PRINT September 2007

Sven Lütticken

THE TWO COMPONENTS of Thomas Demand’s exhibition at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini—part of the Venice Biennale’s ever-widening slipstream—constituted something of a study in contrasts. One presented a new photographic series, and the other combined a single photograph with documentation and, for the first time, one of the artist’s sculptural models.

The series, “Yellowcake,” 2007, is business as usual for Demand, whose methods are by now well known: Working from found images, the artist creates cardboard replicas of real-world settings, which he then photographs; he exhibits the photos but typically destroys the labor-intensive still lifes they depict. Demand’s work is often legitimated by the claim that his photographs halt the automatic consumption of images via subtle abstraction and distantiation. But at least in the case of the new series, the results are much too formulaic to uphold such claims. While the settings Demand depicts typically look generic, many of them have deep political connections—his Bathroom, 1997, for instance, shows the tub in which German politician Uwe Barschel was found dead in 1987. Similarly, “Yellowcake,” which comprises images of Demand’s reconstructions of Niger’s embassy in Rome, derives gravitas from recent events. In 2001, the embassy was the site of a highly suspicious burglary. Forged documents on embassy letterhead were later used by the Bush regime to “prove” that Saddam had purchased yellowcake uranium for a nascent nuclear program and thus to legitimate the invasion of Iraq. In other words, the whole Iraq disaster is supposedly implicit in these nondescript interiors—and the Fondazione Prada, which presented the show, was not shy about reminding us of that, its press release dwelling at length on the ins and outs of “Nigergate.” One could characterize this as iconographic blackmail: The subject is important, so the work must be, too.

Perhaps the most fruitful approach to Demand’s work was proposed by Michael Fried in these pages in 2005. Fried notes that Demand’s peculiar working methods raise questions about the role of intentionality in his own oeuvre and in contemporary art generally. In his photographs, we see scenes that diverge from recognizable reality chiefly in their lack of detail. Demand, Fried says, “aims above all to replace the original scene of evidentiary traces and marks of human use . . . with images of sheer authorial intention.” However, the artist’s process and the images that result have become so familiar that addressing any sort of question at all to his work seems increasingly pointless.

Demand himself is perhaps coming to recognize this, since the show’s second component, “Processo grottesco,” seemed to go to great lengths to reassert the questioning—and, literally, questionable—nature of his project. “Processo grottesco” showcased the photo Grotte (Grotto), 2006, which debuted at the Serpentine in London last year, along with its model, which was dramatically installed at the end of an empty, darkened room, and a roomful of documentation pertaining to the work and to grottoes in general. Based on a found post- card of a cave in Majorca, Grotte is visually rich and complex. Demand and his crew reconstructed the cave from hundreds of thousands of precisely cut layers of cardboard, laid flat and stacked on top of one another like a 3-D contour map. The resulting photograph is at first suggestive of a pixelated, low-resolution JPEG.

Unlike “Yellowcake,” the image of the grotto is not immediately reducible to some heavily mediated political episode. And the presentation at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini—the sheer physical evidence of the “grotesque process”—problematized the relation between means and ends in Demand’s work in a way that “Yellowcake” does not begin to. In contemporary culture, the production process itself is fetishized and commodified, at times becoming more beguiling than the result. We are quite used to television specials that claim to take us “behind the scenes” for “an insider’s look” at the “making of” Hollywood blockbusters. Demand seemed to follow suit by showing us his grotto construction, yet his installation did away with any suggestion that viewers were really getting glimpses of a work in progress. What they saw, rather than direct documentation, were the ruins of the process: its physical remains, a frozen tableau.

Meanwhile, the accompanying room of images of, and literature on, grottoes—from the Renaissance to Hugh Hefner via Novalis and Ludwig II—addressed the process of reception, as well as that of production. While these artifacts may have been sources for Demand, they also supplied a wealth of ready-made references for art critics, thus potentially turning the writing of texts on Grotte into the critical equivalent of painting by numbers. Should this be seen as cynical manipulation or as an intelligent foregrounding of generally disavowed mechanisms in the production and reception of both mass culture and art? Even as “Processo grottesco” gave rise to such questions, the context turned the grotesque into farce. When you’re gazing at the flotilla of yachts in the Laguna or being offered the two-volume Demand catalogue for the “special press price” of eighty euros, it is all too apparent that this art also, and perhaps primarily, needs to be questioned on another level.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Amsterdam.