PRINT May 2001



Thomas Demand works in the eastern part of Berlin, in a blue-collar neighborhood closer to Mitte’s industrial waterfront than to its galleries and fashionable cafés. His studio is located in one of those light-manufacturing buildings typically found in the innermost reaches of Berlin courtyards. When I went to visit the studio, nearly the entire loft space was filled with giant cardboard models for his recent series “Poll,” 2001. The setup was extremely disconcerting: I couldn’t tell whether the chair or table in front of me would support even the weight of the bag I was carrying, or whether it was one of Demand’s cardboard constructions and might simply buckle under and collapse. I had always imagined his models to be far smaller, and my amazement at the amount of effort he must put into their production now redoubled.

Born in Munich in 1964, Demand has, for nearly a decade, taken as his point of departure magazine and newspaper photographs of mundane locales connected to socially or politically charged events—from the hallway leading to Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment (Corridor, 1995) to the ruins of Hitler’s bunker (Room, 1994). The Demand signature is, of course, to photograph eerily precise simulacra made of paper and cardboard; his large-format works are life-size details of these often enormous models. When he began his studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (where, it should be noted, he did not take classes with Bernd and Hilla Becher), Demand exhibited the models as sculpture; but in time he would show only the photographs.

In “Poll,” Demand addresses mass-media representations of a recent, epochal political event, the bizarre aftermath of last year’s US presidential election, when the vote count in Florida—and the election’s outcome—was called into question. “Poll” reproduces familiar images from the recount conducted in Palm Beach County’s Emergency Operations Center—images that have, by virtue of their omnipresence in the media, crystallized in the public imagination.

Yilmaz Dziewior


This past November, I was astonished to note that a truly momentous political event—which some have even gone so far as to call an attempted coup d’etat by the far-right Republicans—was represented to the public largely via various photographs of stacks of paper. Naturally, that caught my attention. The event itself (the vote count) plays only a subordinate role here—above all, I wanted to avoid looking through the lens of historical distance. I wanted to be so close to the real event that my pictures of it and the media coverage would become indistinguishable. I’m interested in seeing whether I can approach the media’s mode of transmission so closely that my work starts to overlap with reportage, and in seeing what kinds of results that will produce.

At the same time, I happen to be working right now with representations of behavioral tests and, in an unfathomable coincidence, the Emergency Operations Center in Palm Beach seemed like part of a maze-based behavioral experiment—which it is in some extended sense, as the reduction of behavioral possibilities to a ballot corresponds quite nicely to the experimental setup for testing certain hypotheses about the behavior of, say, mice. Even here, the number of options for action must be radically limited and simplified for the purposes of statistical number crunching, so that comparable and reproducible results can be achieved. (By the way, in the ’40s, when Claude Shannon—the computer scientist who invented binary code—was in search of pictorial means for representing cybernetic processes, he had recourse to this behavioristic experimental model.) The conceptual structure of “Poll” is, naturally, devoted to a very specific set of political circumstances, but whether the work has any real significance will be evident only when the political event recedes into the background. In a certain sense, this work is a site-specific installation, in that the site is precisely the American short-term memory. I like to imagine the sum of all the media representations of the event as a kind of landscape, and the media industry as the tour-bus company that takes us through these colorful surrounds.

The production of models is at the core of a complex process. My work really developed out of sculpture. The surroundings that I portray are for me something untouched, a utopic construction. No traces of use are visible on their surfaces, and time seems to have come to a stop. From this arises a paradoxical state of indeterminacy, which of course in one sense opposes the idea of momentariness (so important to the beginnings of photography) but also opposes the true nature of sculpture. I make reference to every kind of pictorial representation, and I don't assume any hierarchy in the origins of these images. I have worked with pure memories, with motifs that I associate with art-immanent connections, with borrowed material, with my own photographs, and sometimes with several of these possibilities at once. The Internet allows me to make comparative searches to do that sort of cross-referencing, so it’s another important channel. With its simultaneity, it also corresponds to my thinking. What’s at stake here isn’t so much the source of the imagery as the way that image may subsequently be used in the work. If images like the ones I use in “Poll” can be traced to ones transmitted by the media—that is, to a context with its own set of meanings—then the work will naturally have entirely different connotations, which, in turn, have to be conceived of differently. But what one might be justified in calling a dehistoricized effect is perhaps related to the influence that digital image production and distribution on the Net have had on our conception of reality.

In the end. I have had very limited influence on the interpretation of my works. No matter how much you think you can anticipate public perception—or, better, projection—ultimately it remains, of necessity, pure speculation. When you see it this way, the public always reacts according to its potential and its background. I really don’t think that every association of the themes in my work has to be clear to viewers for them to be able to engage it. The work has to communicate on several levels at once, without forfeiting its immediacy in the process.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.