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Wolfgang Tillmans’ Jeddah Journey Features at the Tate Modern

Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 Tate Modern Exhibit

Wolfgang Tillmans portrait. Courtesy of Maureen Paley

Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans has cut the ribbon on a new exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017,” which features several hundred of his images, including photographs from his trip to Jeddah. Vogue Arabia’s Arts Contributor Abdullah K. Al Turki explores the artist behind the headlining showcase with global, gravitational pulling power.

Born and raised in Remscheid, Germany, Wolfgang Tillmans was introduced to the arts from an early age. Visits to museums in Düsseldorf and Cologne acquainted him with the photo-based art of Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. Growing up, all the art that influenced him was lens-generated. When Tillmans finished high school, he decided to undertake community service for two years, in lieu of joining the army. At first, Tillmans worked for a mobile social health provider, helping nurses to care for senior and disabled patients, after which he was transferred to operate a switchboard at a charity in Hamburg. He started producing his work in the late ‘80s.

His first images were torn out from newspapers and enlarged up to 400% on a digital photocopier.

Tilmans’ photographs of everyday life and contemporary culture developed interest and ultimately led to his notoriety. His talent was instantly evident, and his strong interest in storytelling became apparent through his work. In the years to come, Tillmans explored many different types of media, starting to work in a more interdisciplinary manner. In 2000, he became the first photographer and first “non-British” artist to receive the Turner Prize.  

Tillmans always had a strong connection to the UK. He first visited in 1983 as an exchange student, and was inspired by the British youth culture, the local fashion, and music magazines. He was considered the “documentarian” of his generation, particularly of the London club scene.

Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 Tate Modern Exhibit

Wolfgang Tillmans, young man, Jeddah, b, 2012. Courtesy of Maureen Paley


This week, the artist returns to London with a solo Tate Modern exhibition. “Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017” is co-curated by Chris Dercon, the designated director of the Volksbühne Theater in Berlin; Helen Sainsbury, the Tate Modern head of programme realisation; and Emma Lewis, the Tate Modern’s assistant curator. The exhibition, which focuses on his works since 2003, brings together a variety of artistic production: photography, video, digital slide projections, publications, curatorial projects, and recorded music. The exhibition also highlights Tillmans’ interests in the abstraction that features in his work, pushing the boundaries of the photographic form. Visitors will also have the chance to see some images the artist produced while travelling in Saudi Arabia in 2012. 

I had the pleasure of taking part in this trip, accompanying Tillmans and Chris Dercon (then-director of the Tate Modern), on their travels. Tillmans’ visit to Saudi Arabia coincided with a research project he was working on, “Neue Welt” (“New World”), which was to be exhibited later that year in Zurich. We visited Jeddah, where Tillmans roamed the city alone; exploring the old town, having tea with non-English-speaking families on the beach, and visiting artists’ studios and collectors’ homes. We all flew to Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the photos Tillmans took can now be seen as part of the Tate Modern show.

Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 Tate Modern Exhibit

Wolfgang Tillmans, young man, Jeddah, a, 2012 Courtesy of Maureen Paley

Reflecting on the 2012 visit to Saudi Arabia, Tillmans now expresses that he felt lucky to have been able to explore Saudi Arabia and its people in a “different way.” Chris Dercon explains: “Wolfgang looked at things quite differently from us: he was already way into his big project, ‘Neue Welt,’ and the images he made in Jeddah became part of it.” Dercon continues: “From 2009, Tillmans started to travel to various places around the world. The ‘Neue Welt’ project was really a complete rethinking of how he was taking photographs and of what. It was about the broadest possible openness and not having a closed mind. ‘Neue Welt’ also coincided with working with a digital camera; he was learning the language of photography again.”

Wolfgang Tillmans has earned recognition as one of the most exciting and innovative artists working today. His exhibitions have been shown around the world, and his work is held in major international museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His new, highly-anticipated Tate Modern exhibition is open until June 11, 2017.

“Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017” at the Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG, is on display from February 15 to June 11, 2017. 55 AED/SAR per ticket.

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