words Frank Barkow
This German photographer’s obsessive compulsive recreations of historic settings are getting a full airing at MoMA. What is it like to step into the creepy world of the artist known as Shanghai Buns?
Thomas Demand’s work is a departure from the strategies prevalent in the recent onslaught of very big German photography. This trend is exemplified in the work of Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff – the so-called “Struffsky School” of photographer-artists, trained by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Demand also uses large-format photography but he relies on the instincts of a sculptor.
Demand’s sensational show at the newly-renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York reveals the impressive scope of the work he has produced over the past ten years.
The curiously banal aura typical of Demand's photographs results from several stages of transformative distillation. The process works as follows: Demand typically selects an image from the mass media and then builds a large-scale paper and cardboard model of the scene in the photo – a 3D imitation – in his studio. The artificially lit construction is then photographed with a large-format camera. A large image is produced and is mounted, frameless, behind Plexiglas. The mock-up is then destroyed – the photograph displaces the model.
As is only hinted at by Demand's one-word titles, many of his subjects are linked to some of the more notorious historical events of the last century. The images’ apparent banality is suffused by the uneasy recognition of a half-remembered setting. Corridor (1995) documents the hallway in front of Jeffrey Dahmer’s Milwaukee apartment, scene of the murderer’s serial crimes. Room (1999) depicts the destroyed conference room that was the site of the failed bombing attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944. Other images recreate scenes of natural romantic beauty, such as Clearing (2003), a panorama of a sun-dappled forest constructed out of many thousands of paper leaves. Stills from videos such as Recorder (2002) or the photograph Dashboard (2004) evoke the clinical coolness of Dieter Rams' post-war German product design, as depicted in catalogues from the 1960s and 70s.
Demand's photographs provoke a powerful double take. What appear at first glance to be straightforward depictions of real architectural or natural sites are, at second glance, obsessive, artificial constructs. This sleight of hand becomes apparent on closer inspection, when the idiosyncrasies of its making can be seen. There is no attempt to disguise the hand-cut, scissored edges of the paper, the distorted and bent cardboard planes, or the colour-catalogue hues. One can enter these spaces but never occupy them. These unpeopled images are uncannily sanitized and subtly aesthetisised. This muteness, as seen in Poll (2001), based on the Florida polling station where the infamous 2001 American election recount took place, is enhanced by the elimination of all traces of human interface. The Post-its and refuse shown are completely blank. These are censored artefacts where text, image, wear and age have been leached out.
In a startling contrast to the museum’s voluminous central atrium space, where the opening took place, the actual show is tucked away in the museum’s more modestly scaled photography department. Here the sense of the show is decidedly dense. Still the pictures hold their own within the group; each appears luminous and distinct. These are not serial works and each is based on it’s own narrative. Surprisingly enough it is the museum’s restaurant, The Modern, where one experiences the full impact of one of the works. Nearly 5m long, the panoramic Clearing dominates the room with its hyper-detailed slash of dappled green forest. This permanent installation will surely become part of the museum’s culture, along with Philip Johnson’s restored sculpture garden – another, and quite different, visual oasis in the restrained spaces of Taniguchi’s redesign.
Challenging the supremacy of the digitalised view, Demand offers another possibility that is both familiar and estranged, employing tried tools to new ends. Unlike the architectural model or mock-up, which usually functions as a means to a representational end – that is, as a simulacrum of the real world – Demand’s settings have a presence all their own. His ambiguous images occupy a zone between the documentary and the speculative, between a past and a future, both equally unknowable.
The 26 works in the show are complemented by a MoMA catalogue that is nicely supplemented by a short story called “Photographic Memory” by Demand’s friend, the writer Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex). The story is a rather mischievous relief from the barrage of very serious art criticism aimed at this show. Demand is thinly disguised in the story as the distinctly non-virginal suicidal German artist “Shanghai Buns”, blurring further the distinction between fiction
Thomas Demand was at MoMA.