In 1987, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans left his hometown of Remscheid for Hamburg, the largest city in what was then the Federal Republic of Germany. “I started to go out and take ecstasy,” he has since said of his time there, “and that became this all-encompassing experience that I wanted to communicate.” Tillmans’ excitement about the port city’s club scene directly led to his first photographic works.
It was the experience of music, then, that provoked the genesis of Tillmans’ career as an internationally renowned artist. In the years to follow, as he studied and established his practice, he contributed photo-essays on techno and acid house to Prinz, Spex and i-D. As well as offering economic ballast for his (then) less lucrative art, these projects show Tillmans as a practitioner who sees apparent ephemera and popular culture as an equally credible artistic medium as images hung on gallery walls. During Britain’s EU referendum last summer, for instance, he created a range of freely sharable posters for the Remain campaign, which could be printed onto t-shirts. He’s also an artist aware of the possibility of interchange between supposedly discreet genres: when he was elected to Britain’s Royal Academy in 2013, the organisation’s traditional system classified him as a painter.
This interdisciplinary aspect is brought to the foreground by South Tank, an upcoming series of performance in the Tate Modern, organised in tandem with Tillmans’ large-scale retrospective at the same London institution. Though the exhibition itself is largely – if not entirely, as it features a room devoted to the short-lived 80s band Colourbox – photographic, South Tank will use music, light installations, field recordings and film. Over the course of eight days, five free events will bring live performers to the gallery, including techno artist Thomas Brinkman, composer Othon and producer Throwing Shade.
Perhaps most intriguingly, one of the days will see a three-and-a-half hour reconstruction of the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 masterpiece ‘It’s A Sin,’ with each one of the track’s thirty layers played separately into an immersive soundscape. Tillmans, who directed a music video for the duo’s 2002 single ‘Home and Dry,’ has an obvious affinity for the band’s music, and it’ll be fascinating to see what creates from it.
Tillmans will also take to the stage himself, as frontman of his musical outfit Fragile. Although he has occasionally DJed in Berlin for some time, his release of the 2016/1986 EP last year signaled a move into music-making. Combining pair of new with a side synth-pop songs recording during Tillmans’ teenage years, it revealed a musical sensibility part wedded to the club and part to the avant-garde. A follow-up track, ‘Device Control,’ was used to bookend Frank Ocean’s Endless video album, and a second EP That’s Desire / Here We Are, the first to use the name Fragile, came with its own Hari Nef-staring visual album.