Wolfgang Tillmans To look without fear

Apr 7–Oct 1,  2023
    Wolfgang Tillmans, Deer Hirsch, 1995. Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London.
Wolfgang Tillmans, Deer Hirsch, 1995. Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London.

Wolfgang Tillmans’s first museum survey in Canada foregrounds how the German artist has married photographic image-making with social critique by pushing the conventions of the medium, developing new worlds of abstract photography, and epitomizing a new kind of subjectivity. In 400+ works, the exhibition presents the richness of Tillmans’s artistic practice, grounded in his conviction that an artist’s role is to be “an amplifier.”

Wolfgang Tillmans, astro crusto, a, 2012. Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London.

The reason I started to work with images from the very beginning was that I wanted to be involved with what was going on in the world.

— Wolfgang Tillmans

For more than three decades, Tillmans has experimented with what it means to engage the world through photography. In works ranging from windowsill still-lifes to documents of social movements, ecstatic images of nightlife to camera-less abstractions, sensitive portraits to pictures of architecture, and astronomical observations to intimate nudes, he has explored seemingly every genre imaginable.

Tillmans’s work, though personal, is never insular, never divorced from the wider world; rather, his photographic observations and experiments are grounded in the possibility of forging human connections, and express notions of community and communion. Through his photographs, the artist participates, witnesses and advocates, shaping a new sense of what is beautiful, what is pleasurable, and what is possible. Key bodies of work in this exhibition—such as Silver (1992–ongoing), paper drop (2001–ongoing), and Freischwimmer (2001–04)—underscore Tillmans’s deep interest in the materiality of paper, light, and chemistry, constituent elements of the medium. Installation works like Soldiers: The Nineties (1990–99) and Truth Study Center (2005–present) illuminate his sense of the geopolitical implications of visual culture. His relationship with new forms of technology is evident, from his ability to capture Venus in transit from the eyepiece of a telescope, to his Neue Welt (2008–12) project, for which he first used a digital camera “to observe how the world’s surface is changing.” Together, these highlight his irrepressible curiosity and relentless drive to create new kinds of pictures.

Unique to the AGO exhibition is the two-channel video installation, Book for Architects (2014). Compiling 450 images taken in 37 countries over the course of a decade, Tillmans presents an extensive body of observations of how we encounter and live with the architecture of our built environment—be it a doorbell, a security line-up in an airport, a corner store, or an abandoned high-rise.

Tillmans’s ongoing interest in music and performance finds new form in video works—an under-recognized facet of his practice that brings together movement, electronic music, ambient sound, technology, and quotidian imagery. For Instrument (2015), a single-channel, split-screen projection, the artist playfully and intuitively dances to the beat his own feet make on the floor as he records the shadow his body casts on the wall, making himself an instrument of image and sound. The artist’s first full-length album, Moon in Earthlight (2021), will regularly screen in the AGO’s Jackman Hall, allowing visitors to experience what Tillmans calls “audio photography” in an immersive audiovisual setting.

Famed for his distinctive display strategies, Tillmans will create site-specific constellations of images at the AGO, taping prints to the walls and hanging them with clips, incorporating framed photographs alongside photocopies and pages cut from magazines. “I see my installations as a reflection of the way I see,” Tillmans has said, “the way I perceive or want to perceive my environment.”

Presenting the full breadth of Tillmans’s career from the 1980s to now, this exhibition is organized by the Museum of Modern Art, where it debuted to great acclaim in September 2022. The AGO presentation marks the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in Canada, and invites us to experience Tillmans’s vision of what it feels like to live today.

Organized at the AGO by Sophie Hackett, Curator, Photography, with Marina Dumont-Gauthier, Curatorial Fellow, Photography. To look without fear was developed by Roxana Marcoci, The David Dechman Senior Curator, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art with Caitlin Ryan, Curatorial Assistant, and Phil Taylor, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art.

Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968, Remscheid, Germany) studied at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in Bournemouth, England, from 1990 to 1992. Relentlessly pushing to find ways to make new pictures in our image-saturated world, Tillmans has, throughout his career, explored and integrated photography’s many genres, techniques and presentation strategies. In 2000, Tillmans was the first photographer and first non-British artist to receive the Turner Prize, an award given annually by Tate in London. In recent years, Tillmans has been more directly involved in political activism. In tandem with his ongoing Truth Study Center project (begun in 2005), he has created posters for the anti-Brexit campaign in Britain and in response to right-wing populism in Germany. Fragile, a major touring solo exhibition of the artist’s work, opened in 2018 at the Musée d’Art Contemporain et Multimédias in Kinshasa, with the final stop taking place at Art Twenty One and CCA, Lagos in 2022.