L'Officiel Art

From Boy George to Aerospace: Wolfgang Tillmans Talks Epiphanies

The award-winning German artist 'opens up' as the season-opener for the critically acclaimed art talk series Live From The NYPL.
Reading time 4 minutes

“When the subconscious knocks, you listen.” This, it seems, was the theme for the fascinating conversation that took place between multi-media artist Wolfgang Tillmans and the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber. Like preceding Live From The NYPL sessions, the talk took a unique format that was disarmingly casual yet almost clinical in its depths. “Okay, what comes to mind when I show you this image…” Photo by photo, Tillmans shares anecdotes from his childhood and his professional career—epiphanic moments that continue to influence him as an individual and as an artist.

“I photograph what I see and I photograph how I see,” Tillmans explains as 'Young Man In Jeddah' (2012) appears on the giant screen next to the stage. Perhaps what distinguishes this artist’s portraits from others' is his dedication to a specific code: every subject must remain alive, real and natural, as opposed to an object or a curated 'thing'—a technique that has made his fashion photography unique and sought after in the industry. Suddenly, a blurred photo from a Boy George concert appears and the conversation jumps to the summer of 1984, the year that Tillmans came out. Not only is the artist a huge fan, Paul and Wolfgang begin reminiscing about the feelings of gender and identity liberation they both are often associated with the 1980s, and how the then-young photographer’s documentation of the New York and London queer scenes have become some of the most iconic images of that time.

As is characteristic of Live From The NYPL, the topics covered by the duo are as random as they are candid, from spirituality, one-night stands, Michael Jackson to, of course, space. Holdengräber pulls up the artist's 'Total Solar Eclipse' series (1999), triggering Wolfgang to start talking excitedly about a fascination with aerospace that started in his youth. Interestingly, he relishes the intense loneliness associated with being but a tiny speck in the universe precisely because it is something we all share. “You know, I feel like I’m becoming increasingly upset over time wasted. I speak to my friends and my family and…so much time is wasted over negative thoughts,” the artist contemplates as the topic of discussion naturally moves on to the current political climates in Europe and in the United States. Contemplating his role and responsibility as an activist, Wolfgang reveals his pragmatism to be simple but powerful: “Let’s not dwell on the negative but to be constructive instead. Let's make something (or someone) soft out of this mess.” 

The talk marked the launch of an exciting season for Live From The NYPL—an initiative started by the New York Public Library to celebrate some of the cultural realm’s foremost characters and has, since its beginnings, attracted an impressive audience of literati and glitterati alike. So, keep an eye out for panelists like Gabriel Orozco, M.I.A., Susan Orlean, Ishion Hutchinson and many more. This talk also comes ahead of Wolfgang Tillmans’ much-awaited exhibition at David Zwirner in New York, opening on September 13th. The purpose of his show, entitled 'How Likely Is It That Only I’m Right About This Matter', is to engage visitors in a conversation from start to finish through its unique curation and the content of the works themselves. If this season-opening discussion by the artist is any indication of what you can expect, the exhibition promises to cover a variety of fascinating topics that will give you an insight on how this Turner Prize-winning artist sees the world…resulting, perhaps, in some epiphanies of your own.

Listen to the full Live From The NYPL episode featuring Wolfgang Tillmans and Paul Holdengräber online, while ticketing and schedule information can be found here.

All photographs courtesy of The New York Public Library and David Zwirner.

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