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Wolfgang Tillmans talks Brexit

Why the artist felt compelled to get political

Wolfgang Tillmans
© Photo: Karl Kolbitz
Wolfgang Tillmans
© Photo: Karl Kolbitz
“I see myself as a product of European post-war history”. On the eve of Britain’s EU Referendum, Wolfgang Tillmans talks to TASCHEN’s Eliza Apperly about morphing from an inherently to overtly political person.

You’ve been a vocal campaigner on Britain’s EU Referendum, creating a series of posters encouraging people both to register to vote and to vote to remain in the EU this Thursday 23 June. What urged you to get involved on this issue?
The reasons why I felt compelled to get involved in the UK-EU referendum are personal – my lifelong involvement with the UK, its culture, music and people, my career’s grounding in Britain and the always warm welcome I felt here as a German. I see myself as a product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace and exchange. Also, at the time I started to get involved in the referendum, I had the feeling that the official ‘Remain’ campaign was lacking in passion. It felt lame to me and did not spark an active drive to get voters registered – which is why I wanted to get involved and actively campaign. In particular I wanted to work towards maximizing turnout among younger voters by focusing on that first, crucial step: voter registration.

Of the various pro-European arguments the posters display, which is the most resonant to you?
You know there are many good things that are done and quickly taken for granted. For example do you remember not too long ago, the mobile phone calls between European countries costing two euros a minute? Then the EU got in there, and forced the multinational phone companies to treat this as a common market and the prices are down now to 20 cent a minute. I don’t understand why this should be seen as Brussels dictating our laws. No country alone could take on the mobile phone giants. But the biggest achievement of the EU has to be, what it received the Nobel Peace Prize for in 2012, that it played a major, major role in the fact that we enjoyed 60 years of peace among it’s now 28 member states. It’s easily taken for granted, but after centuries of bloodshed in Europe, this is not a small argument to make in favor of keeping the club together.

Do you find it more productive, or more difficult, to create art in an age of radicalized politics?
I have never before been a campaigning artist. I’ve always seen art’s strength in its uselessness. It doesn’t have to fulfill a purpose or justify itself. However, a very pressing reason why I morphed in recent months from an inherently political, to an overtly political person, lies in my observation of the larger geopolitical situation and an understanding of Western cultures, as sleepwalkers into the abyss. The term “Sleepwalkers” comes from the title of the book by Christopher Clark which describes Europe in 1914, when different societies ended up in a world war, which none of them wanted. Today, I see the Western world sleepwalking towards the demolition of the very institutions of democracy, negotiation and moderation which allow us to live the lives that we are living.

On any contested or topical issue, what can cultural expressions contribute that political rhetoric cannot?
It’s the freedom of expression that can make art so powerful. Throughout recent history, artists have played an important role in generating imagery and language for causes that ended up being good for all people. I find it remarkable that the EU has done so little to communicate their successes to the more than 500 million citizens in Europe. The EU is ashamed to make an appearance. It's like they are the parents of a spoiled teenager who is hitting them. We are now at the point that the parents can no longer be hit. They'll snap.

How did you find it working with text as much as images for this campaign?
At one point, it was just going to be text on the posters. Personally, I think it is good to have a group of images that are not identifiable with me or with my style since it’s primarily about getting the message across clearly and forcefully. It became clear to me that the official campaign against Brexit was being conducted in the completely wrong tone and with an unattractive visual design.

Do you think there is always a greater socio-political immediacy to photographic practice?
This whole campaign made me realize, embrace, more the idea that art and artists of all kind really can make a difference in politics. I always felt moved deeply by political art from former periods, especially music, and I regret that that has really died down much in my and younger generations. I can see that we are now moving into a period when artists realize that they can use their practices as a tool to promote change and to be more precise: promote peace. The rhetoric of people like Trump or Farage makes you think that peace is not the first thing on their mind.

As a longtime resident of both London and Berlin, have you always been aware of different European sentiments between the two countries?
City-wise, I’m a Londoner. Nationally, I’m German. My identity is European. Really, I see myself as a product of European reconciliation and cultural exchange. That is what has enriched my life so much. I have lived in Britain for 26 years and contributed to British taxes. I went to college here. I have been the recipient of Britain’s biggest art prize and I have been made a full member of the Royal Academy of Art. But of course I'm defined by certain German elements, too, that I wouldn't want to lose. I guess they could be described as an interplay of rationality and romanticism. In Britain however I learned to question everything – especially those romantic feelings which are somewhat problematic for us Germans. Of course, the British are helped by their humor, which reflects an anti-authoritarian stance that has always attracted me. And then here is the predilection for the irrational. Brexit, though, would be taking that irrationality way too far!

Would your feelings towards Britain change if the country votes to leave the European Union?
I don’t think so, but who knows? I’m not interested in engaging in Project Fear. They’re not going to suddenly shut down easyJet and start searching every single truck full of tomatoes coming in from Europe. For me, it is more about the message it will send out. The minority of loud voices against will have triumphed. The voices of reason and negotiation will have lost.

One of your titles with TASCHEN is Neue Welt orNew World“. Apart from the question of Europe, what do you consider the most pressing challenges and the greatest hopes for our common future?
I think one of the greatest challenges of the future is people disengaging with the political world, it's like a cancer spreading around the world. The greatest hope is that more and more people start undoing this. I do believe standing up for the centre ground should be the new cool, because it is so dangerous not to.

Your Between Bridges exhibition and event space, formerly in Bethnal Green, London, now in Keithstraße, Berlin, provides a space for engagement as much as creativity. What’s next on the program?
Currently we are running "Meeting Place", an attempt to open a space for dialogue about the current political climate. It's basically trying out ways to openly discuss questions about what individuals and groups of people can do to help to influence and alter this climate. On 23rd June we will dedicate "Meeting Place" to following the referendum with live screenings of British news channels, music and Pimm's. The British-born writer Kirsty Bell will be in video conversation with me in London. The following week, we will have an almost 3 hour film screening that was proposed by Yusuf Etiman: "America America" by Elia Kazan from 1963.
From Neue Welt
© Wolfgang Tillmans.
From Neue Welt
© Wolfgang Tillmans.