In an interview with SHOWStudio’s Lou Stoppard for their ongoing “In Camera” series, queer artist/activist Wolfgang Tillmans spoke candidly about the impact HIV has had on his personal and professional life. “I found out, I myself am HIV positive, but I never made that an active subject in my work, “he said. “People are so scared of aids, they think that everything in the world is foreshadowing this.”
Tillmans continued, opening up about his boyfriend Jochen Klein, a German painter who died from AIDS-related complications in 1997. “HIV impacted my life from the first day of experiencing having sex,” Tillmans said. “Of course, it affected me when my boyfriend, my love of my life suddenly died of it. At the time therapy was possible, but he found out too late.”
The artist remembered having sleepless nights at 16, when he was worried he’d die soon after having sex with a man. “I had a swollen gland, but of course I was just being a hypochondriac,” he said—a mindset fueled by a toxic climate that heavily stigmatized HIV positive people. “AIDS has always been in my life,” he added. “I’m aware of the fragility of life.”
Referencing a 1992 AIDS-focused issue of i-D, Tillmans specifically called out a double page spread by Simon Foxton that said, “We haven’t stopped dancing yet.” In those days “people were just dying,” Tillmans said. “Of course people were clubbing, as well. I’m more than grateful that science and chemistry have allowed medication to exist.”
Though Tillmans says he doesn’t believe all artists need to be creating political work, he has in the past created imagery that speaks directly to his own queer experience living with HIV. “Not every photograph is a comfortable one and I find photography embarrassing because you’re revealing your interests,” he said. “To overcome that embarrassment you have to feel a certain sense of urgency, like you need this picture, and you want to talk about it and that is important.”
Tillmans’ 2014 photograph, “17 Years’ Supply,” depicts a giant cardboard box filled with bottles of HIV drugs—some marked with Tillmans’ own name. His work, as a whole, has also largely spoken to the LGBTQ experience: 2014’s “Arms and Legs” is an erotic close-up of a male hand slipped underneath another man’s red athletic shorts; 2012’s “Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza” features two men smoking and laying together on a bed of grass.
Watch Wolfgang Tillman’s full SHOWstudio interview, below.