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Building Blocks of the Media:
Thomas Demand’s Staged Photographs

Clearing, 2003, ©Thomas Demand, VG Bild Kunst, Bonn
courtesy: Esther Schipper
For his large-scale photographs, Thomas Demand builds models of spectacular locations and political scenarios using cardboard and paper. His eye is attuned to the media; his work dissects collective visual memory and has made him into one of the most internationally renowned German artists of the day. Now, New York’s MoMA will be showing Demand in a large retrospective in March. Harald Fricke visited the artist in his Berlin studio.

Thomas Demand
©Thomas Demand

The latest model is still in the studio. It’s a window with a rocket launcher in front, similar to one of the homemade explosives terrorists used in the seventies. Next to it, the end result is already hanging on the wall: a large-scale photograph depicting the carefully lit scene as though it were the film set of an action thriller based on real life. Rocket Launcher (2005) is a piece that refers to authentic media images dating from the era of the Red Army Faction. Thomas Demand must have worked hard at it, because the viewer can hardly tell from the photograph that the objects depicted are all made from paper and cardboard. The artist, who was born in Munich in 1964 and studied sculpture at the Düsseldorfer Kunstakademie and Goldsmiths College in London, has become an internationally celebrated star; his photographs command six-figure prices and are made in editions limited to only a few prints each. Last year, he represented Germany at the Sao Paulo Biennial, and an overview of his photographs from the past ten years was shown in Kunsthaus Bregenz. In a few weeks’ time, New York’s Museum of Modern Art will be giving Demand his most extensive retrospective to date.

Office, 1995, ©Thomas Demand, VG Bild Kunst, Bonn
courtesy: Esther Schipper

Fitting rooms, skyscrapers, the TV studio in which Robert Lembke’s quiz show "What Am I?" was filmed in the seventies – Demand has built and then photographed painstakingly detailed models of a number of different situations. The photograph Bathroom (1997), for instance, shows the tiled interior of the Swiss hotel suite in which the German Christian Democratic politician Uwe Barschel committed suicide; the same year, Demand built a model of Jackson Pollock’s studio for Barn, which the photograph depicts as a darkened shack. In his photographs, Demand repeatedly reconstructs spectacular locations: For Office (1995), he built a model of the former Stasi (State Security) Headquarters following the storm of furious East Germans and recorded it in a photograph 183,5 x 240 cm. in size; there’s a video of the Tunnel (1999) in which Lady Diana died, completely filmed before an artificial cardboard backdrop.
One could, in fact, call the photographs an abstraction of infotainment; in any case, Demand reconstructs the unrelenting image flow in cool, distanced settings; in the process, he refrains from using shock effects, showing instead the small, theater-like confines of the media reality.

Factory, 1994, Deutsche Bank Collection

Harald Fricke: There’s a photograph called "Factory" from 1994 in which the word "Demand" appears in large letters on the roof of a building. Were you intending to erect an ironic monument here – the artist as image manufacturer?

Thomas Demand: No, there were other reasons for that. The building has the perspective of an early De Stijl drawing. I needed another small component for the row of three chimneys to take the whole thing in a new direction. And so I looked for a word to use as the additional element. I could have written "ambition", for instance, but then I would have quickly wound up with a metaphoric banality. Because I was studying in London at the time, I came up with the idea of using my own name; on the one hand, it made the thing personal, and on the other, "demand" has a meaning in English that’s comparable to the German word "ambition". Besides, you can find the word on every pound note – it carries a high degree of general validity. For Germany, however, I made a version of the work in which the word doesn’t appear at all.

How did you change over from sculpture to photography?

Actually, it wasn’t a changeover, but progress. While I was a student, I experimented with all kinds of forms; I made sculpture from paper as a reaction to the clear-cut, rigid assertions of Katharina Fritsch and Thomas Schütte, who were using ceramics and bronze. I wanted to make things that can be made in a single day and for this reason were quick, transitory. Hence cardboard, paper, tinfoil, and balloons – cheap material that everybody’s worked with at least once. But after two or three years, my professor, Fritz Schwegler, remarked that I wasn’t getting any further in my development: I was making objects for one day and then throwing them away.

Because you wanted to reject classical sculpture’s claim to eternity?

It was probably an agreeable gesture for dealing with art, but a learning process wasn’t really apparent in it. I’m grateful to Schwegler to this day; his remark led me to begin photographing the sculptures to find out if I was making any progress with them. But then I was very disappointed by the first photographs of the documentation; the quality was just too poor. And so Schwegler sent me to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photography class, but they couldn’t really help me either, because what I wanted to learn was how to document sculpture. For me, it became easier to shake off the shortcomings of my own photography by starting out with a 35 mm. camera to get back to the demands of the concrete image. Basically, this process hasn’t really changed to this day: I make a sculpture, try to find the best possible lighting conditions for it, and only then do I take the photograph.

And that’s where you learned to convert sculptures into photographs?

Everything has its advantages and its disadvantages. One of the advantages was practicing objectivity like a dialect and then limiting myself in the means and my own personal possibilities for reading the image. This helps keep the viewer’s possibilities for interpretation open. On the other hand, the choice can become very random. That’s typically German, too: you move very quickly from the particular to the general. In England it was the other way around, the artists there were more interested in the particular, and then remained with the individual experience. If you take a look at Damien Hirst, it’s the single shark in the tank, not “sharkness” that he’s portraying. This method of creating a specific statement that acquires a general validity due to its tremendous power is something I learned in London.

Studio, 2000, ©Thomas Demand, VG Bild Kunst, Bonn
courtesy: Esther Schipper

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