by Dilpreet BhullarSep 28, 2021
“Photography constructs reality, not the other way around,” says Berlin and Los Angeles-based artist Thomas Demand (b. 1964). He has become renowned for his “strangely familiar” photographs of spaces that seem to be quite banal and generic at first, but once we give them a second glance, some striking events, stored in our collective memories, suddenly rush alive – Control Room takes us back to Fukushima nuclear power plant during its 2011 tsunami-induced meltdown; Kitchen reminds us of Saddam Hussein’s hideout where he cooked his last meal before being captured in 2003; and Tunnel, a short film depicting a space seemingly identical to the one where Lady Diana died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. None of these spaces are real though; the scenes were all meticulously constructed inside the artist’s studio out of paper and cardboard at one-to-one scale. And after being photographed they were destroyed. Demand’s large-scale photos are the only things left and they are accompanied by laconic abstracted titles, no explanations of process or meaning. Yet, if we pay enough attention, Demand’s photos will remind us of the events that we think we already know well. The images allow us to relive our own thoughts and associations even though the scenes in front of us are entirely fabricated. Suddenly, we become susceptible to many thoughts, realising – do we even know how to discern the difference between what’s true and what’s false? Can a photograph be trusted?
Working on life-size models for his evocative photographs brought Demand to another one of his explorations – architecture, particularly photographing architectural models. Whereas his own models are non-spatial – the artist describes them as “where either something just happened, or something is about to happen” – his photos of architectural models are about the potential of space at a level of pure abstraction, even more powerful due to the fact that they are not meant to be realised. Whether piles of multiple versions of the same project photographed at the Tokyo office of SANAA or overlapped parts of dress samples at the atelier of Azzedine Alaia in Paris, Demand’s photos turn into scaleless constructions of pure shapes and colours to test and seek how space could be inhabited solely visually and poetically. They are spaces for dreams to be inhabited. The following is a compacted version of my conversation with Thomas Demand over Zoom between New York and the artist’s studio in Berlin, as we discussed his methods, intentions, and the power of images.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Could you talk about your paper models? You said, “Models reduce the world into a system of signifiers… Models reduce the complexity of reality to the key elements... Models are cultural techniques and tools to rebuild our impressions of the world or our memories”.
Thomas Demand (TD): Well, my practice grew over the years. Many of my decisions came out of necessities. I started making paper models because I was a painter and I wanted a new challenge. There was no place to store them, so I used very cheap materials and if I ran out of storage space or they got damaged, I could simply rebuild them quickly. These initial models were of the most mundane objects such as a paper cup, ashtray, or a pack of cigarettes. My whole career is evolutionary. I wouldn’t know how to find an image in a newspaper, make a model of it, take a picture, and then destroy the model. I came to this gradually. I didn’t even think about documenting the process. It was my professor’s suggestion to keep track of what I was doing. Because sometimes you need to revisit your own ideas from five or 10 years ago and it may surprise you. If you are not keeping track of what you do, you are not learning from your own experiences.
VB: There is a great degree of freedom in your work and in your choices in general. There is no script. You constantly deal with so many unknowns.
TD: It is my most fundamental position. Until I have the piece ready I do it entirely on my own and at my own risk, and at my own pace. I have a complete control over what I do and how I do it. That’s a big difference between an artist and an architect. That’s the part that all my architect friends complain about most passionately. Their intentions are interfered with the clients’ objections and desires. But as an artist, I don’t have to ask for anyone’s permission. This kind of liberty is important to me and I would not accept a single commission if my freedom is compromised.
VB: I love the description of your work on the website of Matthew Marks Gallery: “Thomas Demand’s work investigates the persistence of images and their ability to embed themselves in a society’s collective memory”. Your projects start with selecting a particular picture widely published in the media that represents a significant event, loaded with political or social meaning. You then create a life-size model made of cardboard and paper to recreate the place in the picture. Then you take your own picture and destroy the model. In a way, you retell the original story in your own way. How do you select stories for your projects? What is it that you are looking for as an artist?
TD: Well, what I am most interested in are places that still have something to say. Not everything has been told about the events that happened in those spaces, in my opinion. There are popular anecdotes about what happened when Princess Diana died or when Saddam Hussein was discovered. But it is not really about the places where these events occurred. I am trying to take away the anecdote from the story and reveal the picture which can stand next to the picture that we know from the news. There are many pictures that have a certain narrative attached to them. Think of the famous Dutch portrait paintings from the 17th century. We don’t know who the people on those paintings are. We can find out, of course. What’s important is the story of the humanism in these pictures. We understand this when we are looking at the face of someone who lived 360 years ago. It is like an icon of humanity. There is something fundamentally human about that kind of link between the centuries. So, what I am trying to find in various stories and events is a timeless quality.
