David Ryan











Thomas Demand

at the Serpentine Gallery, London 6th June to 20 August 2006


A hallway in Milwaukee that turns out to lead to Jeremy Dahmer’s flat; a kitchen in Tirkrit, which was in fact occupied by Saddam; and seemingly innocuous images of a provincial German tavern, the site of a horrendous abduction and murder of a young boy. Such are the images chosen by German Photographer Thomas Demand. They are images which somehow float between the known and the unconscious in their appropriation of media images – the endlessly reproduced residual data and evidence to be found in newspapers and magazines that supposedly allow the reader to get closer to ‘the event’ at hand. This in itself is, of course, no more than a chimera, for the events themselves are absent, and we are presented only with the silent, unspeaking setting, akin to a film set where something has or is about to happen, a scene ultimately riddled with both familiarity and ambiguity. What is astonishing about Demand’s images is that they are – in their own reality – completely assembled simulacra of these media images, painstakingly constructed out of cardboard and paper. In this way, he breaks the thread between the photograph and its reality base, what Susan Sontag referred to as the photograph’s appearance of a “Trace, something stencilled off the real”. Yet Demand – in a tradition that goes back to artists like Gerhard Richter and beyond – reverses this, by questioning the mechanisms that give images their potency, by ritualistically reconstructing them, and asserting their mediation and artificiality over naive realism.
Two aspects of this exhibition, Demand’s first major showing in the UK, deserve some attention. Firstly, the showing of two major sets of work: Tavern 1-V and Grotto both of 2006; and secondly, the artist’s choice to wallpaper the Serpentine Gallery and float his images on top. In Tavern 1-V the viewer is presented with a typical scenario: almost forensically antiseptic scenes, still, untouched, evacuated – an ivy covered exterior; a boarded door; a cleaning cupboard; a desultory unattended plant next to a window. Given the horrendous nature of the crime that took place here, only photographs of the tavern itself were disseminated across the media. The setting becomes a surrogate representation (which clearly fascinates Demand) for something else. “We gulp down evil,” suggested Wallace Stevens – a statement no more true than in the present age of media sensationalism which scours for its traces.
On a formal level, this series displays what Demand’s photographs actually do: they are austere, clearly framed, playing on registers of familiarity, blankness and ambiguity. What appears at first glance as an immensely stoically saturated image soon dissembles on close inspection – whereby the processes of construction become more clear – slightly curling card, pencil marks denoting measurements, or the identification of coloured or silver paper materiality. These life-size tableaux are remarkable achievements in themselves but live on only through their photographic representation. They both entice and frustrate in their construction of an approximate world that cannot deliver its own particularity or detail. Grotto appears a new departure, both in its extremely large scale and content. It is entirely constructed from cardboard and depicts a popular tourist destination in Mallorca. Based on a postcard, it alludes to the caves as sheer spectacle, and this is perhaps a key to Demand’s other work in many ways. It is as much about the relationship between indifferent matter and human projection; that which ‘apprehends’ and chooses what is to be spectacle or event from the onslaught of everyday even banal experience. Yet it is how the artist returns these images to opacity and multivalence that ultimately wins out. On a final note, the decision to wallpaper the Serpentine, remains a rather uneasy one. It was an attempt to respond to the gallery’s ‘domestic peculiarity’ – and the expanses of wallpaper depicting simulated ivy (derived from the exterior of Tavern 1) work better in some rooms than others. Having said this, to Demand’s credit, it seems impossible to think of these photographs occupying bare white walls after experiencing them in this particular environment, which gives them a parallel artificial enclosure.
Originally published in Art Papers USA