More than a year ago, when the German-born artist Wolfgang Tillmans and Maureen Paley, his London gallerist, sat down to work out the dates for his next show, they couldn’t have known that voting day for the EU referendum (June 23) would fall smack in the middle of its run. Nor could they have known what an active role Tillmans would come to play in the fight for Britain to stay in.
With only weeks to go to the deadline, he realised that hundreds of thousands of young people might give up a chance to influence the decision simply by not registering to vote. So in late April he launched a campaign on his website: “Dear Friends,” he began, “I’m sure you are also following with horror the rightwards drift and anti-EU sentiment brewing across Europe . . . The official ‘Remain’ campaign feels lame and is lacking in passion . . . I want to get involved and actively campaign. In particular, I want to work towards maximising turnout among younger voters by focusing on the first, crucial step: voter registration — the deadline for which is June 7!”
When I asked what had brought about this shift into campaigning, Tillmans said, speaking on the phone from his studio in Berlin, that the reasons were partly personal. They were to do with his love for the UK, its culture, music and people, the fact that his career was grounded in Britain, “and for the warm welcome I always felt here as a German. I see myself as a product of the European postwar history of reconciliation, peace and exchange.”
More pressingly, though, it had to do with his understanding of the larger geopolitical situation. “When you think we are facing real, tough challenges, from Russia, from Islamism, from global warming, from the whole Asian situation — who knows where China, Korea, Japan will be in five years? And then you think that Britain and the other 27 countries cannot be together: that this is too much to ask? We have to spend years now undoing this? I mean, that is really a pretty intense message to send for the whole project, the whole European idea.”
Born in Remscheid, on the southern edge of the Ruhr, in 1968, Tillmans says he has always been a passionate fan of Britain, more particularly London, where he has been coming since his teens. In 1990 he moved to the UK to study at Bournemouth College of Art, and afterwards headed to London and worked for i-D magazine, where some of his best-known photographs were first shown. He joined Maureen Paley in 1992, and over the past 25 years has probably spent more years living in Britain than he has in Germany. In 2000 he won the Turner Prize, the first time it had been won by a non-British artist, and the first time with photographs. At Tate Britain in 2003, his exhibition “If one thing matters, everything matters” shocked traditionalists with photographs taped straight on to the gallery walls. But Tillmans gives printed matter equal legitimacy, whether in the gallery, or in a book or magazine. At the end of last year he made a 140-page booklet for the men’s magazine Arena Homme Plus of photographs taken between 1983 and 1989 that chronicle his love affair with London: “Pictures of myself in London, or myself at home projecting myself as if I was in London.” Some of these will be in the exhibition that opens in London on Thursday.
In recent years, Tillmans has been signed up by the international art establishment: a Tate trustee in 2009 (to 2014); a member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste in 2012; a Royal Academician in 2013. In 2014 he won the RA’s Wollaston Award for the most distinguished work in the summer exhibition — the first photographic work to do so.
His campaign to stay in Europe is fuelled by a fear of the rise of the far right across Europe and a return to nationalism. “I base my political view and activism on the belief — and this comes from social science — that roughly 20 per cent of the population in western societies has authoritarian views or sympathies, which you can exchange for slightly racist, or slightly anti-Semitic or slightly homophobic. These people have been with us but they have been losing for 60 years. They are getting very angry at the moment because there is a black president, because of Islam, because of migration, and they suddenly feel they have the upper hand. I want to give all my energy to stopping the next 20 per cent being infected by the first.
“The Nazis were initially a small constituency. Only when this smaller constituency infects another 20 per cent do you have a movement that can win elections. Elections are volatile, they have a low voter turnout and suddenly those angry 35 per cent make a majority.”
His love of the printed page is one of the reasons he decided to design a series of posters for his EU campaign. He likes the form, but he also knew how effective they can be. Their message is clear and direct, with none of the desperate gimmickry associated with political copywriting. “People said, ‘Oh, don’t do posters, it’s all on social media now,’” he says. “But what is social media? It’s just a small liquid crystal poster. So I designed them with that in mind, so they work on a mobile phone; they can be printed out in A3 size as a PDF that you can take to your copy shop. And then we printed 25,000 copies — 2,500 copies each of 10 posters — to be distributed across the country. Now we have put into production six different T-shirts to give to famous people to wear. Suddenly, there’s a whole strategy there.”
On the day he spoke he was grappling with “a distribution push” — how to get the 2,500 cardboard tubes of posters to different parts of the UK, “so they don’t just end up in art colleges in London”.
This is the kind of problem that attaches to artists who make work publicly available, however separate it is from their work for the gallery wall. (And in Tillmans’ case, the two could easily be assumed to be interchangeable). But Tillmans is quite clear on this point. “I don’t say that art can’t or shouldn’t be political,” he says, “but I think that campaigning is rarely a quality art does very well. I would be most proud of these posters if they were seen as a successful political campaign, and not as art works.”
The exhibition is made up of photographs whose subject matter is as diverse as Tillmans’ followers have come to expect. The largest work in the show is “The State We’re In”, an expanse of steel-grey sea “loaded with conflicting energy, the entire surface is literally about to erupt”. The sea is a natural border between peoples, and ideas of separation and connection, similarity and difference, run through other works: a bypass machine which circulates blood from the body during a heart operation; an escalator shaft descending into the London Tube; a series of tables displaying office paper in five standard sizes — A3, A4, Legal, Ledger and Letter, the differences in size and texture minimal, the function much the same. What looks at first sight like a frayed electronic cable, or some kind of broken hi-tech link, is a delicate, red, trumpet-shaped blossom found in a Colombian national park, 3,000m above sea level. The sense of disorientation is deliberate, he says. “It’s about locating yourself and positioning yourself in the world.”
Tillmans has an exhibition coming up at Tate Modern in February 2017, so he has no need, as he says, to put everything into this one. But in February, will we still be in the EU?
I wondered if there had been a backlash to the campaign — particularly on social media: people saying he came from Germany, it wasn’t his fight?
“Only 5 per cent of comments are, like, ‘How about letting us decide for ourselves?’” he says. “But the overwhelming feedback has been: ‘Well done and thanks for finally saying something, and for making something that looks good and has a clear message.’”
The worst thing about the Remain campaign, he feels, is that it doesn’t defend the EU. “It’s only saying, ‘Well, we’re better, we’re stronger in.’ Nobody seems to say that the EU is actively protecting people’s rights. People assume it is so unloved that if you say you actually like it, you come across as some sort of lunatic.
“This is the point I try to make increasingly. That the very slowness and boringness of the EU is the nature of its success. How else can you get 28 countries to agree on things if not through long negotiation? The processes are designed not to be quickly pushed over by an autocratic government.”
Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition is at Maureen Paley, 21 Herald Street, London E2 6JT from June 9 to July 31; maureenpaley.com
Photographs: Wolfgang Tillmans/Courtesy Maureen Paley, London