Wolfgang Tillmans (RA) is used to firsts. He was the first non-British person to win the Tate’s annual Turner Prize in 2000. (He was also the first photographer to take the award.) And the first person commissioned to create a photographic portrait by the British Museum in 2015, breaking with their 250-year long tradition of paintings. And now, in July, Tillmans will exhibit in South Africa for the first time… after showing in Kinshasa and Nairobi, marking the first time a body of his work is on the continent for you to enjoy. But then, Tillmans has always been an innovator.
Tillmans first made his mark in the late ’80s and early ’90s through photographs characterised by seemingly candid shots of his gay tribe in London. But while his style was constantly dubbed ‘documentary’, in truth his images were far more intentional than incidental. In Tillmans’ own words, he wasn’t documenting so much as thoughtfully representing ‘what was not being represented elsewhere’.
Tillmans went on to innovate traditional fashion magazine photography, publishing his ground-breaking work in the likes of ‘i-D’, ‘Index Magazine’ and ‘Interview’. Gone were the gentle, polished pictures of traditional glossy magazine images; in was Tillmans’ grungy, harshly-lit compositions filled with gratuitous, provocative nudity.
As technology changed, so did Tillmans, adopting digital over film and incorporating videography and music into his repertoire. Grids and increased abstraction entered into his works, experimenting as his platforms expanded: showcases at Tate Modern, The Serpentine Gallery, Palais de Tokyo, Tate Britain, Venice Biennales and more.
One thing that’s remained constant throughout? Tillmans’ tendency towards activism, from speaking openly about his HIV diagnosis to questioning the UK’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 to a more recent anti-Brexit campaign.
It’s all part of why ‘Fragile’, Tillmans’ first exhibition on the continent, is so thrilling. A travelling showcase making a stop at Johannesburg Art Gallery from 8 July, ‘Fragile’ contains over 200 works, offering an overview of Tillmans’ artistic expression from 1986 to 2018. Encompassed in this oeuvre: large-scale prints, video projections, music, sculptural objects and more. It’s a tour de force in why Taschen described Tillmans as ‘the lens-meister of the zeitgeist.’
‘I work to communicate with people. I chose photography as a medium because I can speak better with it than with words,’ says Tillmans, whose work has been brought to the continent in partnership with Goethe-Institut. ‘I believe that cultural exchange is very important.’
As a viewer, what should you expect from the showcase? ‘Visitors shouldn’t wonder what the artist is trying to say,’ explains Tillmans. ‘There is no key, but I would like to encourage them to use their own eyes without bias, and without any sense of importance, for example, thinking the large works are the most important and the small works are less important.’ It’s an invigorating challenge, not least because ‘Fragile’ promises so many pieces to consider and absorb – a comprehensive collection of Tillmans’ attempt over the last three decades to answer his own perennial question: ‘Can I make a picture of this? Can I make something new?’
‘Fragile’ is on at Johannesburg Art Gallery from 8 July until 30 September 2018. Admission is free.
Sarah Browning-de Villiers is an art writer who contributes to titles including House and Leisure and Harper’s Bazaar Art.