Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans Has No Time for Trump-Era Pessimism

The Turner prize-winning artist (and Frank Ocean collaborator) would rather fight for freedom.

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Sep 14 2018, 10:16pm

Fake news, post-truth, post-fact, and clinging to beliefs in the face of real information: we live in an age where the lines between reality and fiction are not only blurred, but where even the distinctions between them are becoming practically meaningless.

We can’t assume that we know what we think we know, and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ timely new exhibition at one of David Zwirner’s galleries in Chelsea, titled How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?, would seem to pose a challenge for us to examine our own hubris in this polarizing political moment. “You can imagine where [the title] came from,” said the artist during a preview of the show on Thursday morning, cracking a wry smile. “But it was a question that also came to me, like maybe I’m not getting something?”

Tillmans—a native of Germany who has lived and worked in the UK—became something of a spokesman for the European Union and an adamant voice against nationalism during his anti-Brexit campaign in 2016, conisting of a series of posters he designed that promoted the “Remain” vote. Last year, he echoed those posters with a similar series in Germany around the time of a parliamentary election in which a right-wing party was poised to expand its influence. Speaking about his efforts with Paul Holdengräber recently at the New York Public Library, he said: “I’ve been quite upset with the time wasted by millions of people thinking negative thoughts about Donald Trump. We have to stop. Do something positive. Be productive...The social advances we enjoy today, we can’t take them for granted.”

But while How likely… arrives with a tense context, the works themselves are not didactic propaganda, instead prompting the viewer to question how reality can be filtered through representations. “[The title] is really about everything...because I like to question what my eyes see. Too often I make assumptions,” he said.

In the exhibition, comprised of many new photographs as well as recent entries in a series he began in 1998, the works subvert easy interpretations. One shows a dry, pebbly landscape with cracks in the earth, which turns out to be the artist’s own footprint, pressed into the sand on a local beach. A framed print of an email conversation, Klaus (2018), is revealed to be a “unique photocopy,” according to the gallery’s press materials on the show. And the images in the Philharmonie Bloch series—depicting abstract fragments of body parts, insects, and eggs—were not collaged by hand, but created by running the same sheet of paper repeatedly through a computer printer.

I Want to Make a Film (2018), a monastic sound installation played in a room scattered with chairs, lamps, and metallic woven panels, seems both genuine—“I am actually interested [in the subject], it’s not cynical,” he explained at the preview—but also suggestive of a white lie: so far, he has no plans to make the film discussed in his monologue.

Tillmans’ early photographs from the late ’80s and early ’90s, including groundbreakingly intimate shots of his friends Lutz Huelle and Alexandra Bircken for a spread in i-D in 1992, depicted a halcyon world where inhibitions melted away. This might be the key to his work as an activist: an artist who knows the preciousness of freedom, but also its precariousness.

Wolfgang Tillmans: How Likely is it That Only I am Right in This Matter? is on view at David Zwirner’s three locations on West 19th Street through October 20.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Philharmonie Bloch III, 2017 © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, and Maureen Paley, London
Wolfgang Tillmans, Adalbert Garden, 2014 © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, and Maureen Paley, London