ART iT: We were just discussing the “Approaches” (1987-88) series of early photocopy works and your fascination with the gray areas between opposing extremes, information and no information, the rational and irrational. In that sense I am curious to know what the crotch shot means for you as a type of image, with historical precedents including Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), where there is a confusion between the erotic and the frank or simply objective gaze. You’ve made a number of similar works, such as the photograph Nackt (2003), which compositionally evokes Courbet and features a woman with a remarkable, almost phallic vulva; Dunst I (2004), looking up at a man’s genitals from between his legs; and Alex and Lutz, looking at crotch (1991), which has the self-referential aspect of looking at looking at the crotch. Is this a type of image that you consciously pursue or does it happen quite fluidly?
WT: It’s certainly not a Courbet reference in the first order, because I tend not to use art historical references as the first reason for making a photograph. When it happens I welcome it or accept it. I can’t deny that it’s in the air around us. But, as I mentioned earlier, when I notice a difference or an effect, there is something that makes me want to look closer and understand that difference.
What goes on in the crotch seems to radiate in expanding circles around us. We constantly live our lives in complete, or pretend ignorance of – or at least attempting to ignore – what takes place there. But I take pleasure in the occasional act of transgressing that boundary. Suddenly you look where you’re not supposed to look. In terms of the other gender, with which I do not have much first person experience, there’s also a childish curiosity to face up to the difference.
I am always bewildered that people should be scandalized by such images. We are living in a completely sexualized world, and yet sex is the most terrible thing if it’s not dealt with in the same repressive ways.
ART iT: This brings us back to the idea of the contradictions in the capitalist structure. The message is: sex sells, but you’re not supposed to have sex.
WT: Yes. I think it’s terrible. Gay culture has also been so commercialized that there is little oppositional alternative left in the gay scene. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1980s and become an adult in the late ’80s and earlier 1990s, when there was an opening of opportunities for things to happen fairly freely. Even then I knew this was rare, and the whole first book I made (Taschen, 1995) is a manifesto. It’s not a documentary, because it does not document what things really looked like at the time, although it was quickly seen as a record of the youth of the moment; in fact it featured only a small minority of people mixed with scenarios that were not documentary. People normally don’t sit naked in trees. These are things that were staged.
The entire book and the work of that time is a utopian. . .”manifesto” is the wrong word, because a manifesto always has clear rules, but I find it is so important to not be afraid of your body, however difficult it may be for all of us. I feel the younger generation today seems to be more accepting of this fear of their bodies. For example, in Germany now everybody – boys and girls – shaves from head to toe. They shave their armpits, their pubic hair. In the first book there was a picture of a shaved cock, which at the time was more an S/M thing dealing with the control and objectification of a body, but now this is what any normal guy would look like.
Top: Soldiers – The Nineties, Installation I (1999). Installation view at Maureen Paley, London, 1999. Bottom: Truth Study Centre (Table 25) (2007).
ART iT: At the same time you were producing this utopian vision, you were also making Soldiers: The Nineties (1999). There was a duality to how you were seeing the world around you.
WT: I guess I was dealing with my deepest fears about the military and the loss of identity that would come with being part of it, as well as its cruelty and disrespect for life, which I rejected. Growing up in the 1980s there was this idea that the Russians could attack at any moment, and it was really real. They were really putting nuclear rockets in Germany, East and West, pointing at each other. Maybe because of that I also had a keen eye on the soldier as a sex object, as a counter to the power that he holds. This power can only remain intact as long as he is not objectified – he has to be in control of the image he projects – but the moment you turn him around as just some pin-up or fetishizable image, he is dramatically undermined in his authority, or at least so he thinks. That’s the thing: he’s not really undermined, he still has the gun. But in general a straight man hates nothing more than to be sexually objectified.
ART iT: In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist for his “Conversation Series” of books (Walter König, 2008), you mentioned how a fetishistic interest in the portrayal of men in uniforms in news media “served as a catalyst for perception” leading to the development of Soldiers.
