The Turner Prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans tells us why he’s dedicated his art to fighting Brexit
‘I have never before been a campaigning artist. I’ve always seen art’s strength in that it is actually “useless”: it doesn’t have to fulfil a purpose or justify itself. But it’s precisely this freedom of expression that can make it so powerful. Throughout recent history, artists have played an important role in generating imagery and language for causes that ended up being good for all people.
‘My reasons for getting involved in the EU referendum and creating my series of posters are personal: my lifelong involvement with the UK, my love for the UK and its culture, music and people, my career’s roots in Britain and the always warm welcome I felt here as a German. I see myself as a product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace and exchange.
‘But the more pressing reason why I have in recent months morphed from an inherently political artist to an overtly political artist lies in my seeing Western cultures as sleepwalkers into the abyss. We are living in dangerous times, and the idea that the British people are being whipped into a nationalistic fervour when European unity is a bulkhead against the forces of division and darkness seems unthinkable.
‘I think of the message the UK may send on June 24 in this way: We lived together for 40 years in this apartment building of 28 flats. Every member has a key to their own flat and some even have an extra lock, like Britain. We have lived together in peace and got used to each other’s oddities. We even got down the utility bills, but now we can’t stand living with you any longer. We hate it so much that we want to move out.
‘It worries me a great deal to see how Britain, the cradle of democracy, has become an experiment in irrational propaganda against a project that was founded to be, and at its heart still is, the largest peace project in history.
‘As a German-born Londoner, I am saddened by the reckless viciousness the Brexiters direct at my country of birth, and at Turkey for that matter. In 26 years of living in Britain, I always thought it better than that. At this poisoned stage of the debate, winning over the Brexiters to moderation and reason is impossible. Only by actually making your way to the polls this Thursday can you send a resounding message that the majority of the British people do not want to play a role in dividing the peoples of Europe, and don’t want to give power to the Brexit supporters like Trump, Putin and a long list of other unsavoury names.
‘The EU is far from perfect, but how can it be as a negotiating chamber of 28 different nations? The EU knows that it has a lot of work to do. Now is not the right time to wreck what is not broken.’
Wolfgang Tillmans is at Maureen Paley. Bethnal Green. Until Jul 31.