Thomas Demand, Studio, 1997 Ã¢â‚¬Â¨C-Print / Diasec, 183,5 x 349,5 cm Ã¢â‚¬Â¨© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009
Thomas Demand, Nationalgalerie at the Neue Nationalgalerie
Potsdamer Strasse 50
18 September, 2009 through 17 January, 2010
Modeled on Memory
2009 marks the anniversaries of two pivotal events in German history - the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany 60 years ago and the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago - and the capital’s major art institutions are joining in the celebrations. Museum goers in Berlin have certainly gotten their fair share of German art this year: in May, the Martin Gropius-Bau ran the controversial 60 Years, 60 Works - a retrospective of German art that failed to include a single East German artist. September saw the opening of three other anniversary exhibitions at the Berlinische Galerie, the Akademie der Schönen Künste and the German History Museum. Interesting as a chronology of German art may be, these exhibitions mostly gave visitors no reason to celebrate.
While keeping in line with themes of national identity, Berlin’s state museum, the Neue Nationalgalerie, has chosen to avoid yet another pan-German group exhibition, opting instead for an extensive solo show by Munich born photographer Thomas Demand (1964). The show’s title, Nationalgalerie, is a pun typical for the German language: the eponymous “state museum” is transformed into a gallery exhibiting representations of the nation. Indeed, rather than a retrospective of Demand’s work, the show hones in on the German theme in his photography. It is only fitting that the exhibition takes place in the Neue Nationalgalerie, a Mies van der Rohe building known as a symbol of Germany’s economic and cultural renewal.
Thomas Demand, Parlament (Parliament), 2009 Ã¢â‚¬Â¨C-Print / Diasec, 180 x 223 cm Ã¢â‚¬Â¨C. Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009
On view are some 40 works, almost all dealing with historical German events or displaying quintessential German post-war landscapes: highways, middle class family garages, forests and bus stops. In Nationalgalerie, the visual representation of a nation’s identity is defined by its collectivity. Demand suggests that beyond the shared experience of urban or natural landscapes, a collective memory of iconic images exists, created by national media.
Demand’s photographs embody the artist’s Sisyphean work process. In his Berlin studio, Demand constructs 1:1 scale models of the subjects of his photographs – often famous objects and events he culls from mass media. These three-dimensional paper and cardboard models are then transformed - just like the real-life objects are transformed in the press - into two-dimensional photographs, after which they are destroyed. Importantly, Demand’s spatial reconstructions are devoid of any direct human activity: finer details and figures from the original image are left out of the life-size sculptures. The results are often images haunted by human absence, as familiar as they are impalpable, ominous and disquieting.
In his piece Room, Demand reconstructs Hitler’s personal military headquarters on the Eastern Front, nicknamed Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair), where would-be assassins narrowly missed killing the dictator with explosives planted in his office. The image is that of a room in disarray, albeit with windows intact and no traces of blood or injury. Similarly, the work Office depicts this staple of German bureaucracy in shambles, with papers and files scattered across the room. The work is based on a photo of the Stasi headquarters taken after the fall of the Berlin wall. Demand’s reconstructed mass of files and papers is remarkably accurate, down to the punched holes on the papers’ fringes. And yet the sheets of paper are completely blank.
Thomas Demand, Raum (Room), 1994 Ã¢â‚¬Â¨C-Print / Diasec, 183,5 x 270 cm Ã¢â‚¬Â¨© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009
Thomas Demand, Büro (Office), 1995 Ã¢â‚¬Â¨C-Print / Diasec, 183,5 x 240 cm Ã¢â‚¬Â¨© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009
However, Demand makes a point of not providing the viewer with any background information. Even the works’ titles are hard to find, placed behind glass on wooden tables next to each piece. Accompanying each title is an open book with a short text in both German and English that, upon closer inspection, is devoid of explanatory value. Demand collaborated with German author Botho Strauss who wrote short passages to go along with each image. Strauss’ texts are not only unrevealing, they actually serve to further abstract the images. Nevertheless, this complete separation of image and text is integral to the exhibition: none of the images shows any textual information and where there should have been text in “real life”, like on a cigarette machine or an emergency exit sign, it’s been excluded from the paper model. And with the books and titles embedded within the wooden tables, it is physically impossible to see text and image at the same time. The viewer is either looking straight ahead at the image or straight down at the text, his interpretive capacities split in accordance with the room’s dimensions.
But without any background information, are the images as effective and evocative? For this non-German viewer the answer is clearly “yes.” A good example is Bathroom, in which a bathtub filled with water, a pulled back shower curtain and a jumbled floor mat create an eerie disorder. Some might recognize the scene from media photos of conservative West German politician Uwe Barschel, who was found dead in a hotel bathtub fully clothed in 1987 following a political scandal. The circumstances surrounding Barschel’s death have yet to be cleared and rumors of foul play continue to circulate. But even those who have never seen the news images can’t escape the feeling of dread inspired by Demand’s recreated traces of hasty commotion.
A master of illusion, Demand carefully incorporates small yet visible imperfections into his otherwise meticulous cardboard models. His photos are taken from perspectives which make sure these flaws are detectable. The result is often an image that is slightly wrong, evoking a sense of discomfort, violence and danger. The discerning viewer will become aware not only of being deceived, but also of the materiality and fragility of the facsimiles. Once an image has been recognized as a paper reconstruction, it is freed from the restrictions placed on “real-life” images. As a representation of an object instead of the object itself, the spatial reconstructions lend themselves to interpretation.
Our reception of visual media and its influence on the structures of our perception and memory become the focus of Demand’s inquiry. The five-piece series Klause I-V reconstructs images of a pub which featured prominently in the press for weeks after becoming the focus of a shocking case of child rape. In the series, we see an outside view of the building where the pub is located. The windows - did the neighbors notice anything? We see the entrance and a cigarette machine in front; it looks just like any other German bar. We enter the kitchen – is this where it happened? We turn into a storage room full of cleaning products – were they used to get rid of the evidence? Our imagination fills these banal objects with meaning and interprets them based on very limited knowledge of what really happened. The press, unable to use photos of the persons involved, ran pictures of the bar instead - relying on and directing our imaginative abilities to complete the pub as proper crime scene. For Demand, “the medium is the message” clearly means exposing the medium’s delusory nature and its effect on our perception. Through the abstraction and de-familiarization of photographed images, we become aware of the medial artifact placed between us and the world - the camera - and of its deceptiveness.
Demand expands the reference to media theory in a piece reflecting on his own work process. The photo Copy shop is placed right at the entrance, where a long line is formed for this viewer-magnet show, so that one has to stare at it for a while. In retrospect, the piece serves as an introduction to what we’re about to view – paper copies of information. The copy shop is empty, of course, but evidence of human action is everywhere: we see documents in the process of being copied and a pencil lying next to a writing pad. The act of copying visual data onto paper on a scale true to the original raises questions of authenticity and of details getting lost in the process (humans) or added to the original as a result of technical interference (imperfections). By creating reconstructions and with the help of tiny faults and a calculated perspective, Demand manages to reverse the process Benjamin discusses in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: out of a mass media image a piece of art is born, transforming the endlessly reproduced photos to a work of art with an “aura.”
Thomas Demand, Klause 1, 2006Ã¢â‚¬Â¨C-Print / Diasec, 275 x 170 cmÃ¢â‚¬Â¨© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009
Hili Perlson is a freelance art journalist and critic based in Berlin. She is a co-founder of Meta Magazine.