Wolfgang Tillmans on ICA praise: “It’s underground, progressive and has a really late license” | Wolfgang Tillmans
In 1994, young German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans was visiting the ICA in London with his parents when he was struck by the power of art. “I took them to the Charles Ray exhibit, and there was a sculpture of a father, mother and little girl all the same size, making these babies super scary giants. My mom was so upset about it, I guess because it shook her sense of order. I will never forget him.”
Almost 28 years later, Tillmans is a famous artist himself – his retrospective exhibition To Look Without Fear currently takes up an entire floor at New York’s MoMA – and since 2019 he has served as chairman of the board of the ICA. . While its mission is still to be at the forefront of earth-shattering art for parents, the institution, which is located a short walk from Buckingham Palace, is underfunded and struggling to reaffirm its identity after the pandemic, which in addition to forcing its temporary closure has dramatically reduced the number of people entering the West End.
Tillmans thinks the ICA needs to “make people aware that there’s this place in the most established place in London which is underground, progressive and has a very late license as well”. To this end, he appointed Bengi Ünsal as Director of ICA, formerly Head of Contemporary Music at the Southbank Centre, in charge of the popular annual Meltdown Festivals. She replaced Stefan Kalmár, who during his five years at the head of a program centered on the visual arts.
Ünsal’s goal, says Tillmans, is to bolster ICA’s live performance offering, emphasizing that the venue is multidisciplinary (in addition to a gallery and performance space, it includes a arthouse cinema, increasingly rare in London) and in doing so “to put the ICA returns on a sustainable footing with a new mix of programming that brings back evening audiences and activates the bar and uses the late license we have.
The ICA receives 21% of its funding from Arts Council England (which was £862,441 last year), but Tillmans says ‘there is a shortfall every year’. He hopes Ünsal’s lineup – involving club nights until 6 a.m. and a partnership with ticketing app Dice – will attract crowds that will allow the ICA to fund itself: “That’s the goal .” Ünsal has the experience of making an arts institution self-funding through sponsorship, brand partnerships and ticket sales only when it was leading the IKSV Istanbul Fair, which does not received no public funding.
To fill the ICA funding gap until Ünsal’s plan takes effect, Tillmans has organized an auction to be held at Sotheby’s on October 15. ICA-linked artists including Tacita Dean, Richard Prince and Anish Kapoor have contributed works: Tillmans hopes the sale will raise at least £1.5million. “Some works are so outstanding that we could do more of them, which would be an absolute savior, because state funding for the arts is dire, and this government is not going to expand it.” Two of his favorites are a large picture of a surfer on a wave by Raymond Pettibon, estimated at £200,000-300,000, and a sculpture called Rat Bait from a 1992 installation by Robert Gober. “It’s definitely for a connoisseur,” says Tillmans – ideally one with £80,000 to £120,000 to spend.
This year the ICA organized an exhibition of sex worker art called Decriminalized Futures, which was duly denounced by the Mail on Sunday – something that would have given a nostalgic glow to those who remembered the outrage inspired by the ICA’s famous transgressive shows by the like Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Nuebauten (whose 1984 concert involved them destroying the hall using drills). Last summer it hosted the War Inna Babylon exhibition, which examined the history of anti-racism activism at Tottenham, timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot dead by police in the North Borough of London.
Tillmans says such exhibitions are the shape of things to come: “That’s the plan, to have one exhibition a year focused on communities in London that are underrepresented or have suffered injustice in the past. War Inna Babylon was a huge success.
To some eyes, however, it looked more like social history than art. “The question ‘but is it art?’ is often launched on avant-garde activities or exhibitions that explore societal events,” retorts Tillmans. “Artistic expression and the liberation of peoples have always been inseparable, they are inseparable.
He cites the next exhibition at the ICA, that of the artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas. “On the one hand it is about the defeated revolutionary struggle for an independent Tamil homeland, to which it is connected, but on the other hand it is a very visually appealing high-tech film that uses technology that does not hasn’t really been seen in Britain. It’s one of our most ambitious productions. [the ICA] trying to work at the highest visual level while having relevant content that matters.