Thomas Demand

IN ORDER TO theorize what for him was the essence of Thomas Demand’s work, art historian Michael Fried returned in these pages last year (Artforum, March 2005) to the arguments of his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” where he had famously articulated the contrast between “literalist” and “modernist” art. The viewer of literalist art was implicated in the “total situation” of a display, so that the shifting physical relationships of his or her body to artworks counted more than his or her ability to scrutinize the particular composition of any one piece. A modernist painting, on the other hand, afforded one the ability to appreciate its internal composition as this composition was intended by the artist. Photography would seem to be a medium over which an artist has little control, because his or her exact intentions for a given picture compete with contingencies of timing, lighting, and so on. Demand’s photographs, however, according to Fried, “allegorize intendedness as such,” for they show models built and lit in the exact way he wanted. While contemporary art is largely theatrical, Demand’s work allows for a kind of return to modernist spectatorship. Reading Fried’s piece, one imagined that Demand would always enable his viewer to attend to each separate and separated composition—and indeed the article previewed Demand’s show at the Museum of Modern Art, in which each image hung discretely on crisp white walls.

In this critical context, one couldn’t help but be surprised upon entering the Serpentine Gallery. Visitors walked in to behold the spectacular photograph Grotte (Grotto), 2006. Demand had obviously taken the “total situation” of display into account, because he made the immense work specifically to fit the dimensions of the Serpentine’s gallery wall. As you peered past darkened pillars and stalactites into the illuminated recesses of the cave, tinkling music that you later learned accompanied the film Recorder, 2000, filtered in from a space adjacent to Grotte’s left. This was all exceptionally theatrical, and the more so because the eerie atmosphere of the cave was heightened by the presence all around of ivy-patterned wallpaper. Designed by the artist using a motif derived from one of his photographs, this wallpaper covered every wall in the exhibition.

Wallpapering the Serpentine was a risky gambit (it could have looked over-designed or tacky), but the device was successful. The paper’s coloration changed from dark blue in Grotte’s room to bright green in the second gallery. In the building’s central space, the paper was ivy green, and in the flanking room to the right, it was white. While the dark blue paper cranked up the enchanted atmosphere of Grotte, elsewhere the wallpaper summoned the gallery’s natural surroundings. The trees of Hyde Park are always visible through the Serpentine’s large windows, but here summer-green leaves spread around the gallery as well, seeming to integrate the interior space with the world outside. The central gallery usually feels incredibly grand with its domed ceiling, but the wallpaper there made the space feel more domestic in scale. In the final room, the white coloration disguised the ivy motif somewhat, so the pattern seemed more abstract, almost fractal.

In addition to transforming the space of display, the wallpaper also drew attention to Demand’s treatment of media. Everywhere it served as a reminder of the paper of the models that Demand photographs, and its exquisite block printing—the patterns were created using an antiquated process dating back to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement—also underscored the crafted, handmade qualities of those models. But most interestingly, I thought, the wallpaper functioned as a foil to the photographic objects themselves. It felt bumpy; the photographs were slick and untouchable. The wallpaper was matte so that its ivy patterns could be seen from every angle; the photographs were shiny, which meant that on bright days they mirrored the windows so much that reflections obliterated their images. (In the catalogue, Demand included installation shots documenting these reflections, suggesting he was content with this effect.) The contrasts made one realize that, though Demand spends his time working with paper, he does everything possible to conceal the paper support of photography. Sandwiching C-prints between Plexiglas de-emphasizes the photograph’s paper more than any other presentational technique. So it’s not simply the case (as is often stated) that Demand makes photographs of sculptures: His sculptures have the same materiality as photographs, while his photographs, when installed, become sculptures—shiny, rectangular, metallic, Minimalist slabs.

Demand often plays with seeming dichotomies, but rather than just opposing elements, he adds them together, divides them up, and makes them swap places—and this sort of variability was readily seen throughout the Serpentine. Making Grotte, for example, involved an unexpected interplay of digital and analog processes (according to the artist, it is his first confrontation with digital media). Rather than construct an image of a cave on a computer, Demand used a digital program to cut each of the 900,000 layers of cardboard, which he then physically built into the grotto. He worked from a postcard image of a cave in Majorca but did nothing to touch up or smooth out his photograph once he’d taken it so it could resemble more closely the source image. (He refused to use Photoshop, for instance.) If, in certain places, Grotte seemed pixelated, this was because of the appearance of the layered cardboard model, and not because the camera or the print was digital. Two other technological modes confronted each other in Recorder: film and the printed image. Within a 35-mm film, the image of a tape deck should have been crisp and detailed, but Demand projected it onto a perforated screen from a distance of roughly seven feet, causing the image to deteriorate somewhat and to look almost like a printed surface of benday dots. Though the holes have the obvious function of letting speakers behind the screen emit a sound track, the perforations had the added effect of making a moving image appear to be still, and one’s attention was drawn to them even more because Recorder was hung opposite the photograph Paneel (Peg-Board), 1996, which shows a grid of punctures, with some of the holes oddly askew.

