Artist Interview: Why Tillmans is returning to Russia

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


The German artist Wolfgang Tillmans and one of his long-time gallerists, Daniel Buchholz, are inaugurating this year’s Art Basel Conversations with a discussion about the artist’s work and current projects. Tillmans’s work can be seen in exhibitions including the eighth Berlin Biennale, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice and Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg, which is due to open in the State Hermitage Museum 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 6m-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, they are now 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 close to them 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 art fairs challenge 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 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 in the Venice Architecture Biennale for the first time. 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 the 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 actively part of my work from the start. I’ve noticed that I am very aware of architecture from two points of view. One is the way in which 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 past 20-plus years I have been making site-specific installations in galleries and museums that start with a direct response to the interior spaces 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, which I appropriated as readymade sculptures, in their original positions. The room includes two pictures taken at the Paranal Observatory in 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 10 in St Petersburg. How are you approaching this more problematic context?

In 2009, when I was invited to the Moscow Biennale, 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 gay flyers and anti-gay vitriol from Bethnal Green in London. This time, I have chosen to show photographs that I took in St Petersburg and Moscow 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 spelled out all over them. One is a picture of an Orthodox church being built in Moscow—a pre-cast concrete structure that looks like a bunker which is then half-clad in pseudo-historic surface tiles. Another picture is the gigantic 4m End of Broadcast, which I photographed on a TV in St Petersburg, where there is no signal— you just have 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 viewers with themselves through the pictures: the Hermitage is a huge conglomeration of drapery and body surfaces.

• Art Basel Conversations, featuring Wolfgang Tillmans and Daniel Buchholz, 18 June, 10am, Hall 1