Wolfgang Tillmans – Sex, Censorship and Synth-Pop

Discover the often controversial work of Wolfgang Tillmans, German photographic artist and sometimes synth-pop producer. Find out what makes his work extraordinary.

From Large-Scale Abstraction to Iconoclastic Campaigns

Turner Prize-winning photographic artist Wolfgang Tillmans has produced a tremendously diverse body of work throughout his career, and his work is not all that makes him fascinating. Aside from his art, Tillmans is known as a music producer and for his sharp intellect. After producing a synth-pop album in his teens in western Germany, Tillmans took a hiatus from music. In later years he turned out another album and also produced a song from a Frank Ocean album. The artist is exceptionally knowledgeable and can comfortably discuss topics like 18th-century astronomy and the refraction of light. He prefers to have precise conversations. But, let’s take a moment to delve into his art.

Shrewd Selection for Maximum Impact

Tillmans’ subject matter is often intricately matched to the eclectic and eccentric spaces it is featured in around the world. For example, Berghain – a revered nightclub where queer and hetero ravers visit from all over the world to attend 12 to 20-hour sessions, all starting at 11:59 on a Saturday night. Bathrooms are multi-gendered, sexuality and sexual practices are openly embraced, and many of the patrons (mostly gay men in its early days) called it ‘church’. When Tillmans was approached by the owners to provide one of his pictures for the club’s wall, he selected ‘Nackt’ (‘Nude’), a photo of a woman exposing her vagina. In later years, when the venue’s clientele started becoming more heterosexual, Tillmans replaced it with a photo of a man exposing his anus. This was since replaced with a large photo of the back of a throat. According to Tillmans, this is ‘kind of where all the joy comes in, in different ways and forms.’

Exploring the Fragility of Political Unanimity


Wolfgang Tillmans - Nude

politics and hedonism into a ascinating amalgamation. The artist took pictures of television static in a hotel room in St. Petersburg straight after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. Tillmans’ thoughts were on censorship – he wanted to draw attention to the unreliability of sight and how the eyes can deceive. Although one photo from the series is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, two hang in Berghain bearing daily witness to cigarette smoke and debauchery (with no censorship in place whatsoever).  Tillmans’ ‘End of Broadcast’ series gently brought
Tillmans is notoriously anti-Brexit and pro-EU, and campaigned his views in 2016. The following year, he created an anti-nationalist poster campaign targeted at the German parliament. How does one move from art to political activism? Like most successful artists, Tillmans possesses an often-elusive passion. Perhaps this is what drives so many artistic entrepreneurs to form idealistic views. For Tillmans, it would appear that his personal utopia relies on his activism.

Finding Equanimity in the Volatility of Contemporary Life

Despite his personal struggle with a positive diagnosis of HIV over two decades ago, the artist relentlessly continued working and producing consistently excellent work. In 2014, he gave the miracle of modern medicine a reverent nod by publishing an image of 17 years’ worth of HIV medication bottles. To me, Tillmans’ work is exquisitely balanced, and shows both fragility and strength in a visually poetic ensemble. He also embodies every essence of artistic brilliance – intelligence, deep thought, vision, and just the right amount of rebellion.

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