New York

Thomas Demand

Max Protetch

German artist Thomas Demand’s first solo show in the United States consisted of four huge color photographs, depicting stark architectural interiors and details, with deadpan, generic titles: Corner, 1996, Corridor, 1996, Staircase, 1995, and Archive, 1995. Face-mounted onto Plexiglas, the photographs seemed to float out into the room like projections. The stone-cold visual power and presence of these pictures were so immediately compelling that it took some time to register that something seemed wrong about them. Something was missing. This moment of recognition was visceral, atavistic, and disturbing, just like the moment in a sci-fi flick when the character realizes he is gazing into the eyes of a voluptuous replicant.

It turns out Demand is a kind of image resurrectionist. He steals an image—a very particular sort of image—from the public-image morgue at large, and dissects it, breaking it down to its constituent parts. He then reconstructs its pictured subject in the form of a full-scale, three-dimensional model made of colored cardboard and paper. After this he lights and photographs the replica in such a way as to reproduce precisely the original image.

The original images depict what appear to he commonplace settings: a row of shelves stacked with uniform gray archival boxes, a corner desk in a college dorm room littered with books and papers, an unremarkable corridor containing three closed doors. But when Demand reconstructs and reproduces these banalities, they acquire, or recover, the withered aura of authenticity. The topological complexity involved in this acquisition is redoubled when one learns of the sources of their narrative content: the “archive” pictured is that of filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl; one of the three yellow doors in the “corridor” leads to Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment; and the college dorm desk in the “corner” is where the young Bill Gates created Microsoft. There is no way of gleaning this information by looking at the images; it is their facture that draws us in. But Demand attempts, successfully I think, to build into his reconstructions the weight of this content. Their ominous effects rhyme with their dead-serious referents.

Demand seems to be building up his own system of iconographic and formal terms, in order to reinvent pictorial reality in its own image. This is why I say Demand is involved in acts of resurrection rather than insurrection. I read his reproductions as attempts to recover a lost connection between image and referent rather than the more common illustration of that alienation. It’s a new approach, hotter than anything that’s come out of the Düsseldorf and Munich academies in a long time.

David Levi Strauss