W olfgang Tillmans has made his presence felt as a contemporary artist in the past 30 years, redefining photography for 21st century audiences. He was the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in 2000, and is also a Royal Academician. In 2017, he founded the Between Bridges Foundation, an organisation that aims to support LGBTQ+ rights, the arts and democracy. In 2018, he designed a production of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for English National Opera in London, marking the centenary of the armistice.
Tillmans is closely connected to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (ICA), having often visited the legendary venue located on The Mall since his student days. Crucially, he was appointed chair of its board of directors in 2019. Now in its 75th year, the German artist has turned his hand to organising a benefit in aid of the ICA to be held as part of the Contemporary Day Auction at Sotheby’s on the 14-15 October, which includes works donated by numerous artists. We sat down with Tillmanns for a chat about the ICA, the works in the sale - and what he's up to next.
What are your memories of the ICA?
I lived in London from 1992 until 2011. I went to the ICA during my first years in the London art world in the early 1990s after I graduated from Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. The ICA was very much a central place when the bar was really alive. In 2007, I was included in an exhibition there called The Secret Public: The Last Days of the British Underground 1978-1988. That exhibition covered a legendary era when pop music, art, fashion, film overlapped in an entirely natural but uncommercial way, which inspired many people.
In the 2000s, I think the nuts and bolts, and the principles of the ICA were established and have continued in the past 20 years. There are the different pillars: The exhibitions, the cinema, theatre, music, talks and the bookshop, all of which are among the best resources in the West End.
Why did you take up the position of chair of the ICA board in 2019? Is it still a progressive space for culture?
I believe it is good to spend time caring for organisations by becoming a board member. As artists we are deeply involved in public institutions. Until I did it myself, I only had very vague ideas of what this entails and how much depends on good custodianship by the board. I do have faith in the ICA because of the consistency of the offer there over the decades. Even though I don't know what it was like in the 1950s, it is hearsay, or art world folklore, that Pop Art was founded in Richard Hamilton’s famous exhibition [Growth and Form, 1951, at the Institute’s original location in Dover Street]. London always has something popping up because when you have seven million people or more, new forms of expression arise, which the ICA endeavours to represent.
"With the ICA's new director Bengi Ünsal reviving the musical and performance art aspect, we can see the potential of the space. I think it can really go back to its heyday of the 1990s"
Which recent ICA exhibitions have impressed you?
War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights was the first exhibition of its kind at an institution of that calibre. Decriminalised Futures meanwhile featured 13 international artists whose works speak about the multiplicity of contemporary sex worker experiences. It's just not something you will find at other places. The exhibition in October will be a very ambitious film installation by Christopher Kulendran Thomas. And the outlook is positive. With the new director Bengi Ünsal reviving the musical and performance art aspect, we can see the potential of the space. I think it can really go back to its heyday of the 1990s. She has incredible connections with performing artists and musicians though obviously there is always an interest in sculpture, painting and photography.
Tell me about the works in the auction. Has this entailed delving into the archives?
It's always fun to be looking at the history of the ICA, what was done when and seeing what came after. I hope that collectors will be willing to go the extra mile because they can be part of this history. It's a chance for everybody to be involved.
Individual artists make up the bedrock of the institution. We have artists such as Alvaro Barrington, Denzil Forrester and Robert Gober, who has given an exciting sculptural edition called Rat Bait. It's a cast plaster and silkscreen ink replica of a rat bait box, which was part of his 1992 seminal installation at DIA Center for the Arts [in New York]. He kept back a few of the editions [ten in total]—for the Gober fan this is a rare piece.
What are a few other highlights?
Marlene Dumas gave an ink and acrylic [work] on paper, a work that she held on to for 24 years called Sweets for my Sweet. Isa Genzken has given a large-scale collage incorporating foil, adhesive tape and a photographic portrait of herself on an acrylic panel. I think it’s an iconic work, but then again I would say that being a great fan and a close friend. Barrington has donated a painting called Leaving on a jet plane (2022). Tacita Dean is going to give a unique drawing which is quite special for her.
I’m giving a large-scale Freischwimmer from 2004, which was shown at Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover, in 2007. I am giving something special, which will hopefully encourage my colleagues to join me and donate.
You hope to raise not just funds but also the profile of the ICA with the auction at Sotheby’s?
Everyone thinks that the ICA must be a well-funded organisation, but the reality is that we have to fundraise three quarters of the budget. It’s so stressful for the organisation so we hope that the proceeds of this auction will go towards setting up a longer lasting fund.
What’s next for you?
There is my survey at MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art in New York), To look without fear, that opens on 12 September. It's a huge project, across the entire sixth floor, spanning 35 years of work. It's, of course, something that I didn't dare dream of when I first was at MoMA as a 16-year-old.