can. It would make the world a better place.