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Wolfgang Tillmans: Art in a Post-Truth World

German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is coming out of a self-titled solo exhibition in London last year, and is now stamping his name as editor.

Tillmans was the editor for this year’s issue of the “Jahresring,” a German journal of essays on art and culture published annually. This issue “What is Different?” is interspersed with his photography as it explores the role of art in politics in a world that he feels is “post-truth.”

Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans in his exhibition. By Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans in his exhibition. By Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Tillmans started publishing his work in the 1990s as fashion and style work, but to him, those labels don’t really fit what he sees as the goal of his art. He photographs everyday objects and people in what he calls “reenactments of potential situations.” His images are carefully posed and constructed, but still in real-life environments. He says his intention was never to simply record the world around him, but rather to try and create something new and bring a new perspective to the photography world. Reflecting on those earlier images, he says they showed “a kind of freedom that was not being expressed honestly elsewhere.”

His work has become more and more politically responsive to current events, including Britain’s recent Brexit decision, as he lives and works in London (he made posters for the anti-Brexit campaign). This experience was a sort of turning point for him- his passion for and desire to support this cause surpassed any worries about how doing so might affect him as an artist.

This “political awakening” for him caused him to rethink his art and ultimately led him to become more of an activist. Now, he is interested by the “backfire effect”- a phenomenon of people with set, strong beliefs, not changing their minds even when presented with facts and evidence against their opinions.

Photo: cover of “Jahresring” by Sternberg Press, from  www.nytimes

Photo: cover of “Jahresring” by Sternberg Press, from www.nytimes

Photo: page from “Jahresring” by Sternberg Press, from  www.nytimes

Photo: page from “Jahresring” by Sternberg Press, from www.nytimes

Tillmans explores this idea in the journal through juxtaposing photos, articles by a variety of writers (including scientists and politicians), and even MRI scans showing differing brain activity in response to a person hearing political or non-politically related statements. The content of the journal comes after exploring the backfire effect idea in his previous 2017 exhibit, where he showed photos ranging from protesters and city streets to outer space as he represented the beliefs people hold and the news and facts that contradict them.

Through reading the journal, Tillmans hopes readers will ask themselves questions about themselves, their beliefs, and their own blind spots.