Hot shot on his way to the top...

It's Turner Prize time again. Mark Irving meets the hotly-tipped Wolfgang Tillmans
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I am sitting on a green chair in Wolfgang Tillmans's studio and wondering if it is the same one the skinhead was pictured urinating on in one of his more memorable photographs. "I did have it professionally cleaned," says Tillmans, dryly. On the walls around us are a range of different sized pictures, some very large - bird's eye views of Tokyo, Tel Aviv, a picture lying on the floor showing his friend Lutz curled up naked in a sand dune, grinning into the wind - while others are smaller, more intimate. One series shows individual people, their stares caught by the camera as they trundle home on the London Underground. Except they haven't been "caught on camera" at all. Tillmans set up the pictures using friends and associates - including artist Cerith Wyn Evans and club DJ Princess Julia - as actors in order to recreate, he says "an observation I've made many times when travelling on the Tube: the phenomenon of being incredibly close to people, the kind of closeness you have with a lover. It is uniquely u

I am sitting on a green chair in Wolfgang Tillmans's studio and wondering if it is the same one the skinhead was pictured urinating on in one of his more memorable photographs. "I did have it professionally cleaned," says Tillmans, dryly. On the walls around us are a range of different sized pictures, some very large - bird's eye views of Tokyo, Tel Aviv, a picture lying on the floor showing his friend Lutz curled up naked in a sand dune, grinning into the wind - while others are smaller, more intimate. One series shows individual people, their stares caught by the camera as they trundle home on the London Underground. Except they haven't been "caught on camera" at all. Tillmans set up the pictures using friends and associates - including artist Cerith Wyn Evans and club DJ Princess Julia - as actors in order to recreate, he says "an observation I've made many times when travelling on the Tube: the phenomenon of being incredibly close to people, the kind of closeness you have with a lover. It is uniquely urban."

German-born Tillmans, 32, is very tall and speaks an English that hasn't quite become elegant, but this doesn't make him any less articulate. He runs an efficient-looking studio in Bethnal Green, with three female staff, and operates a hectic schedule. Currently he is selecting work to show in this year's Turner Prize exhibition. It is whispered that he is the front-runner. It's possible to see why: his photographs have captured the easy informality of a young, fashion-conscious generation, and he's ensured that his pictures appear with equal weight in magazines such as i-D, Interview and Index as well as galleries around the world. His work treats a range of very different subjects - people, groups of inanimate objects (dead coffee cups, fag ends, crumpled T-shirts turned into extraordinary Pieta), and landscape views - with the same thoughtful equanimity.

This said, he is fully aware of the traditional hierarchy of art historical genres - there are copies of Zurburan still lives, and landscape paintings by his former partner Jochen Klein on the studio walls. His work at both current London exhibitions "Apocalypse" and "Protest and Survive" demonstrates a profound interest in these genres. "I used to look with a very un-art historical eye, and it was only later that I realised that the window sill had been a staple subject for still life for years. I just felt drawn to it."

Tillmans is wary of labels: he avoids "art photographer", for example. "There are tons of 'art' photographs around today. I just want my pictures to talk about what they are. People are obsessed with knowing how a photograph came about because they think that what is in front of the camera is always real. I just take that a stage further and say that if I experienced what I saw in front of the camera, then that was real. Of course people don't piss on chairs all the time. But the whole point was for me to see what does it look like as a reality rather than as a contrived art photograph".

The "casual realness" of Tillmans' photographs has led his work to be linked with that of other contemporary German photographers based in the UK, but he is quick to reject this idea: "People sometimes see a book of Juergen Teller's work and say, 'isn't your work just like it'. But you only need one eye to see that it isn't. A strong indicator of how different we are is that it is hard to remember a single one of his pictures. It's an interesting test in photography - to be memorable. As soon as you aim for it, you fail at it".

Tillmans's way of exhibiting his work - no frames, just pinned or taped to the wall - deliberately subverts their significance as art. "I've never deployed all the things that the art world uses to make something more important," he says. "It's got me into a lot of stick in the past." Because they might look like snapshots? His eyes flash dangerously. "I don't believe in coincidence and don't think I have a snapshot in my oeuvre. That's different to saying that I might work very quickly, on the spur of the moment. But my work has never ended with just taking the photograph. It is a material process, to do with making a thing. I apply my mind and craft to shaping that thing into what I want it to look like. Maybe all my work is about when does something gather critical mass so that it is recognisable. When is something nothing and when does it become something?"

'The Turner Prize 2000': Tate Britain, SW1 (020 7887 8008), from Wednesday to 14 January, 2001; 'Apocalypse': Royal Academy, W1 (020 7300 8000), to 15 December; 'Protest and Survive': Whitechapel Art Gallery, E1 (020 7522 7878), to 12 November

Comments