Another example is the work that depicted the Stasi office, stormed in 1990 by the East German citizens after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was based on the widely published press photo. But if you look at the footage of the January 6 Capitol riot, you can come across similar photos in our modern-day history. There are parallel stories about the 2000 US presidential elections when [George HW] Bush won by just one electoral vote, even though [Al] Gore received more than half a million more popular votes. The same happened with [Donald] Trump and [Hillary] Clinton in 2016. Surely, similar circumstances may happen again in the future. So, by looking at the same image, different viewers can relate to different events. The core of my work is about a very simple operation – looking at the picture, diving in, and trying to see what’s in the picture. In the end it is all about translation; in this case, it is about translating the flat image into a three-dimensional setting, back to its two-dimensional representation, and then relating it to a bigger context.
VB: You partially already answered my next question. Your pictures are quite elaborate. Yet, they are typically not accompanied by any explanations. It is, as you just said, because what seems precise and specific from a particular point in history may happen again elsewhere. And because different people can see and think of different events by looking at the same picture, you purposely leave space for interpretation, right?
TD: It is very simple; I don’t know more than the viewer; I just look more carefully. And I don’t want to be a pamphlet or a teacher of history. What I observe is that we live in a very fast news cycle. It was shocking when JFK was shot and for years people would ask, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” But over the last few decades, with such media dominance in our lives, we have grown much more immune. We may still remember where we were when Princess Diana was killed or when Trump was elected but we now live in the constant news flow, in which even some shocking events stay in our conscience for just a few days and we barely remember them a short while later. This reality is a fascinating context that I am exploring. And for me each work is more than a single story because these stories repeat in a variety of versions over time.
What I am after is to explore the power of images. If you go see a portrait paining by Holbein, is it important to know the person’s name or how the merchant he painted really looked like that? We know that these portraits were not always accurate. The painter could willfully make certain changes, or the client could have asked the painter to avoid particular details. So, we know that so many of these paintings are not truthful. Yet, they became very powerful and iconic images because of what they represent. So, what I am after is to look for a picture that is beautiful, complex, and disturbing enough for the viewer to want to find something about it. And if people don’t want to find out any information behind the picture and they only look at it as a pure image, I don’t have a problem with that. And I am sure that Holbein would not have any problem with that either. He would probably say, “Who cares about the merchant’s likeliness, look at the painting I created!” In any case, art is not an equation, there are so many intentions and so many reactions. What I hope for is that I make the initial impact and then it is up to the viewers to react.
VB: Could you talk more about your romance with architectural models? You first started photographing John Lautner’s building models as fragments and abstractions. You worked with models by SANAA, Hans Hollein, and parts of dresses designed by Azzedine Alaia. Could you touch on this fascination? What is your intention behind it?
TD: First, making abstract photography is a nonsensical proposition because the idea of a photograph is that it shows something. Of course, you can photograph an abstraction, such as a blank piece of paper, but it will still be the blank piece of paper. So, I thought that by photographing someone else’s models, I could find qualities of abstraction, especially by depicting something that’s the opposite of what I typically do. So, for example, the models I photographed show the traces of decay. What I like about architectural models is their potential of suggesting forms without being too explicit and literal, which is the opposite of my own models, which are super calculated and very crisp. You can find very vivid and unconventional ideas between art and architecture.
VB: In your interview with Elizabeth Diller, you said, “I find it interesting to work with architecture that is not about building, but about the process and how you find the form." Could you touch upon this idea?
TD: Well, there is architecture which becomes a building and there is architecture that refines an idea. That idea is much closer to art than a building with all the conventional functions. I enjoy exploring ideas when they are still fluid. For example, many of the models I found at the office of SANAA will never be built. The architects play with pure shapes and ideas that may become something or may not. But it is amazing to see all these models and fragments right next to each other. None of them will ever leave the office and they are there just for internal communication purposes. In a way, they have built their unique abstract language of communication that has its own power and beauty that feeds the architects in their design evolution. I really like these explorations for their abstractness. But once you give it to the client, in order to be convincing you need to insert a human figure into the model to give it a scale. For their own understanding, they don’t need that. And that convincing phase is not very interesting to me.