© THOMAS DEMAND, VG BILD-KUNST, BONN 2009/NEUE NATIONALGALERIE
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.