Artists Interview Fairs Switzerland

Why Tillmans is returning to Russia

The artist is taking part in Manifesta 10, despite the country’s anti-gay laws

Wolfgang Tillmans

The German artist, Wolfgang Tillmans and his long-time gallerist Daniel Buchholz are inaugurating this year’s Art Basel Conversations with a discussion about the Turner Prize-winning artist’ work, current projects and exhibitions, including the 8th Berlin Biennale, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice and his forthcoming contribution to Manifesta in St Petersburg, which opens in the Hermitage on 28 June.

The Art Newspaper: It’s a busy summer for you: let’s start with your display here in Basel at the Beyeler Foundation.

Wolfgang Tillmans: I am in Basel because two years ago the Beyeler Foundation started collecting my work—which happens to be the first photography-based work to enter the collection. They are showing one room for which I have made a linear installation and on the lower floor for the first time they have brought together two six-metre-wide abstract Freischwimmers which were made in 2004 for hanging above the dance floor in the Berghain nightclub in Berlin. The Kunstmuseum in Basel acquired one and the Beyeler has acquired the other and due to a mutual loan agreement now they are in the same city and they hang together. The Beyeler has also invited me to select other works from the collection to accompany them which I’m not going to reveal now—but since the Beyeler has such an incredible collection, it was hard to be modest!

Will you be visiting Art Basel?

It is often said that artists shouldn’t go to art fairs, but fairs are a reality that is interesting in itself, and an opportunity to see how works are in the flesh—and I really like that. You can see 1,000 works and walk up to them close and see what they are, not in reproduction but as material. Because I am so interested in what I do with the material, the object, I like the way an art fair challenges objects to stand there as themselves. I am always interested in how canvases are stretched—I like to look at the edges of canvases and see which way the canvas is folded and how the paint goes around or doesn’t go around. If you switch your interest from the spatial installations towards the micro, then fairs are together actually really good art-viewing opportunities. I usually walk very close along the walls so as not to catch everyone’s eyes every five metres, and then I see a lot.

You are also taking part for the first time in the Architecture Biennale. How do you feel about this new departure?

I was afforded this great opportunity by Rem [Koolhaas] to realise a project that I had been thinking about for at least seven years, ever since this title “Book For Architects” sprang into my head. It came from a desire to be in dialogue with architects, to offer my point of view, but not in a lecturing, teaching kind of way. It might be initially surprising that I have a room in the central pavilion exhibition “Elements of Architecture”, but architecture and how we use space is actually something that has been part of my work actively from the start. I’ve noticed that I am very aware of architecture from two points of view: one is from the way that it influences everybody’s lives and the central role that, especially, the details of architecture play in everyday life and how little this is discussed. My other point of entry and interaction with architecture is that for the last 20-plus years I have been making site-specific installations in galleries and museums that start with a direct response to the interior spaces that I will occupy.

There’s a more critical investigation of space in your room at the current Berlin Biennale.

It’s in the ethnographic Museum Dahlem on the outskirts of Berlin and I was given one of the rooms that had housed displays about the north American Indians. While I very much liked the atmosphere of that room, I also couldn’t help but see the irony of another European coming and taking space from the Indians. So I decided to leave three text panels that talk about the early contact between Europeans and Indians and I left four vitrines in their original position which I appropriated as readymade sculptures. The room includes two pictures taken at the Southern observatory of Chile looking at the very limit of space, a US army air-to-ground recognition jacket and two photographs of BA and Lufthansa airplane seats where they leave the middle seat in business class empty, and it says: “A little bit of extra space reserved for you.” I tried to explore ideas of “space” from different angles.

You are also taking part in Manifesta in St Petersburg. How are you approaching this more problematic context?

In 2009, when I was invited to the Moscow Bienniale, I made a very outspoken statement in a way that I could not do now, with images that included a large photograph of two guys kissing and a picture of a demonstration for freedom of expression with a lesbian kiss as well as both gay flyers and anti-gay vitriol from Bethnal Green in London. This time I have chosen to show photographs that I took in Moscow and St Petersburg over three visits, in 2009, 2005 and 2014, which I think are quite a clear critique and depiction of the state but which don’t have political meanings spelt out all over them. One is a picture of an Orthodox church being built in Moscow, a precast concrete structure which looks like a bunker that is then half-clad in pseudo-historic surface tiles. Another picture is the gigantic four-metre End of Broadcast which I photographed on a TV in St Petersburg, where there is no signal— you just have this static snow.

Another room features the body, with a great number of the drapery pictures hung like a classic picture gallery: you get a sense of a lot of undressing happening. I wanted to create a sense of the body in a different way and confront the viewer with themselves through the pictures: the Hermitage is a huge conglomeration of drapery and body surfaces!

Art Basel Conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans and Daniel Buchholz, 18 June, 10am, Hall 1

Stills from Tillmans’s video installation Book for Architects, 2014. © Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
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