Thomas Demand: Ostensible Art

Thomas Demand, Control Room (2011), Diasec-mounted C-print, 78-3/4″ x 118″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

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This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Thomas Demand at Matthew Marks Gallery (until June 23).

What do you do with a one-trick pony that specializes in exercises in futility? If you’re the Museum of Modern Art, you honor him with a mid-career retrospective. “A retrospective of what, exactly?” is the question likely to be prompted by the exhibition Thomas Demand.

The young German artist uses a camera to take sizable pictures, but he’s not a photographer; the camera is employed solely as a means of documenting the meticulous constructions Mr. Demand crafts from colored paper and cardboard. What does he construct? Orange peels, a forest, a field of grass, but mostly architectural interiors–anonymous spaces redolent of bureaucracy and, here and there, more intimate environs (a bathtub filled with soapy water, for instance). Mr. Demand gleans most of his subjects from mass-media sources.

Getting things straight, then: Mr. Demand appropriates existing images and makes them into life-size maquettes, which he photographs before destroying; after which he makes a big print of the photo and encases it under a glossy sheet of plexiglass. What’s depressing about this process is how it so consistently thwarts our interest. The elaborate, handmade maquettes must be amazing to see–but Mr. Demand won’t let us see them. The photographs, conversely, aren’t anything to see. (There’s more to being a photographer, after all, than pushing a button.) In point of fact, Mr. Demand doesn’t do anything–he’s too busy divorcing himself from the art he’s ostensibly making.

What we are left with is a brand of nihilism so predigested and cute that you could sell it to Fischer Price at a profit. As for the attendant literature, with its weighty allusions to Nazi Germany, the 2000 American Presidential election and other “fables of democracy,” it’s bullshit, plain and simple, that you couldn’t sell to anyone–except, it appears, to our premier museum of modern art.

© 2005 Mario Naves

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