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A Makeshift World: On Thomas Demand | The Nation

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A Makeshift World: On Thomas Demand

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© THOMAS DEMAND, VG BILD-KUNST, BONN 2009/NEUE NATIONALGALERIEThomas Demand exhibit at Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Just as the act of using a computer comes with an implicit advisement--RTM (read the manual) or, less politely, RTFM--so any serious engagement with contemporary art comes with a like directive: RTC (read the catalog).

For many, I know, that practice is more honored in the breach than the observance. Rumor to the contrary, art catalogs are in general clearer and better written than computer manuals, even if they are probably a lot less cogent than they should be. Boris Groys has argued that the fact that no one reads most art commentary, as he calls it, should be taken as one of its great attractions for the writer: "For this very reason one can, in principle, write whatever one wants." I hope it's not quite true that no one reads it, for today one can't simply be a viewer, as we habitually call the addressee of contemporary art. To see a work without a sense of the commentary around it--its linguistic framing--means blinding oneself to where its edges are, to where the work leaves off and reality begins--to the work's position in the world.

All of which amounts to a circuitous admission that my first view of Thomas Demand's exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin (on view through January 17) was constrained by my neglect of an important part of its verbal framing--and this despite the fact that there have been few exhibitions of photographs in which writing is so prominently featured, though never in the photographs themselves. And believe me, I did read the texts so prominently and atypically displayed in the gallery--about which more later. They also constitute an important part of the catalog, so this was one instance in which I really did RTC right there in the gallery as I went along, and as one is meant to do. No, what I forgot to do (the purloined-letter syndrome at work, perhaps) was to RTT.

If I had bothered to read the title, I might have been saved the puzzlement I experienced when I wandered downstairs looking for the men's room and passed a bulletin board festooned with local press clippings about the exhibition. Stopping for a quick look, I was bemused by the slant the German papers had given their coverage: it seemed they all saw the show as the artist's meditation on his and their homeland. "Demands Deutschstunde," read the headline in Die Welt. Likewise Die Zeit headed its report "Modell Deutschland" and Der Tagesspiegel, "Deutschland, deine Bühnenbilder" ("Bühnenbilder" means stage scenery, but here it is a play on words: "Bilder" are pictures, images, and Demand's photographs are indeed staged images, albeit without actors). Other publications saved mentioning Germany for the subhead, where it could be conveyed in more than two or three words: "Thomas Demand blickt auf Deutschland" (Berliner Morgenpost); "Die Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin präsentiert Thomas Demands Deutschlandbilder" (Berliner Zeitung). Only as I scanned these articles with my weak German did I cotton on to the fact that Demand's exhibition had a title, cunningly disguised as its location: "Nationalgalerie." This was, I should have understood, Demand's exhibition about or, better yet, of his country.

Demand is sometimes mistaken for a member of the "Becher school," whose best-known members are Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, a group of older German photographers who studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Demand, who was born in Munich in 1964, left Düsseldorf (where, studying sculpture, he did not work with the Bechers) in 1992, and in the years since he finished his MA at London's Goldsmiths' College in 1994 he has become one of the world's leading photographers. The Neue Nationalgalerie exhibition follows big shows of his work in London (Serpentine Gallery, 2006) and New York City (Museum of Modern Art, 2005), among others. The monumentally scaled images of the Becher school are typically hyperbolically detailed--their macroscopic dimensions proffering a plethora of microscopic particulars, whether of faces, streetscapes, library interiors or factories. While it has often been noted that the massive size of Becher-school photographs gives them something like the impact of a painting--whereas traditional photographic prints were indeed prints, demanding the kind of intimate engagement suitable to an etching--large-scale Modernist painting, from Matisse to Barnett Newman to Alex Katz, had always favored the elimination of detail. The Becherians, by contrast, multiply details ad infinitum. And though none of them should be taken for mere technicians, the fact remains that in looking at their work one can never be unaware of the technical achievement involved in lending the camera a sort of superhuman eyesight. Their work is often referred to as cold and objective. No wonder, when it seems to lend the human eye the powers of a microscope, even when scanning a distant horizon.

Demand's photographs are nothing like that, despite their equally grand scale. And one would not call him a brilliant photographic technician, which is perhaps not surprising since he came to photography through sculpture. You don't look at his pictures to marvel at his subtle handling of light, incredible control of focus and mastery of tone. In fact, he seems deliberately to cultivate the sense that things are ever so slightly overlit, that just a little bit less of the scene is in perfect focus than might have been possible, that the image could have been rendered with greater crispness and definition. Not that he cultivates the look of the amateur snapshot: nothing seems accidental or haphazard here. But rather than availing himself of the camera's potential for an inhumanly penetrating apprehension of surfaces, he evokes what one might call a normal, technically competent but unfetishized mode of looking. The photographs pretend to be a little less carefully made than they really are.

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