Dan, 2008. Image © Wolfgang Tillmans
How many artists could boast making the cover of Fantastic Man and having a solo show at the Serpentine Gallery at the same time? But then Wolfgang Tillmans never made much distinction between high and popular culture. He got his first break on the pages of i-D magazine in the early 1990s, just as he was being hailed by galleries in Europe and the US as the “documentarian of his generation”.
The German-born photographer has made London his home for much of the past 20 years, having studied at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. These days he lives in Clerkenwell and has a studio in a former umbrella factory in Bethnal Green, where he hosts a legendary summer party every year. He also has a permanent exhibition at Panoramabar, a hardcore techno club in Berlin.
“There is a lot of bad art involved in clubbing,” he says in Fantastic Man. “I don’t think art necessarily lends itself to many applications. The moment it servers a function, it is not purposeless, yet I think purposelessness is quite crucial to art. Otherwise it is an illustration. In the Panoramabar they have just the right understanding. They are making a mad place, but they are also very realistic about it. It is a reasonable undertaking to have a great techno club with a sex club attached to it, architecturally. Then sometimes the whole place becomes a sex club and the closed-off area has theme parties. It’s so caring for the human mind and the different receptors of what people might want, to offer this playground pared with an aesthetic sense that has never been trashy.”
Represented by Maureen Paley, he’s a firm fixture in the art world, picking up the Turner Prize in 2000 and exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in 2009. With this mix of the voguish and the intellectual, it’s no surprise he’s showing at the Serpentine at its busiest time this summer, when the latest architect-designed pavilion will also be on show and the fashionable summer party takes place. In fact, the only real surprise is that it’s so long since Tillmans last had a major show in London – this is his first in seven years, discounting the Truth Study Centre show at Paley’s gallery in London in 2005.
This latest show, 15 years after he last exhibited at the Serpentine, will feature new work alongside a retrospective look at the past two decades living and working in London, including portraiture, still lifes, landscapes and abstract images. These latter images have been a major preoccupation for Tillmans over the last decade, but for me it’s the more figurative, documentary work that provides the biggest draw. Tillmans can take a simple subject, such as a neck, and make a touching, sexy and subversively political project out of it. His still lifes of jam pots, apples and pot plants, meanwhile, infuse the everyday with a magical sense of beauty.
Wolfgang Tillmans is on show from 26 June - 29 August at the Serpentine Gallery.
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