Bodies at rest and in motion

Ten years ago his photojournalism documented club culture. Today he is the favourite to win this year's Turner Prize. Niru S Ratnam meets Wolfgang Tillmans, the new face of British art
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The Independent Online

"I don't believe in the art-fashion cross-over thing," states Wolfgang Tillmans bluntly. "Lots of people talk about it, but it just doesn't really happen. There are only a couple of people who have currency in both worlds." And he's one of them. Tillmans was one of the key photographers who charted the explosion of club culture at the start of the Nineties, initially in his native Germany and later in London. His images of friends, lovers and fellow- clubbers, pictured out at play or in their run-down, messy homes, define the era.

"I don't believe in the art-fashion cross-over thing," states Wolfgang Tillmans bluntly. "Lots of people talk about it, but it just doesn't really happen. There are only a couple of people who have currency in both worlds." And he's one of them. Tillmans was one of the key photographers who charted the explosion of club culture at the start of the Nineties, initially in his native Germany and later in London. His images of friends, lovers and fellow- clubbers, pictured out at play or in their run-down, messy homes, define the era.

He contributed an eight-page fashion story to a 1992 sex-themed issue of i-D that was deemed so offensive that WH Smith withdrew it from its shelves (it included a shot of a naked man masturbating in some bushes). His work drew inevitable comparisons with that of Nan Goldin, and he was one of the key propagators of an aesthetic that the American art critic Jerry Saltz sarcastically refers to as "the anything-young-is-good school of photography".

Fast-forward to the beginning of this decade, and Tillmans' career has taken a surprising turn. While other youth culture photojournalists - Juergen Teller and Corinne Day - have consolidated their positions within the fashion industry, Tillmans is all over the art world. Quite literally so, in London this autumn. Installed by bookies as favourite to win the Turner Prize, Tillmans is the only one of the four Turner nominees to appear, in addition to the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain, in the other blockbuster shows of the season: Apocalypse at the Royal Academy, and Protest And Survive at the Whitechapel Gallery. And, for good measure, he had a small solo show at Soho space Fig-1 earlier this summer.

"What's happening this autumn is extraordinary," he admits as he paces round his enormous warehouse studio in Bethnal Green, east London, gazing at just-developed prints for Apocalypse. "But I started out as an artist and I've been showing in museums and galleries everywhere except Britain since 1995." Which is true - it seems that Tillmans has found recognition in his adopted country more difficult to come by than anywhere else in the world.

Wolfgang Tillmans was born in 1968 in Reimscheid, a small west German town near Cologne. He messed around with other artists' images while still at school, using photocopiers to alter scale and pixelation. But it was when he started taking pictures of Germany's nascent club scene that he developed his own style.

Then, even though German dance and style magazines had begun to publish his work, he put his career on hold to attend a two-year photography course at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art & Design. In 1992 he moved to London and immediately re-established himself as a working photographer.

He has moved from one city to another ever since; over the last eight years, Tillmans has lived in New York, Berlin and Hamburg, though he always seems to return to London, and has lived there for the last two. His photography reflects this restless, itinerant spirit, the places he visits and the people he meets.

The art-house publishers Taschen produced a book of his work in 1995, a volume full of images that revived the idea of Tillmans as a visual recorder of his generation. It consisted mainly of young people, on the beach, at festivals, at home, dancing, kissing and shagging.

By this point, though, the summer of love which had provided the backdrop for Tillmans' early work was long gone. The book also included images of friends and acquaintances dying of Aids, most notably Tillmans' partner, the artist Jochen Klein, who died in 1997.

Despite the fact that many of the images in the book were far removed from conventional magazine or fashion photography, Tillmans remained outside the structures of the art world. The Young British Art boom, then at its peak, was predicated on conceptual artwork, while Tillmans' images were studies of reality.

"I'm interested in realism, but as a concept - a staged realism," he muses. "My intention is to find out about what I am looking at."

Looking at Tillmans' photographs, the same themes keep coming back, principally the presence and absence of bodies, even in his fashion spreads. "I've always been interested in clothes, but clothes as highly personal objects that the wearer develops a relationship with over time."

Unsurprisingly, that's not the way the fashion industry saw it - bypassing the intricacies of Tillmans' work, they saw a young, streetwise photographer with direct access to a vital market: youth.

"Ad agencies were calling me the first month I left college in 1992, but I've only ever done about five things and they've all been disasters," he shrugs.

