A Makeshift World: On Thomas Demand
While the manner of looking appears to be normal, the same cannot be said of what Demand gives us to look at. He shows ordinary things but not real ones. As is well-known by now, all of his photographs are taken in his studio; employing existing photographs, usually from the media but sometimes his own, as his sources, Demand uses paper, cardboard, cellophane and other flimsy, everyday materials to construct full-scale replicas of actually or formerly existing places. (At least they're said to be full-scale, although there are a few cases where this is obviously impossible: Fabrik [Factory], from 1994, for example.) These empty stage sets are what we see in the photographs. The reconstructions follow the general lineaments of their originals, but with most detail eliminated. In particular, every trace of language has completely vanished: the papers strewn across the work table and floor in Büro (Office), from 1995, have no text on them; the labels next to the doorbells that are the subject of Hinterhaus (2005) are variously colored but bear no names. (Even the work's title bears no translation; one dictionary explains that it refers to "part of a tenement house accessible only through a courtyard and thus considered inferior.") In general, since everything in the photographs has been newly built, nothing shows any signs of wear, any smudges or defects. Each thing has become a sort of abstraction of itself. In this, Demand shows more affinity with the tradition of grand-scale Modernist painting than with other recent German photography.
And yet a few important details are visible in Demand's images--details not of the things depicted but of how they've been reconstructed. This is the real reason the pictures must exist at this scale--if they were the size of classic photographs, it wouldn't be clear enough that they show a world made of paper. Demand has made a small number of more modestly scaled works, mostly still lifes, and they are among his best, but the things in them are shown at the same size they would be in any of his other photographs. Always, things appear as makeshift replicas. These images construct illusions only to deflate them. The image is empty, and eerily disinfected, and Demand makes sure you know it. You see the seams in every wall, the folding of the corners of the furniture. These are two-dimensional pictures of three-dimensional pictures based on other two-dimensional pictures of the real world. And how real is that, anyway? I suddenly feel like I've lost track.
An ambivalent relation to the reality that much photography earnestly aims to record is central to Demand's work. The titles, like the ones I've already mentioned, are clipped, tight-lipped; divulging minimal information, they underline the work's tendency to abstract itself from and generalize the source image, to present an almost Platonic idea of, say, a kitchen (Klause 3 [Tavern 3], from 2006); an Olympic diving board (Sprungturm [Diving Board], 1994); an architectural office (Zeichensaal [Drafting Room], 1996); or whatever. Nevertheless--and here's where the injunction to RTC comes back to haunt us--Demand has always let it be known that his images represent particular places, and while some of these places may be of merely personal interest, others are historically fraught. Consider Raum (Room), from 1994: it depicts a white-walled, low-ceilinged place with blackened windows--but entirely wrecked, the Platonic idea of a shambles. For anyone familiar with the history of photography in recent art, it is impossible not to see Raum as something of an hommage (but perhaps also a retort) to one of the touchstone works of the new large-scale photography typified by the Becher school, Jeff Wall's The Destroyed Room (1978), the first of the Canadian artist's "cinematographic" (his term) lightbox transparencies.
But the textual penumbra around Raum--for instance, but not only, as represented by the catalog essay for this show, by the British art historian Mark Godfrey--makes one aware that this is not just any ruined room, and that in making the work Demand had other things on his mind along with his stance toward an important precursor. Raum, Godfrey discloses,
is based on a picture of the bombed-out remains of Adolf Hitler's headquarters following the failed assassination attempt of July 1944. As much as the picture shows a key event in German history, so too it has been associated with the history of the cultural reception of Nazism in post-war Germany: it was published in many school books in the 1970s as it illustrated (with undue emphasis) that some resistance to Nazism had existed during the war.
Any visible sign that this place has anything to do with the war, with Germany, with Hitler, has been systematically removed. You won't find any telltale swastikas half hidden amid the debris, no matter how hard you look. Nothing indicates a temporal location in the 1940s. Walter Benjamin famously observed that Eugène Atget photographed Paris as if it were the scene of a crime; Demand meticulously scrubs away all evidential significance from the scenes he depicts. He utterly defeats the forensic gaze. But that doesn't necessarily mean that no crime has been committed or that it can't be solved; just that one can never know simply by looking, no matter how hard. Godfrey informs us that Spüle (Sink), from 1997, is based on the basin full of unwashed dishes in a friend's house. Of course, they are the cleanest, shiniest unwashed dishes you've ever seen. This piece is one of the rare exceptions to the generally bland--uncannily, hauntingly bland--affect of Demand's work, maybe because of the acute high angle from which it was taken. Who stares down at a sink full of dishes like that? Myself, I try not to look at them too hard even while I'm washing them. Gawking into the sink's mirrored depths--that is, its mirrored surfaces--one might well be looking for the absent clue to a crime. Terrible things can happen in our friends' houses too.