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I Demand Your Attention

I Demand Your Attention

by Sean O'Toole / 29.01.2010

The thing about language, fundamentally, is that it can’t imitate sounds. If I write Pfffffffft, does it really communicate the dismissive fart I heard come from the mouth of an elderly German man looking – casually, without conviction – at a photograph by Thomas Demand? Not really. Tom Wolfe made us believe it was possible, spectacularly possible, but at the end of the day… I don’t think so.

Anyway, this is exasperating. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.

So, there I was, in Berlin. Winter. Weather to remind you how humid it is in the walk-in fridge at Harley’s Liquor. I’m staring at this huge – three metres, I think – photograph of nothing. Well, almost nothing. The photo depicts the louvered vertical slats of a blind in a large window. That’s it. I spent five minutes staring at the scene, which was when I heard the derisive sound come from the aging man’s bearded mouth as he judged Demand’s photo in an unbroken stride.

Oh well, thank you for looking.

Thomas Demand is one of those guys the art world loves, and everyone else pretty much shakes their head in confusion about. Here’s a sort of explanation. Born in Munich, Demand studied sculpture at the renowned Dusseldorf Academy. A couple year later, in 1993, he went to London to do his postgraduate studies at Goldsmith’s College, factory plant for interesting new art. It was here that he began making paper and cardboard sculptural models that existed solely to be photographed. (Think Zander Blom, if you must.)

Thomas Demand, Büro / Office, 1995
Thomas Demand
Büro / Office, 1995
C-Print / Diasec, 183,5 x 240 cm
© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009

And that’s what Demand is famous for: making photos of his sculptures.

Demand has previously recreated scenes portraying the Oval Office that might only house Barack Obama for a single term, also Saddam Hussein’s hideaway kitchen during the American invasion of Iraq. His studio is located in a squat building near Berlin’s main rail station, in a space he shares with artists Tacita Dean and Olafur Eliasson; it is also home to the German offices of frieze magazine.

In June last year I happened to drop in, copping a brief stare at his studio. It was, shall we say, an industrious scene, Demand’s studio assistants busily preparing sets for new photographic works – sets that would, as is habit, be destroyed after being photographed. Six or so months later, back in Berlin, I ice-skated up from Potsdamer Platz to the deceptively modest-looking Neue Nationalgalerie, designed by architect Mies van der Rohe. Demand’s first big Berlin outing comprised 35 odd works displayed in a maze of ceiling hung curtains, each photo accompanied by a display table containing a book with text written by Botho Strauss.

One parcel of text caught my eye: “…the falseness of the recorded moment…” It kinda sums up the philosophical core of Demand’s photos.
Thomas Demand, Klause IV / Tavern IV, 2006
Thomas Demand
Klause IV / Tavern IV, 2006
C-Print / Diasec, 103 x 68 cm
© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009

Although I would’ve seen this show regardless, Cape Town photographer Dave Southwood made me even more curious. He saw it too. “Thomas Demand is king,” he wrote in an email. Do I agree? Yes and no. Here is a selection of excerpts from my notebook – they’re more honest than the bumph critics (of all sorts) conjure up when sitting in front of a screen, writing on deadline.

“The photos have an aridity. They yield little, offering a document of an afterlife. This is man observing himself living, to loosely quote one of Strauss’ texts.”
“It is like observing a doctoral project by a disillusioned model maker – at once accessible and obscure.”
“The show induces bewilderment and delight. The texts hold viewers for longer than the mute photos.”
“Anaemic images. As if put through an image filter in Photoshop called SIMPLIFY.”
“The photos, like the one portraying creepers on a wall, do not hide the artifice of the constructed scenes. This is fake, they tell – and yet you look, closely at times, trying to see just how fake.”

Reading this last point, I’m reminded of that old codger in his green jersey. How closely did he look before thinking Arrgghhhh and letting go of that bored Pfffffffft?

*Opening image: Thomas Demand
Studio / Studio, 1997
C-Print / Diasec, 183,5 x 349,5 cm
© Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009

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RESPONSES (2)
  1. d says:

    a lack of spiritual tension in a materially obsessed society-maybe the guy pfffted not because he didnt get it but is surrounded by it every day-this then validated the work as it hit some form of zeitgeist?-would these works be bought by say Staedtler and hung in their corporate offices?

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  2. alexd says:

    I loved the image of you ice skating from Potsdamer Platz over to the new national gallery.

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