Wolfgang Tillmans talks to ArtReview Asia about his new Hong Kong show

By Aimee Lin

Wolfgang Tillmans, Self-portrait in Kammerspiele München, 2016. Courtesy the artist Wolfgang Tillmans, <i>Self-Portrait</i>, Osaka, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: Do you feel that your work is received differently in Asia than it is in Europe?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: During interviews with Japanese critics in the early to mid-1990s, I noticed that they picked out different and deeper meanings in my work. While Western writers were more interested in the social narrative of clubbing or youth culture, the Japanese accessed my work on a more spiritual level. They were concerned with different states of being and the interplay, or the suspense, between chance and control in my work. That we are all 'in-between' is at the heart of what I do. The subject matter is only a means of talking about those overarching philosophical concerns.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: Your work quickly gained a reputation in Japan, but it took much longer for a show to happen in China.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: I'm a latecomer to Hong Kong and China, because I've only shown there once before, as part of a group show at Leo Xu in Shanghai [in 2012]. I've only been to China twice.

I'm fascinated by how China is, of course, connected via land to Europe: Japan is an island, but you can take the train to China. I've always been interested in borders and limits, and the question of when you notice a change. Taking the superficial view, you would think that Europeans and Chinese are very different. But when you look at that shift gradually - you go from Europe to Iran, then to Afghanistan, and you're neighbouring China - you see that everything is transitional. It's not clean-cut.

We are not as different as we are often taught to think we are. That is what I realised again and again in my relationship with Asia. That Europe and Asia are much closer than we think. Because I am a photographer primarily, there's the assumption that this needs to show in the work or in the subject matter, but I'm not sure that the photographs I take in Asia are really about Asia.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: In the catalogue for your Hong Kong exhibition 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 to being young and sending out random emails to find customers for their printing business. We think of it as spam, but it is no different than a leaflet through the letterbox. They really were trying to find clients, but I naturally assumed that it was some terrible virus or phishing scam.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: Why did you want to include this in the catalogue? It's a very beautiful story, very funny, even flirty.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: 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.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: The conversation reminded me of Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman [1976]. 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.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: 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 got tired of it, but on the other hand it is only one medium. More and more, I realise that language is something I care about and have developed more as a medium in the shape of interviews and lectures. The lectures are like 80-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.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: 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.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: 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 25 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.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: Clothes are an artificial border against your natural body.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: Yes. I acknowledge that there are borders between people, language 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.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: The far end of the universe.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: 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.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: 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.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: 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 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 [the inkjet print is 545 x 807 cm]. 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, 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, colour 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.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: This material reality is only accessible through the picture. The eyes can't process so much information in one go.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: 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 opposite.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: Much of your new work, specifically the Neue Welt series [2009-13], is made while travelling. You've said that you're very conscious of your status as an outsider when taking these pictures, so how do you make them relevant to your own world and your own practice?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: It's a huge challenge, and much of what we've talked about is relevant to the Neue Welt series: learning a new language, learning a new subject.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: What is the connection between yourself and the scene you've captured?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: The main thing is to understand desire. The desire to possess, the desire to own or to control, the desire to interpret: they all make for bad art. I have observed this again and again in my life. When I desire to interpret or to own something, the picture is boring or bad. Only when I look without this possessive desire is there an understanding or a connection between myself and the subject. The camera is something that I put between myself and the subject; it is not a tool for possession or acquisition, but a recorder of what my mind sees.

Desire for beauty or for a person or for longing can, in itself, be a beautiful thing. The moment your art makes a claim to control, or claims sovereignty of interpretation, then it's just ugly. But if you are genuinely interested in something, it is difficult to go wrong. Your art is only as interesting as your thoughts about the world. If you have a boring mind, if you're not interested in the world, then you can't see anything interesting in it. Your pictures would only talk about the desire to see something, without actually seeing it. I find science and news photography inspiring because the takers are really interested in what they're looking at. They're not interested in being seen to look at something, but they are interested in looking at something. That's the danger of our time: that people are only interested in being seen as being interested. People taking pictures because they want to be seen taking pictures.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: Your most celebrated portraits are of people that you are familiar with, with whom you have a relationship. But Neue Welt includes photos of strangers, and I'm curious about how that feels. You're not a photojournalist, and so I wonder if that brings its own pressures.

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: I can't answer this straightforwardly because it really is very difficult to overcome or go beyond the circumstances I described: this possessive desire to capture, to own, to grab. A photograph, like other artworks, speaks very clearly about the intentions behind its making. When the intention is just to capture an exotic person, it's not interesting; when there are two strangers looking at each other without trust, affection or interest, then that is all you get in the picture. I'm not interested in a picture of misunderstanding. In the exhibition in Hong Kong, there are three portraits of strangers. Two took place in the few minutes after the total eclipse in Illinois, and there was maybe this shared experience that connected people.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: How did you approach the subjects?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: For the portrait of a young woman in Kinshasa, Congo [Patricia, 2018], I came twice to her shop. It took some courage to ask if I could take her portrait. I needed to know that I wasn't intruding, that she was willing to give me her picture. You have to be given a picture. I don't take a portrait, I receive a portrait. It's only what people are prepared to give you that you can capture. This cannot happen five times a day. Maybe five times a year; for me it's a very rare thing. I am respectful of this. If you want more, it looks like you want more. It's the same with a still life: it is only when I'm really interested in the objects that a good still life happens.

In a way, art is so easy. All you have to do is be honest and see what you're really interested in. As a young artist you think that your desire to express yourself is special, but among artists it is of course not special. The art is to hide your desire to express yourself. That is the single least interesting thing about yourself. We all want to look good, we all want to express ourselves, we all want to be unique, but what are you actually interested in other than yourself?

ARTREVIEW ASIA: Why did you decide to bring the twenty-five-year-old images that you took on your last visit to Hong Kong back to life for this exhibition? And what did those images mean to you?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: They were alive already. The photographs were first published in a book by Taschen [Wolfgang Tillmans, 1995], which included three pictures from Hong Kong. They were a kind of symbol, a placeholder for something I didn't understand. Hong Kong TV Reporter (1993) was a placeholder for the many situations that seemed to me staged and absurd, narratives I could never understand. My work up that point had described communities that I felt close to. So these situations that are so intense and super-specific - the TV reporter in the meat market or the Filipino housemaids [Hong Kong, Filipinas on street, 1993] - was very strange. All I could do was show them as a fascination; as something that I had no power to interpret. I had nothing to say.

ARTREVIEW ASIA: But these things drew your attention. Why did you take the photo of the same subject 25 years later?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: I'm very happy about the new picture [Playing Cards, Hong Kong, 2018]. Even though it's this very specific situation in Hong Kong, it really speaks about playing cards: this all-ages activity. The gestures of the hands and the depiction of details - the distribution of colours and fabrics - are almost mannerist. Artists have always understood the moment of play as a metaphor for human activity. A portrait is given but a scene from life has to be taken. And at some point you need the courage to take a picture, you know? Life plays by itself, and you have to recognise that as an artist. When you observe that moment, you have to do something with it. It's as simple as that. But that moment cannot be forced.

An exhibition of work by Wolfgang Tillmans can be seen at David Zwirner Hong Kong from 26 March through 12 May.

This article was first published in the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia.