Thomas Demand

Tate Gallery

In an essay on Dürer, Roger Fry complained about the “perverted technical ingenuity” of German art; it was the product, he felt, of a society that privileged “acrobatic feats” of technique. Fry would surely have given short shrift to virtuosos such as Andreas Gursky, that master of the computer-assisted photographic print, and perhaps even to his younger compatriot, the Berlin-based photographer Thomas Demand.

Demand is known for taking photographs of three-dimensional models of modernist architecture that he painstakingly constructs in his studio from paper and cardboard. In a further twist, these models are often inspired by photographic images found in newspapers and books. The artist has now made his first film, Tunnel, for a show in the Tate Gallery’s projects space. As far as technical ingenuity is concerned, Demand has managed to surpass even his own high standards.

The set for the film is a scale model of a two-lane underpass, made out of paper and cardboard. Divided in the middle by a series of fake concrete pylons, the underpass is illuminated by a string of rectangular lights set into the side walls. What we see and hear appears to be a journey through the tunnel, filmed by a camera mounted on the front of a car. The vehicle turns a corner, plunges into the tunnel, trundles through it, then climbs out, swinging around another corner into complete darkness. The film is actually shot by a mobile special-effects camera, while the sound track (sounds of a car driving through a tunnel) is computer-generated. The journey is repeated in an endless, Sisyphean loop, and the film is projected onto a thick Perspex screen that stands a few inches proud of the wall (like something that’s been badly parked).

Unlike Gursky, whose choreography of his source material usually produces images that are a bit too perfect and squeaky clean, Demand’s reconstruction of the built environment is done with a beguiling artlessness. One can clearly detect the joins and folds in the paper models, while the clumsy way in which the vehicle trundles along is distinctly low-tech—the camera might almost be attached to an animal; such as a badger, entering its hole. The sound track, with its succession of muffled bumping noises, is light years away from the purr of a Mercedes. Adding to the piece’s awkwardness is the fact that Demand doesn’t simply replay the same footage in an endless loop; he filmed the journey through the tunnel several times, altering the movement and speed of the camera only slightly with each take.

In Tunnel, technical ingenuity unravels itself. To a degree, Demand seems to be trying to reclaim the built environment by infantilizing it. He plays around with the conventions of modernist architecture with the gleeful seriousness of a child manipulating building blocks. At the same time, by making everything slightly off beam and out of sync, his toy-town version of reality takes on a nightmarish complexion. A journey through Demand’s Tunnel is labored, labyrinthine, claustrophobic. One thinks back to Schwitters’s Merzbau—and, of course, to the scene of Princess Diana’s fatal crash.

James Hall