Thomas Demand, Nationalgalerie

With Nationalgalerie Demand appears intent on directing the reception of his images in a new light and context. The title, the subject matter and the timing of the exhibition and book immediately suggest that Demand is implicating himself and his art in a discussion about the national art institution and, by extension, about German nationalism and identity surrounding art and politics.

Maggie Finch

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Thomas Demand
National Galerie by Thomas Demand published by SteidlMack / www.steidlville.com

In September 2009 the contemporary German artist Thomas Demand staged the first major solo display of his photographs at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. The exhibition was also called Nationalgalerie and coincided with two major anniversaries in recent German history (sixty years since the forming of the Federal Republic and twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall). The photographs on display were chosen by Demand from works created over the last fifteen years as images which all related to Germany, in that they were based on German source materials.  This is not something that would have been apparent to the average gallery visitor.  Rather than providing explanatory texts in the usual museological tradition, Demand employed German writer and poet Botho Strauß to compose parallel captions, which accompanied the images in adjacent showcases. The photographs and captions were also then published together in book form in a catalogue that is lavish, yet minimalist in design.

Thomas Demand’s practice and method of construction is well known and highly renowned. He builds detailed paper sculptures of scenes, usually interiors, which are based upon media images or personal memories. While being highly realistic, the sculptures are intentionally simplified by the removal of identifiable features and people. The sculptures are photographed at a scale of 1:1 and then destroyed, the images displayed. The photographs, therefore, are representations in two dimensions of a three-dimensional interpretation of a two-dimensional image taken from the real world or from memory.  Confused? Well that is largely the point.

With Nationalgalerie Demand appears intent on directing the reception of his images in a new light and context. The title, the subject matter and the timing of the exhibition and book immediately suggest that Demand is implicating himself and his art in a discussion about the national art institution and, by extension, about German nationalism and identity surrounding art and politics. The forward and prefaces to the book corroborate these aims. The traditional understanding of the national gallery is as a civic space with a collection owned by the public: by the people, for the people. For a country whose concept of nationalism has such a loaded and complex history in the recent era, it seemed a provocative act. The experience of viewing the catalogue obviously differs greatly from seeing the exhibition and the ways in which the images and texts related to each other when on display. It is interesting, therefore, to consider how the book operated independently as a means of conveying ideas about the “Deutschlandbild” or the so-called “German image”.

At first glance, the catalogue appears not to contain any images at all. Image titles and captions conceal the photographs, which are only revealed by the slow and careful unfolding of the pages. It is a clever design in which the Strauß texts precede the images and compels ‘slow’ looking, making Demand’s unpopulated photographs all the more ambiguous. An example of this relationship is Fotoecke 2009 – an image of a reconstruction of a mundane-looking photographic portrait studio, which is preceded by the following caption:

That images are, after all, like seals placed upon the invisible. But in some images there are empty spaces where the invisible has made notable inroads. It is present.

Thomas Demand
National Galerie by Thomas Demand published by SteidlMack / www.steidlville.com

This pattern of image and text continue throughout the book, with captions preceding Demand’s anonymous scenes. The photographs have no obvious relationship – images of an empty bathtub, a diving platform, the doorbell of an apartment block, papers strewn around a room. Botho Strauß, renowned in Germany as a highly creative and prolific writer, has written short fragments which are evocative yet inconclusive. Taken together it forces a suspension of belief – the images are without excess information and the lack of logical narratives is utterly compelling. The effect is one of longing: to make sense of the images, to understand what it is that you’re looking at, and what the relationships are between the images and the texts. Despite the order and discipline evident in the construction of the photographs and the design of the book there is an interesting disorder which occurs through the use of the captions. It is as though the artist has laid a trap with Strauß as his accomplice – cause and effect that can never lead to a definitive answer or resolution.

But what then of the German content and the German subject of the photographs? For those unfamiliar with Demand’s works they may be relieved to read the eloquent essay by Mark Godfrey, at the conclusion of the book. Godfrey explains the methods of construction as well as the source materials for the photographs which all reference, in varying ways, elements of German history and events. Raum 1994, for example, is based on an image of the remains of Hitler’s headquarters after a bombing attempt; Zeichensaat 1996 shows the studio of Richard Vorhoelzer, responsible for post-war reconstruction of the architecture of Munich; while Kinderzimmer 2009 is the memory of the artist’s childhood bedroom. (And in Fotoecke 2009 the contextual reference is the story of a prison in Gera, Germany. Years after the closure of the prison, high numbers of leukemia were found in prisoners who had been regularly photographed – it was later revealed that behind the curtain in the photo-corner was an exposed X-ray machine, emitting radiation.) Godfrey alludes to the idea of blurred memories when he argues that the ‘main reason why Demand’s photographs continue to perplex is that we sense immediately that the depicted spaces, for all their seeming banality, are associated with real sites half recognised, vaguely remembered or perhaps unknown, but none the less probably associated with troubled and even horrific narratives.’

Thomas Demand
National Galerie by Thomas Demand published by SteidlMack / www.steidlville.com

Thomas Demand uses both personal and national histories to build his suite of ‘German’ images. Images of the artist’s childhood are given equivalence to images relating to national sites of trauma, such as the headquarters of Hitler. Similarly, pop culture references mix with images of political controversies. The selection does not, therefore, seem to articulate one specific or unified view of national art or culture.  Rather, Demand’s choice of photographs appears subjective, almost autobiographical, relating to scenes and events that have affected or influenced him on a personal level. On the other hand, the leveling of imagery already stripped of obvious referents can be seen as proposing something different: it opens up ideas about collective memories and collective consciousness. Demand seems to be reminding us that certain events are remembered more than others due to their prominence or repetition in the media, so by inserting personal memories into the mix he is questioning what it means (or whether it is even possible) to construct a ‘national autobiography’ in the first place.  In some ways, the very lack of information and the addition of cryptic captions seems more concerned with forgetting the past than with remembering. When looked at sequentially in book form, Demand’s obsessively neat photographs create a sense of simulacrum; of vague semblances that trigger feelings and narratives but which remain indistinct.

Having known many of Thomas Demand’s photographs and their stories from previous publications, I enjoyed the feeling of uncertainty upon picking up this book and looking at the images as if anew in the context of the Strauß captions. A brave act might have been to remove any external information altogether (such as the foreword, prefaces and essay) and use the format of the art book to revel in the confusion, allusion and illusion which is otherwise provoked, so beautifully, by the abstracted images and texts.

Thomas Demand: Nationalgalerie
Captions by Botho Strauß
Essay by Mark Godfrey
Design by Thomas Demand, Michael Mack and Joby Ellis
38 six page gatefolds, with 39 color plates
29.5 cm x 27.7 cm
Clothbound hardcover
steidlMACK
ISBN: 978-3-86521-941-1

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