Wolfgang Tillmans: On the Limits of Seeing in a High-Definition World
Read an excerpt from a 2018 interview by Aimee Lin, featured in the new MoMA publication Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader.
Jan 11, 2022
Edited by Roxana Marcoci and Phil Taylor, the just-released Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader (2021) is the first publication to present the artist’s contributions as a thinker and writer in a systematic manner, illuminating the breadth of his engagement with audiences across diverse platforms. The interview excerpt below is included in the reader.
Aimee Lin: In the catalogue [DZHK Book 2018] for your Hong Kong exhibition [at David Zwirner] you have reproduced an email conversation with a printing company you contacted in response to a spam email. How did that dialogue start?
Wolfgang Tillmans: It was just by chance. The email caught my eye because it was so unsophisticated and innocent. I thought that, rather than malicious phishers, these might be real people. So I wrote back, and their response was quite touching. They explained they were young and sending out random emails to find customers for their printing business. We think of it as spam, but it is no different from a leaflet through the letter-box. They really were trying to find clients, but I naturally assumed that it was some terrible virus or phishing scam.
Why did you want to include this in the catalogue? It’s a very beautiful story, very funny, even flirty.
I see this catalogue as an artist’s book. I like to explore different materialities in books, different ways of thinking. It’s not just a representation of images, it’s a book of poetry. When I was laying out the book, I thought of it as writing. I can’t tell you the story in words, but I feel it in the sequence of pictures. The book is about language, but not necessarily a verbal or literary language. Text is included in my recent pictures, including the works exhibited in this show. And I considered this exchange with the printer “Klaus” as a kind of concrete poetry.
Wolfgang Tillmans. sensor flaws and dead pixels, ESO. 2012
The conversation reminded me of Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel Kiss of the Spider Woman. It’s about two inmates, a political prisoner and a thief, and in each chapter one of the guys tells the story of a film they’ve seen.
I never understood myself as speaking only through photography. I feel like I can say almost everything I want to with photography, and I still haven’t gotten tired of it, but on the other hand it is only one medium. More and more, I realize that language is something I care about and have developed as a medium in the shape of interviews and lectures. The lectures are like eighty-minute performances, with language, pictures, and silence. This performative element moved into video and finally back into music. Music is a lot about words being spoken and sung.
The exhibition at David Zwirner’s Hong Kong space will include images of Shenzhen, Macau, and Hong Kong, all of which are political and geographical borders inside China. I’m curious about why you chose to photograph those places.
The Macau picture is from 1993, which is the first time I was in Macau and the last time I was in Hong Kong, so there’s been twenty-five years between my two visits. Back then I wanted to see the border with China. I’m interested in understanding the difference across a border when the earth—the ground, the matter—is the same. I never took borders for granted, and I don’t necessarily want to tear them down, but I do want to understand them in their material reality. To feel them. Clothes also interest me, this thin layer of fabric that conceals plain human bodies that are pretty much the same. The putting on of clothes changes so much. A uniform creates authority and distance, which is in a way ridiculous, because it’s just a piece of fabric, it’s nothing. A pair of ripped jeans is seen by a parent as something that should be thrown away, and by a teenager as the most beloved piece of clothing.
Wolfgang Tillmans. Playing cards, Hong Kong. 2018
Wolfgang Tillmans. in flight astro ii. 2010
Clothes are an artificial border against your natural body.
Yes. I acknowledge that there are borders between people, languages, and races. But I think that by looking at them, touching them, smelling them, feeling them, you can also see them for what they are. Strangely, that’s the visible medium of photography. It’s not a scientific way of looking deeper, but it does put me into situations where I can explore those limits, whether that’s being at a border or looking through an extremely large telescope. I spent a weekend in Chile at an observatory, looking at the border of the visible.
The far end of the universe.
Astronomy is located at the limit. Can I see something there? Is that a detail or is it just noise in the camera sensor? By going to the limits, to the borders, I find comfort in being in-between. I always felt held in-between the infinite smallness of subatomic space and the infinite largeness of the cosmos. It gives me comfort to feel infinity.
Wolfgang Tillmans. wake. 2001
How does that experience, that feeling, relate to your high-resolution digital photographs, which are printed at a very large scale? Those images are so massive, contain so much detailed visual information, that they are overwhelming.
I wasn’t originally interested in super-sharp, large-format film, because I wanted my photographs to describe how it feels to look through my eyes. For that, 100 ASA [ISO] 35mm film is close enough to how I feel things look. But since 1995 I have also shown very large photographs, the largest of which is called wake (2001), recently shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Those pictures were made with 35mm negatives, but in 2009 I started to work with a high-resolution digital camera. Suddenly I found myself with an instrument in my hand that was as powerful as a large-format camera. It took me three years to learn how to speak with this new language. By 2012, the whole world had become high-definition. Being able to zoom in on a huge print, and still see detail after detail, is how the world feels now, through my eyes. I’m grateful that I was able to make that development from film to high-resolution digital photography, because it opened up a new language in the history of art. One of the pictures, included in the Hong Kong exhibition, showing the texture of wood and an onion [Sections (2017)], is of such shocking clarity that you find yourself facing an idea of infinity. These pictures contain more information than you can ever remember. Only these large-format prints are able to display the full range of detail, color, and scale, and so digital has actually made the objects almost more unique. The object can only be experienced in the full depth of its presence and its material reality in that room at that time.
This material reality is only accessible through the picture. The eyes can’t process so much information in one go.
I find that miraculous. There’s something deeply philosophical in having to learn to let go of information. It’s an analogy for the information age, and the challenge of valuing things at the same time as being prepared to let them go. To understand everything as the same, and yet to decide that some things are more valuable than others. I choose to value certain things, and at the same time to understand that everything is materially equal, if we accept that things are infinite. That’s a strange opposition.
Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader.
The full article was originally published as “Wolfgang Tillmans: On the Limits of Seeing in a High-Definition World,” by Aimee Lin. ArtReview Asia, Spring 2018, 64–65. Courtesy Aimee Lin and ArtReview Asia.
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