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Thomas Demand

April 6, 2010

Thomas Demand, born in 1964, will present an extensive solo show at the Neue Nationalgalerie from September 2009. While he has had major exhibitions dedicated to his work in such cities as London, New York and Zurich, the show in Berlin will be his largest presentation in Germany to date. Entitled Nationalgalerie (National Gallery), the exhibition is not, however, a general retrospective of his work up to now, rather it is purposefully dedicated to one theme in particular – perhaps the most important in all of Demand’s richly diverse body of work: Germany. Correspondingly, the exhibition coincides with the anniversaries of two pivotal historical 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.

The approximately 35 works on display, which include new, previously unshown pieces, deal with social and historical events since 1945 and their immediate background. However, Demand’s pictures do not merely bear reference to exceptional moments in history. Alongside momentous political and societal events and instantly recognizable scenes, the exhibition includes works which depict the private and incidental, but which represent equally a kaleidoscopic part of a particular time and society.

Thomas Demand is not a photographer in the classical sense, but rather someone who documents our various media worlds and is both a reproducer and an illusionist. Photography is the medium in which his works are preserved and exhibited. The artist often finds his subjects in the mass media using them as the starting point to recreate a particular spatial situation as paper sculptures, which are then made into a two-dimensional image with the use of a large format camera and meticulous attention to detail. In a conceptual sense, Thomas Demand is a sculptor as much as he is a photographer. Specific traces of the reproduced incident are systematically erased from the three-dimensional, life-size reconstructions; and so too are the people present in the original photographs. What remains are phantom images of ‘crime scenes’ of missing events which often appear just as familiar to us as they are impalpable.

In this way, Thomas Demand’s works test our reception of visual media and explore their influence on the structures of our memory. In a truly empirical manner, Thomas Demand conducts experiments in visual culture which centre around the questions of whether and to what extent a society’s appearance is condensed and concentrated in individual key images as well as being retained in people’s minds and remembered through such key images. Demand’s reconstructive handling of images that carry significance or appear to carry significance, focuses on the conscious or unconscious self-portrayal of a society and its changes. There could hardly be a more fitting place for an exhibition which offers us a panorama of a nation’s history than the great glass hall of the Neue Nationalgalerie of Mies van der Rohe. The building is not only an incunabulum of post-war architecture, but also equally historically significant as a symbol of the way the Federal Republic of Germany viewed itself at the former inner-city border. The magnificent exhibition design by the London-based architects Caruso St John, forms an ideal connection between Demand’s works and the light hall of Mies van der Rohe.

Each of Thomas Demand’s photographs is one or more steps removed from reality, creating tension between the fabricated and the real. He begins with a pre-existing photograph of an actual location culled from the mass media. While his large-scale photographs resemble these mass-media images, they actually show three-dimensional, life-sized models made from cardboard and paper that Demand builds in his studio solely for the purpose of being photographed. Demand knowingly uses the traditional role of photography as a faithful transcriber of the world to throw his subject’s artificiality into doubt. This confounding of references is such that the very idea of an original recedes completely.

Thomas Demand began as a sculptor and took up photography to record his ephemeral paper constructions. In 1993 he began making constructions for the sole purpose of photographing them. Demand begins with a preexisting image culled from the media, usually of a political event, which he translates into a life-size model made of colored paper and cardboard.

His handcrafted facsimiles of architectural spaces and natural environments are built in the image of other images. Once they have been photographed, the models are destroyed.

At first sight, the subjects represented in Demand’s photographs seem commonplace and familiar, but often they relate to scenes of cultural or political relevance, which have come to our attention through the mass media. They range from the archives of German filmmaker and National Socialist propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, Saddam Hussein’s attempt to purchase a concentrated form of uranium called ‘yellowcake’ from Africa and the kitchen in Saddam Hussein’s hideaway in Tikrit, Iraq.

Art curators and critics interpret Demand’s work as reconsidering the traditional notion of photography as a faithful record of reality, highlighting the evasiveness of the medium in a world that is saturated with manipulated or mediated images.

For German artist Thomas Demand, this manifold popular impression of a singularly famous site—grounded at times in fact, but also, increasingly, in fiction—epitomizes the paradox of mediated truth and constructed cultural memory. At least that’s the sense you get from a suite of five new large-scale photo works by Demand, currently on view at Sprüth Magers in London, depicting various views of the Oval Office. It’s familiar conceptual territory for Demand, whose critically acclaimed work has carefully focused on the arbitrary nature of mass media imagery and what he calls “the spectator’s perception of reality.”

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