A worthy winner
This Monday, German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans was presented with the Hasselblad Award, an occasion that was celebrated with an exhibition, a book release and a symposium.
Report by Nina Strand
The award ceremony was held on Monday night at the Gothenburg Art Museum, whose walls are currently hung with paintings in the exhibition Colour Storms by another German artist, Emil Nolde. Prince Carl Philip, himself an amateur photographer, pinned the gold medal on Tillmans' lapel and handed over the prize, consisting of a million Swedish kroner.
Afterwards, the chair of the award jury, photography curator at Tate Modern, Simon Baker, engaged in a conversation with Tillmans. He remarked that Tillmans has taken photography in new directions, making work that is laying down new possibilities for the medium. Tillmans said that he was especially happy that the award is not made in the form of a competition like the Turner Prize, which he won fifteen years ago, since he felt it was unnatural for art to be placed in such a context. Baker concluded by saying that if all artists were able to make the installation of the work look as effortless as Tillmans does, then all the curators could go home.
According to the press release, The Hasselblad Award show manifests Tillmans’ consistent and eloquent use of photography in investigations of what it means to observe. His engagement in the politics of non-normative cultures and sexualities has been evident since his earliest photographic work from around 1990. Another important strand throughout the exhibition is the conceptual study of materiality, as in the Silver, Lighter and Paper Drop works, which all explore photography itself and the dynamics between chance and control. The exhibition also includes a selection of tables from the series truth study center, where the surfaces montage research into truth, science and dogma. In the new video Printing Press Heidelberg Speedmaster XL – Real Time Total Eclipse Nightfall and Exit, the mechanical rhythm of the printing press is juxtaposed with the natural macrocosm. The book Wolfgang Tillmans: What’s Wrong With Redistribution? can be regarded as an extension of the exhibition. It is edited and designed by Tillmans himself.
In the introduction to the symposium, Chief Curator at the Hasselblad Centre Dragana Vujanovic said that giving this prize to Tillmans marks new and exciting directions for the award – just as he himself continuously points out new and eye-opening directions for photography. The jury statement reads:
Wolfgang Tillmans has established himself among the most original and innovative artists of his generation, constantly pushing the photographic medium in new directions. His practice has covered subjects of pressing political and social importance since the 1990s, reflecting both directly and indirectly on the power of the photographic image to engage critically with the world around us. Furthermore, Tillmans has transformed the understanding of photographic exhibition making through his daring and original installations, playing with scale, formats, framing and presentation to produce immersive experiences that have inspired subsequent generations of artists.
Curator Melanie Vandenbrouk and astronomer Marek Kukula gave an insightful lecture on the young Tillmans’ fascination with astronomy. Titled sensor flaws and dead pixels, Wolfgang Tillmans and the astronomical sublime, it showed that art, photography and science have always had a connection and that when they are in dialogue we can view the world differently. An image that a ten-year old Tillmans took of the moon in 1978 demonstrated that astronomy was his childhood obsession. By mounting his father’s camera on his telescope he must have begun to learn about the elements of photography such as composition, exposure and patience.
Tillmans’ opened his own artist’s talk with an image of the Canon photocopier that he bought from the money he earned from the Turner Prize in 2000. It had always been a dream to own one, he said, and this was a way of taking charge of photography as a medium. When he made his first zine in 1986, he had used a photocopier at a lab in his home town and fell in love with it immediately, making picture objects that touched him more than the things he had made before. He loved being able to make an object of great beauty simply by pressing a button. Unlike a sculpture or painting, which is always under the artist’s control, his work is in certain ways left to chance, reflecting life itself, which is subject to accidents and luck. Tillmans has made it a constant challenge to embrace and make peace with the coexistence of chance and control.
Tillmans has enjoyed a lifelong interest in printed matter, which he finds more relevant than the canvas. He has constantly explored what the medium can do, still fascinated by how the paper can be transformed into beautiful objects, offering limitless possibilities of meaning.
He bought his first camera after he had moved to Hamburg in 1988, initially to make more images to photocopy, but soon realising that he could speak with the medium itself. However, since the late 1990s, he has been exploring how to make pictures without a lens. In the Freischwimmer-series, made in a darkroom without a camera, the photographic paper simply records the light. Tillmanns had become tired of hearing the question ‘Where is this?’ when people stood before one of his photographs. Why is it important?, he wondered; when we see a painting, we never ask this question, but with photography we immediately want to connect the scene with reality. He believes that we should accept that the image we see in front of us is the proposition, the result of the choices the photographer makes, projecting a fictitious reality.
Tillman’s interest in prints is connected with an understanding of all he is able to do through the surface. In his exhibition Your body is yours, held at The National Museum of art in Osaka this summer, he showed eight different manifestations of printed paper. He selects his media according to their appropriateness to the task, as well as ease of transport. When talking about the ability to send whole exhibitions in a tube via Fed-ex, he brought sighs of relief from some young photography students in the audience. On the subject of installing his exhibitions, he described the photographs as voices or values that he distributes within the limited space.
Another ongoing fascination for Tillmans is people together, open communities, images of being free. It pains him that there are fewer and fewer open, free and non-commercial spaces in big cities like London or New York. Talking about one image from the exhibition in particular, a 2-metre photograph of a night club in Manhattan, a place usually bereft of subcultural spaces, he said that he had been driven, not just to capture this fleeting moment, but to preserve and possibly amplify it.
Tillmans concluded his talk by showing work from his Silver-series, pictures that are purely mechanical, where the photographic process depicts itself. Photo paper, unexposed or exposed to various sources of colored light, is passed through the processing machine, in which is left – in varying degrees of concentration – water and traces of used chemicals, particularly silver nitrate. He showed this together with 17 years’ supply, showing a box full of empty jars of HIV-medicine. This combination, he explained, reflects his fascination with the chemistry that surrounds him – both photographic and medical. The medicine is chemicals designed to cure him, and in the silver prints chemicals also make miracles.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ Hasselblad Award show can be seen at the Hasselblad Foundation from 1 December 2015 – 14 February 2016.