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Thomas Demand: The margins of history

Thomas Demand: The margins of history

For twenty-eight years, the German photographer Thomas Demand has been reproducing press photographs on paper and proposing a new reading. We decipher for you his monograph “Complete Papers” recently published by MACK.

What better way of entering into Thomas Demand’s work than through a clearing? Lichtung (Clearing, 2004), an enormous chromogenic print, 6.3 ft tall and 16.2 ft wide, was created for the Venice Biennale and originally installed in the Giardini in such a way that the life-size tableau camouflaged the patch of woods it appeared to represent. Dense foliage invades the frame from all sides, harboring as if an inner light that floods the forest, filtered through the crown of trees. Despite its size, which generally is a signal to step back, the photograph calls for a close examination. This is when the viewer, unprepared for the encounter, makes a startling discovery, as described by the essayist Teju Cole: ‘What the photograph showed was not a forest, but a model of a forest, … constructed from paper and set in a steel frame 50 feet wide. Two hundred seventy thousand leaves had been individually cut’ (Complete Papers, p. 400).

Lichtung / Clearing, 2003 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London

A vocabulary of gestures

Thomas Demand admits to producing five to six photographs a year. To call him a “photographer” would be doing him injustice; yet he is that, too. His work may be said to exist in the space delimited by two photographic images: a found image, often culled from the press, which is reconstructed as a three-dimensional life-size paper model, and then photographed to create a full-scale tableau. The initial image may be of poor quality, like the CCTV shot of the security gate at the Portland, Maine, airport, just moments after the passage of Mohamed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, on his way to Logan Airport where he would board AA Flight 11 (Gate, 2004); or the photo of the control room at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear plant documenting earthquake damage in March of 2011. It might also be a smart-phone snapshot taken by the artist, a visual note drawing attention to the mundane, the marginal, the insignificant: a public ashtray containing evidence of a busy smoke break or a plant clinging to the opaque glass of a bathroom window (Dailies #2, 2008 and #14, 2011).

Gate, 2004 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London

The labor involved in the paper-and-cardboard reconstruction of a place dilates the temporality of the event. For example, to make Junior Suite (2012), Demand checked into Beverly Hilton hotel and ordered the same room service as Whitney Houston on the night of her death. He arranged the half-eaten meal, beer cans, plates, napkins, etc., to match the news photo. The resulting image served as the basis for a paper model, which was in turn photographed from the same angle as the snapshot circulated in the tabloids. Thomas Demand’s attentive slowness counters, on the one hand, the perfunctory nature of everyday gestures, which take on added significance (such as the last meal), and, on the other, the rapidity of the news cycle.

Junior Suite, 2012 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London

Paper memory

Once photographed, the model is dismantled and burned. Yet the fragility of this paper fabrication persists in the photograph as a trace: the imperfect edges of the sand pile in the ashtray (Daily #2), or the undifferentiated die-cut leaves in Clearing, betray their hand-made provenance. Although detailed and meticulously crafted, the model isn’t meant to trick the viewer: the unwritten ledgers and unmarked buttons and levers in Control Room (2011), the stacks of blank ballots in Poll (2001), and the solid-black telephone dial in Gate point to a reality that is not habitable.

Assembling Thomas Demand’s “complete papers” would be an impossible task: these should include the construction papers and cardboards, the silver-gelatin emulsion film, the photosensitive papers, perhaps sketches or calculations preliminary to the models… The Complete Papers published in 2018 by Mack is a more modest, and yet no less impressive enterprise. A bound-volume retrospective of the artist’s work, it collects all the images made between 1994 and 2018, as well as generous excerpts from essays written for exhibition catalogs, plus a handful of original writings.

Kontrollraum / Control Room, 2011 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London

One image emerges as a self-referential comment on the catalogue raisonné. The photograph Atelier (2014) shows an artist’s studio: spacious and sparsely furnished. Whites and beiges dominate, except for the lower-right corner, roughly delimited by the diagonal, which is populated by colorful paper cuttings. The photograph does not show any completed artwork. Instead, we see the negative products of invisible labor: the model has already been destroyed (including, by a mise-en-abime, the paper model of the very atelier), and the colorful offal is waiting to be swept away. The reader will find traces of these multicolored scraps inserted between the pages of the book to mark the chronological timeline. These loose-leaf pages of construction paper are like uncut leaves of all seasons that invite us to question our assumptions about what we see, and to discern in castoff shreds the outlines of a work and beneath what we take to be solid reality, the unsettled ground of history.

Atelier, 2014 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London 

Poll, 2011 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London 

Daily #2, 2008 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London 

Daily #14, 2011 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London 

Archic / Archive, 1995 © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/DACS, London 

By Ela Kotkowska

Thomas Demand: The Complete Papers

MACK, 2018, 504 pages

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