WT: Exactly. Because I had a particular, fetishistic angle, I noticed this type of picture in the newspapers in the 1990s, and the constant use of pictures of attractive young men in uniform doing nothing newsworthy. Normally pictures report some kind of news event, but at the time the pictures of soldiers didn’t really show them killing people or fighting. They were not doing much, just waiting. Of course the sports picture is the other picture category where you’re allowed to look at men, but I thought that was too obvious. There was no particular problem there. In the 1990s with end of the Cold War there was a perceived lack of threat, even though there were still wars, starting from the Iraq War in 1990. There was a strange contradiction between an absence of threat and actual war taking place almost in the middle of Europe in Yugoslavia, and the hardness of the militaristic look, which at the same time was adopted in the techno scene, and the hardness of techno itself. It’s like the new, soft 1990s needed a super hard music, and the lack of the existential threat in politics was countered by putting a picture of a soldier once a week on the New York Times cover page just to give an air of threat, as if we like it.
But to be honest I think that being fetishistic is almost a precondition for being a visual artist, because only then can you know the importance of something visual. When something really turns you on, you know how overarchingly important just the look of it can be. Fetishes are almost by definition absurd. They don’t seem to have any utility; they are a paradox. But then again all art is in that way fetishistic because it somehow attributes a heightened level of pleasure or satisfaction to an experience of a sound or a textured surface. These are often not discussed as sexual, because I guess it can also be non-sexual, but I notice that people with a fetishistic side understand certain visual things very well. With other people it just doesn’t matter.
Top: Silver 114 (2012). Bottom: Silver 107 (2012).
ART iT: In that sense the photograph is not fetishistic in itself, it’s just a photograph and it’s up to the viewer to read into it. This is perhaps similar to the mechanism in your abstract photographs, such as the “Silver” series, which collapse the distinctions between representation and abstraction.
WT: Yes. The “Silver” pictures are possibly the most fetishistic of my works in that there is a certain autoeroticism to them. I don’t know what it is exactly – a friction, maybe. Getting excited about something meaningless is part of the absurdity. Of course a flower, too, is ultimately meaningless, but with “Silver” it’s these random traces of substance on top of this gelatin paper, these natural, chemical processes that are happening under my influence but not under my control. I’ve always smiled to myself when Gerhard Richter says he doesn’t know what the abstract pictures mean. I always think, Come on, that’s just posing. I think I know what he means, and I think we’re maybe talking about the same thing in that they’re useless or meaningless. But attributing incredible meaning or pleasure to something that ultimately has no purpose is exactly what produces the exciting tension of the fetishistic moment.
ART iT: Appearing both on a formal level, as well as in what I consider to be your “reading projects,” such as Soldiers and Truth Study Center, one characteristic of your works is the idea that there is a feedback effect between the visual realm and the so-called “real.” For example, in the picture of the hotel room, Jurys Inn (2010), you capture the desk and the TV and the reflection of the room inside the TV and the mirror above it. There’s a palimpsest of different realities converging at the same time, including that of the viewer.
WT: And in this case, since I am the primary viewer, the viewer reveals himself as being somehow complicit and entangled in the situation. Complicit simply by the fact of even being there; entangled, because I feel I am involved through the circumstances of living this Western life, for example. I like to make it visible that I’m not coming from a position of cleanliness. I am part of the mess. It’s nice that you pick up on that picture because I think it’s an important picture.
ART iT: Actually, in our current post-Snowden world, I first thought the TV monitor was playing back a video image of the room, and then had to pause for a second look before I realized it was just the reflection in the glass of the screen. The work now becomes a comment on the surveillance society that is building up around us, largely through the structure of play and entertainment: TVs, computers, smart phones, tablets.
WT: But also there is the question of taste in the picture. Everything in the room is badly designed, somehow ugly, and yet you can’t be angry with the people for that. Not everybody knows or cares. Some people just want to have a picture on the wall, so they put up some inoffensive abstract patterns, but then again who am I to laugh about that when I make abstract patterns as well. That red carpet – is it beautiful, is it really ugly? Your own involvement in this is of course much harder to bear, whereas if you put yourself in the all-seeing eye position or the melodramatic photo reporter situation, you are putting yourself in a very clear spot and saying, I am commenting. I try to not comment, whilst still speaking clearly.
Wolfgang Tillmans: The Space Between 0 and 1