Research notes – Thomas Demand

Thomas Demand (b. 1964) is a German sculptor and photographer.

Demand specialises in the construction of life-size paper reproductions of famous or newsworthy locations, which he then photographs before destroying them.

His models are highly detailed and a quick glance of his photographs would trick the viewer into believing they were looking at a rather mundane  picture of a real office or control room. The first of his pictures I looked at, “Poll” (link) was a reproduction of an office in Florida where the 2000 US presidential election was recounted. I remember looking at the picture, which was reproduced in a book for several minutes before realising that the subject was actually a sculpture. While Demand’s models are very detailed, he deliberately inserts imperfections that help the viewer realise they are looking at an illusion. For example, the post-it stickers and voting cards in Poll are completely blank when one would expect them to be full of scribbles and punch holes.

In an article for the New York Times (1), Michael Kimmelman explains how Thomas Demand makes his creations. He uses photographs and newspaper clippings to design the sculptures, sometimes he does them from memory. This second-hand experience removes his sculptures even more from reality. One of them, “Staircase”, turned out to be different from the real inspiration (Demand’s secondary school staircase), with his recollection of the place having been corrupted by looking at other similar structures. Significantly, his chosen medium for disseminating his work is photography, which has traditionally carried, in the mind of viewers,  connotations of fidelity to what is real. That his pictures are deliberately or unintentionally unreal, but are superficially very realistic creates a sense of insecurity and doubt in the viewer, while also generating a great deal of curiosity on how such level of detail was possible to achieve.

Beyond the technique and its implications, I am particularly attracted to Demand’s models depicting current affairs that presumably have had an impact on him. Rooms where something has just happened are meticulously portrayed as found: offices with papers tossed on the floor (see here), rooms trashed (and here), control rooms with dangling ceiling panels (see here). Even though all is still, there is an element of subtle violence in some of Demand’s pictures, a sense of something having gone terribly wrong. Yet the pictures show no victims, only still objects, silent witnesses to events we could only imagine. This lack of human presence adds an element of coldness and fatalism to Demand’s images, which makes them disturbing and fascinating in equal measures.

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(1) Kimmelman, M. (2005). Painterly Photographs of a Slyly Handmade Reality. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/04/arts/design/painterly-photographs-of-a-slyly-handmade-reality.html [Accessed 8 Apr. 2017].

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