Balance, poetry and banality

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Thomas Demand would be appalled to be taken for a commercial model-maker, of the kind whose work appears in advertising.

He does make models out of paper and card, with a nicely balanced sense of positioning. Just realistic enough to be taken at a glance for the real thing, his pictures also contain plenty of evidence of their own artificiality. In the many years since banal views became the legitimate subjects for non-banal pictures, it has been possible to ask “why did he take precisely that view?” of a host of documentary photographs.

That is the mechanism Demand uses to his own ends. He doesn’t just find banal corners of the world. He goes to enormous lengths to re-create them in detail. He has, for example, made pictures of the photocopying room in a nameless modern office. These neatly illustrate the kind of self-reference he likes. His own materials are paper and light. In a photocopying room you find stacks of paper waiting to be turned into (one hopes) meaningful things by the operation of controlled light.

There is a long and distinguished tradition of making things specifically to be
photographed. It is amazing how much trouble advertisers in particular will take to make a better version of the real. Some degree of pre-manipulation is the norm, in all kinds of photography, although most of us see it only rarely. When a school teacher frantically tells children to remember to bring a clean uniform on the day of the class picture, she is controlling the content of the picture in advance, just as much as any PR professional’s “photo-opportunity”. In the world of art photo-
graphy, the same is true. Much that passes for objectivity is in fact anything but.

So what is a photographer like Thomas Demand up to? At one level, he is commenting on all that. Demand is usually glossed as asking pertinent and difficult questions about our involvement with the media. One series here, “Klause/Tavern 1-5”, is taken from press photographs of the scene of a particularly gruesome murder. How does our sense of a place become affected by a brush like this with the nastiest kind of celebrity culture? When Demand makes and then photographs a TV studio, it has lunatic-bright vertical blinds behind the (empty) speakers’ chairs in deliberate counterpoint to the bland but superficially glossy words that have just been spoken there.

By making his artifice so visible, he asks us to consider how much artifice we take for granted. More coarsely, he is also establishing a simple, recognisable brand for himself. Like so many artists who achieve renown and saleability, Demand has ploughed the same furrow for a very long time. It is a brave artist who says to his gallerist: “I know you’re building a following for my stuff, but I’m moving on.” Most are glad to stick with a formula. There aren’t that many artists making cardboard models of overlooked and drab corners of buildings. So when you see one, you’re pretty certain to recognise the brand.

Demand is also German, so is deeply familiar with that particular brand of “objective” photography that springs from August Sander and has been turned into the national style by the Bechers and their pupils. To make ostensibly neutral images of ostensibly neutral spaces but to make them with a splendid twist is much more natural when the recent German tradition is your own.

The Serpentine, standing in one of London’s great parks, is a physically highly agreeable place in which to look at pictures. Demand has brought the outside in by having the gallery expensively wallpapered in a pattern based on his own painstaking recreation of ivy. This is a nice conceit. (His wall-paper, of course, is on sale from the gallery.)

Occasionally, Demand gets his balances wrong. There is one picture here that is a faithful representation of a cardboard pin-board. Just that, white and rather larger than life-size. One finds oneself squinting along the rows of holes to see that they are squiggly and not made by machine. Demand has even inserted hanging chads, bits of not-wholly-perforated card we remember from the US presidential election (and which Demand has referred to before). I found myself thinking the artist needed to get out more – as I did in Demand’s enormous re-
creation of a grotto in Mallorca, so complicated that he had to get fancy computer-driven laser machinery to cut out the pieces. No doubt he deliberately programmed the computer to cut everything just off true, to show the illusion. We can see that a grotto is itself a folly, and that to re-create it in cardboard is a reflection, of a sort, on folly. But the tension between the skill in the making and the plainness of the seeing is all wrong in this would-be tour de force. The whole point of a grotto is that it is grungy. Make it in an ultra-smooth, ultra-clean digital print, and you’re wide of the mark. Demand has three ugly vertical seams on the print, which come from difficulty getting the digital printing right; they clash badly with the supposedly high-tech finesse of the object itself. Look away and around the walls: you can never spot the dividing lines in the fancy handmade wallpaper.

It’s a fine show: I often like Demand’s enquiry (although I’m not convinced of its profundity), and some of his pictures have real strength. But the gallery should have stuck its neck out a little more. You get nothing more from this show than you do from commercial galleries selling Thomas Demand’s work.

‘Thomas Demand’ is at the Serpentine Gallery in
London until August 20.
Tel 20 7402 6075

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