Wolfgang Tillmans: On the Limits of Seeing in a High-Definition World
Read an excerpt from a 2018 interview by Aimee Lin, featured in the new MoMA publication Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader.
Jan 11, 2022
Edited by Roxana Marcoci and Phil Taylor, the just-released Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader (2021) is the first publication to present the artist’s contributions as a thinker and writer in a systematic manner, illuminating the breadth of his engagement with audiences across diverse platforms. The interview excerpt below is included in the reader.
Aimee Lin: In the catalogue [DZHK Book 2018] for your Hong Kong exhibition [at David Zwirner] 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 they were young and sending out random emails to find customers for their printing business. We think of it as spam, but it is no different from a leaflet through the letter-box. They really were trying to find clients, but I naturally assumed that it was some terrible virus or phishing scam.
Why did you want to include this in the catalogue? It’s a very beautiful story, very funny, even flirty.
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.
Wolfgang Tillmans. sensor flaws and dead pixels, ESO. 2012
Wolfgang Tillmans. wake. 2001
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.
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 [ISO] 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. 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 photography, 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, color, 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.
This material reality is only accessible through the picture. The eyes can’t process so much information in one go.
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 opposition.
Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader.
The full article was originally published as “Wolfgang Tillmans: On the Limits of Seeing in a High-Definition World,” by Aimee Lin. ArtReview Asia, Spring 2018, 64–65. Courtesy Aimee Lin and ArtReview Asia.
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