Clearly, the “total situation” created by Demand’s wallpaper emphasized the complex encounters in his work (sculpture/photography, digital/analog, moving/still images). But do equally complex structures determine Demand’s choice of source materials? Alongside works with art-historical subjects like Scheune (Barn), 1997,which is based on a photograph of Jackson Pollock’s studio, there were photographs that allegorized Demand’s process through their subject matter—Copyshop, 1999, for instance, with its photocopying machines and stacks of paper. While the fourteen photographs and one film on view here did not include any of Demand’s major works relating to the Nazi or the Communist history of Germany, his series “Klause” (Tavern), 2006, examined a more recent and more intimate disaster. One photograph in this group showed the ivy-clad exterior of a building; another displayed a boarded-up door; the remaining three featured depictions of a dying potted plant, a broom closet shot from an extremely strange angle (as if by someone standing on top of a stool), and a kitchen adorned with children’s party decorations, many of which were set in near-total darkness. All those details, from the plant’s waning figure to the play of shadows (to say nothing of the odd angles reminiscent of crime-scene documentary images) may have hinted that the photographs depicted a troubled location. Some viewers might even have recognized the images from recent news reports, since the photos portrayed a bar in Burbach, Germany, where a child was tortured and eventually murdered in a broom closet by a gang that included his own stepsister.

There are various ways to account for Demand’s decision to work from voyeuristic media images of a contemporary, sensational, and very horrific subject. In an interview published in the catalogue, Demand said, “Things must be slowed down, and for me that involves making something with my hands.” Perhaps when faced with the relentless flow of media images, Demand’s process serves to stem the tide so as to give proper attention to those he selects for reconstruction. In the process, as architecture historian and critic Beatriz Colomina suggested in her catalogue essay, Demand makes the spectacular unspectacular. This is one reading of Demand’s intentions for the series, but it is not totally sustainable, for the Burbach story, speaking strictly in terms of its visual representations, was pretty unspectacular to begin with. Because of the nature of the case, neither the boy nor his killers could be depicted publicly, so the empty photographs of the crime scene had to serve as rather blunt visual hooks for those following the events. As Demand noted, a “loss of information” had already occurred by the time he initiated the series, the press having been forced to leave out details of the case. With this in mind, one could say that his works did not so much counter the press representation of the story as extend its logic.

Try as one might to posit a concrete connection between Demand’s processes and the representation of the murder story, there remains a problem: Demand always constructs and then photographs paper models in which objects, though manifestly handmade, bear no traces of human touch, and he does this regardless of whether his subject is a copy shop or a murder site. One exited the gallery housing the “Klause” series and entered another to find a reconstruction of Saddam Hussein’s kitchen (Küche [Kitchen], 2004) flanking Paneel. Reaching this point in the exhibition, a viewer was bound to ask what it means for artistic procedures to be followed irrespective of source material. In the face of shifting registers, one cannot produce a compelling answer to the question of how Demand’s working method and his subjects are linked, but instead another dichotomy in Demand’s work becomes apparent. Not only does he intertwine sculpture and photography, the digital and the analog, and the moving and the still image, but he also complicates the relationship between the banal and the horrific, and it is only because his process remains constant that these last two terms can seem so interchangeable. When a murder scene is reconstructed as a paper model, all the stains and traces of victim and killer are removed, and so it becomes innocuous. When a Peg-Board is fabricated in paper, some holes are left unpunctured, the rows wobble around—and the resulting artwork looks very troubling. This interplay between the banal and the horrific relies not just on the viewer’s knowing “the Demand method” but also on him or her comparing different images in a space rather than judging individual compositions. The “total situation” of the Serpentine both facilitated this mode of comparing and offered its own contrasts. While not quite approximating the dichotomy of the banal and the horrific, the wallpaper set up an extremely dramatic atmosphere where it was dark, and a much calmer one where it was white.

Demand’s work as a whole is beginning to con- stitute something akin to what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh—in relation to Gerhard Richter—has called an “anomic archive.” There is no hierarchy across his images, no privileging of crime scenes over copy shops, grottoes over art studios. The constancy of Demand’s process equalizes source materials, but at the same time, each new work necessitates the most painstaking construction activity and requires a temporal investment of a kind that can hardly be characterized through the idea of anomie. Curiously, in undertaking to make each new work, Demand both flattens out his oeuvre and initiates a sustained and dedicated engagement with a new subject. This means that in its entire structure, his ongoing project contains the same contrast that persists in each single work—between the smooth surface of the C-prints and the three-dimensionality of the models.

Mark Godfrey teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.