A Makeshift World: On Thomas Demand
The ambivalence toward writing that characterizes Demand's photography--ostentatiously driven out of the image itself, language hovers portentously around it--is a product of the delicate balance he is trying to strike between the viewer's position of knowledge and ignorance of the source of his motifs. For the most part he succeeds. It's not really important that the viewer know in any particular case where the image comes from; but it is important that in the back of one's mind there lurks the possibility that the image might refer to something of historical significance. The secondary status of this knowledge is signaled by the fact that Godfrey's explanatory essay, instead of introducing the catalog as it usually would, is placed at the back of the book, after the images, and is numbered separately as well, and printed on different paper, like an insert. Of course, there's something artificial about putting the text in quarantine this way, but it makes the point.
That's not to say the catalog entirely downplays writing. Demand has added a sort of intermediate layer of text between his one- or two-word titles and the art historian's essay: each photograph is now accompanied by "captions" contributed by the prominent playwright and novelist Botho Strauss. The captions modulate fluently between narrative and essayistic registers without ever directly addressing the pictures they accompany; Hitler is mentioned in the caption for Raum, but since Strauss does not convey the backstory or mention the image's source, the unprepared (non-German) viewer will be none the wiser. As well as appearing in the catalog, which is designed so that the reader encounters the caption before the image, these texts are presented in the Neue Nationalgalerie on a nearly equal footing with the images, printed in oversized books laid open to the appropriate page in heavy wood-framed vitrines next to each photograph--all enveloped in a simultaneously understated and theatrical exhibition design by the British architectural firm Caruso St John. Some three miles' worth of gray curtain material has been used to shadow and subdue the Neue Nationalgalerie's classic Mies van der Rohe architecture while nesting the cool artifice of the photographs within a second layer of artifice. The museum itself could almost be the set for a Demand photograph.
On my second take of the exhibition, after sighting the telltale bulletin board, what struck me was how not-wrong I'd nevertheless been in failing to notice the Germanness of Demand's Germany the first time through. Eliminating all that detail from his imagery, and especially eliminating writing, effects a sort of displacement or dislocation; it takes things out of their places, transferring them to a purely mental realm.
Still, the tacit nature of this work's Germanness is striking. Imagine walking through an exhibition by Joseph Beuys devoted to the idea of the German nation without having to notice that this is the theme. Impossible. For Gerhard Richter, even more impossible. With Sigmar Polke, Hanne Darboven, Anselm Kiefer, Isa Genzken or Martin Kippenberger--for any of the photographers of the Becher school, too--a reflection on Germany and the traces of its history in the present could only be patent, unavoidable. Is this Demand's lesson: that Germany is now no different from anyplace else, that it is at last a normal, self-confident European nation like any other, unburdened of the memory of its historic tragedies, free of the guilt and resentment that have weighed so heavily on Demand's precursors? Has the effort of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past), a process as cumbersome as the word, been completed, or has it simply fizzled out?
It would be tempting to jump to such a conclusion, all the more so because of Strauss's role in the project. Strauss took a reactionary stance in the debates that raged on this subject around a decade ago, as the culture continued to contend with the repercussions from the Historikerstreit ("historians' quarrel") launched by Ernst Nolte in 1986. In a notorious article of 1993, Strauss expressed all too clearly his sympathy for xenophobia, decrying those--supposedly the left--who, he said, "are friendly to foreigners not for the sake of the foreign but because they greet, due to their wrath against what is ours, anything that destroys what is ours."
But what counts as destruction, and what counts as "ours," depends on your viewpoint. In 2002 the German Parliament voted to demolish the Palast der Republik, the grandiose seat of the former East German Parliament (which was, amazingly enough for those of us who are accustomed to official buildings being off-limits to the public except under the tightest security controls, a kind of municipal leisure center). It had been closed since 1990, and the idea was to replace it with a replica of the kaiser's castle that had once occupied the spot. The German Parliament sought to efface part of Berlin's living history in favor of sham historicism. Nothing that belonged to the GDR, according to powerful elements in Germany today, could possibly be "ours." In the meantime, a provisional building sits on the site, Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin, with a two-year mission to showcase contemporary art--inside and out, for the building's facade as well as its interior is being given over to artists' use. Ah, Germany! Where else would it seem reasonable to use some of the country's most ideologically contested terrain as an artistic proving ground? At present, Bettina Pousttchi, a Berlin-based photographer and sculptor, has turned the building into a three-dimensional billboard, covering all four sides (through February) with a sort of digitally processed abstraction of the facade of the Palast der Republik, which she has titled Echo. It's as though the ghost of the old edifice has returned to haunt its former site, strangely transformed but still recognizable--and with the image of a clock substituted for the coat of arms of the GDR.
Usually, when we say a photograph is of something, that little word "of" means that some light from the object was reflected through the camera's lens to leave its traces--that there is an indexical relation between the thing and the photograph. Demand's Raum is not "of" Hitler's headquarters in that sense, nor is Spüle "of" his friend's sink. What his work asks, among other things, is whether and how photographs can be about things that they are not of. Is Demand's work a reflection on the things that his source photographs are of--on Germany, let's say--or is it an effacement of those things, a way to "erase the traces," as Brecht once put it? To choose either position seems equally facile. Pousttchi's Echo, on the other hand, really does derive in part from photographs of the Palast der Republik. But the photographs have been so heavily manipulated that initial indexical relation has been reduced to a merely homeopathic quantum. The relation of "of-ness" has nearly disappeared. It's the beholder who puts it back.
Like Demand, Pousttchi is concerned with history and memory--or its loss. Echo has a representational specificity that Demand usually eschews or effaces, to be sure, and rather than generalizing her source material by eliminating details, she has introduced a new element of visual noise into the image by adding horizontal lines to it as if it had been shot off a TV screen. But the two artists seem to be in accord in wanting to convey the feeling that we don't really understand what we're seeing--something is amiss, and it's up to us to put our finger on it. That's why I continue to think that, his temporary alliance with Strauss aside, Demand is not attempting to confer a false normality on his country's history. He's availed himself, as Pousttchi has, of an image-maker's right to let the image stand clear of the discourse around it, the discourse that goes into it and the discourse that comes out of it, and insist on its sibylline reticence. Read the catalog, and certainly read the title, but remember that they only take you so far. Berlin is like any other city, Germany is like any other country, but precisely because they are haunted houses. You know a revenant is near when you feel a chill.