He's being disingenuous here. He contributed to his own construction as a commercial photographer by taking some of the best known pictures of Kate Moss, shot for American Vogue in 1996. With titles such as "Kate With Tree" and "Kate Sitting", they appeared to treat Moss as part of a still-life composition.

"Hey!" he cries, throwing up his arms in mock indignation. "I've spent two days in my entire life with Kate Moss, and one with Naomi! OK - I love fashion pages, but I'm after such a particular sort of image that it turned out not really to be fashion."

Whatever the reason, the jet-set life of fashion shows, Vogue and international ad campaigns never really happened. "I'm not interested in the fashion system trajectory. It's quite ironic when people refer to some of my stuff as commercial - it usually gets placed in the most marginal publications and I get paid around 50 quid for it. It's hardly commercial."

And perception of Tillmans' work did slowly change. His real breakthrough in Britain came in 1997, when he showed at east London's prestigious alternative space, the Chisenhale. That solo show, I Didn't Inhale, was a startling production. Enormous posters hung over tiny collages of pictures, some simply torn from magazines. His photos of Kate Moss hung next to still-lifes of fruit and vegetables, portraits of Britpop figures and shots of casually draped clothes.

Perhaps the most arresting images were the most modest - shots of Concorde seen from the suburban streets covered by Heathrow's flight paths. This was a "new" photographer with a mastery of an almost disconcerting range of styles.

"I've no one clear practice," he acknowledges. "Other photographers tend to have one. I'm not like that. I'm interested in life and the world as a whole, and you can't convey that through just one approach."

The Chisenhale show dispelled some of the preconceptions that surrounded his work - that he only took odd fashion pictures or snaps of his social life. '"I'm not just into the downbeat notions of everyday life. I like rarity and luxury, the crazy exotic fruit section in Sainsbury's." He thinks about this for a moment. "Well, I guess if they're found in a Bethnal Green supermarket, they're also part of everyday life. All I try to do is shift them into a different gaze."

Tillmans used the same mix-and-mismatch approach in subsequent solo shows, most notably at high-powered art dealer Andrea Rosen's New York gallery in 1998. Rosen's cavernous Chelsea space was filled with Tillmans' images - again large and small, supermodel and still life side by side - and the show received rave reviews. So art-world recognition saved Tillmans from those dreaded ad campaigns?

Tillmans laughs, musing on the relationship between art and fashion. "I guess the art world is fascinated with the whole glamour thing in fashion, and the fashion world feels second to art because it does not have the seriousness of art, so there's this mutual attraction going on."

Mutual attraction or mutual envy?

"Well, the ultimate thing is that they can't have each other. They inhabit closely related spaces but it's impossible for one to become the other."

Tillmans' view on why he did so many fashion spreads is a practical one. "The fashion pages are a place to show pictures without an editorial story guiding you." And this freedom, he contends, makes it possible to reach a huge audience with images that they might not otherwise see. "You can invent these utopian spaces and ideas. Like the pictures [in the withdrawn 1992 i-D sex issue] of people lying in trees - I was trying to show possible states of togetherness."

And, perhaps, it is this which underpins Tillmans' varied oeuvre: the ability to imbue the seemingly trivial with a sense of gravity. The folds in the clothes apparently tossed around rooms are as carefully arranged as the drapery in an old master. The "snapshots" of friends are, in fact, classic portraits - carefully staged to convey a particular mood.

"At moments, I just see something else in objects. A picture of crumpled jeans is not necessarily about crumpled jeans. It's not as if I wake up and think, 'Oh, I'd better do another still life.' I really am looking at a fold in a jacket or a fruit on the table."

It's all far removed from the ironic excesses of recent British art, and that could be the reason it's taken a while for the British art world to wake up and realise the worth of Wolfgang Tillmans' work.

"I've never really thought of myself as British," he smiles, recalling how he was asked to appear in the last British Art Show, a touring group exhibition showcasing new faces on the UK art scene. "I've always thought of myself in terms of the towns I've lived in - Hamburg, Bournemouth, London, New York and then back to London. But the British Art Show and the Turner nomination acknowledge me as a Brit. That's made me very happy."

Utopian, full of wonder and, above all, happy - Wolfgang Tillmans is the new face of British art.

 

Apocalypse opens at the Royal Academy, London W1 (020-7300 8000) on Saturday. This interview is taken from the October issue of 'The Face' magazine, which will be on sale nationwide tomorrow

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