Thomas Demand @Matthew Marks

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 photographic/video works, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white/wallpapered walls in two connected gallery spaces. 4 of the photographic works are dye transfer prints, made in 2017. Each is sized roughly 27×22 inches and is available in editions of 6. 3 other photographs are c-prints mounted on Diasec, made in 2016 or 2017. These are sized between roughly 71×119 to 87×118 inches, and are also available in editions of 6.

The show also includes 2 videos and a background of wallpaper. The animation videos are in color and have stereo sound, in durations of 5 minutes and 7 minutes 47 seconds respectively. They were made in 2016 and 2018. The wallpaper that fills the front room is a UV print on nonwoven wallpaper (dimensions variable), from 2017. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When thinking about the work of the German photographer Thomas Demand, it’s only natural that we often gravitate to platitudes about his unusual construction process. After all, his painstaking paper reconstructions, moving from original image to paper and back again to final rephotographed image, are so meticulously crafted, the physical details so obviously perfect, that it’s hard not to stand back in awe of his abilities (and his determination) as a builder. And when we consider his work along these lines, the logical conclusion is that Demand must be an antiseptic control freak, his rigor overwhelming everything else we might draw from his photographs. An adjacent response moves directly from the paper construction to the conceptual part of Demand’s approach, the cooly analytical pictures-about-pictures inwardness of his perspective seeming to match the persnickety strictness of his reconstructions. For some, Demand represents the very driest of dry in contemporary photography.

Demand’s newest show can, of course, be examined using these same vectors. But what struck me about this new batch of pictures is how he is thinking about image mediation, or more broadly, about how we see and process the world around us. Several of the works on view continue his series of “Dailies”, where Demand takes seemingly ordinary images with his iPhone and then subjects them to his usual paper reinterpretation. The four photographs from this body of work document entirely forgettable subjects: an electrical box, a red ribbon on a fence, an exit sign above a doorway, and the cracks in a cushion near some vertical blinds. The front room of the exhibit (where the “Dailies” are installed) is also covered with floor-to-ceiling wallpaper designed by Demand, depicting an endless array of metal lockers.

What I felt for the first time with Demand was that he is doing just what we all do – he is wandering through the world, and when something catches his eye, he is improvisationally pulling his iPhone out of his pocket and taking a picture of that thing, or moment, or arrangement of shapes, with an awareness of how the eye of camera will flatten and transform that view. But when he gets back to his studio, he is rebuilding those images in paper, and in effect, seeing them all over again. The inherent slowness of his process, and the accompanying paring down that occurs as the construction takes place, reduces whatever he has seen to its essence, stripping out tiny imperfections and streamlining it into something he can embrace physically. The heightened attentiveness is what I felt strongly – and the systematic and patient thinking that must have taken place to get the cast of light or the depth of shadow just right to look plausibly real. He is breaking down a photograph into its component forms and details, in a sense tearing it down into abstraction, only to rebuild it back into representation, the byproducts of the visual mistranslation becoming the subject itself. He is showing us his own version of what seeing is.

Demand then extends this idea to short snippet videos, which mimic the look and feel of quick grab iPhone videos, but are actually executed using stop motion techniques. We watch the ordinariness of a walk/don’t walk traffic signal switching back and forth and a cluster of unattended balloons wandering across a paved patio, with the appropriate noises piped into the background, feeling the sense of authentic reality but seeing the mediated visual reconstruction. The movement and time-based change in these works makes the seeing process more fluid, and there are more visual and audio stimuli to process, but when we stop to think what Demand needed to do to create these works, the number of individual states must have been extremely large, especially in the case where the point of view of the camera moves slightly. So again, Demand has made something easy into something hard, forcing us to look at something mundane with much more conscious attention.

The larger scenes in the back room are a slightly different kind of mediation, in that the source images were drawn from external news sites rather than taken by Demand himself. Especially when the content has a political edge, we have Demand reinterpreting someone else’s vision instead of his own, so there is a two-layer process of image construction going on. In his picture of a Bavarian violin workshop, the complexity of the scene is so cluttered and dense that it’s hard not to get lost in the astonishing details. While it certainly has the reflexive quality of one accomplished craftsman honoring the traditions of another, it ultimately settles into a more gee-whiz decorative mode. His image of the ruins of an apartment in Gaza, the room filled with rubble and broken furniture, has more drawn-from-the-headlines punch, and the pared-down artistic reinterpretation of personal destruction feels richer and more thoughtful, as if Demand had been forced to dig around in the broken concrete with his bare hands.

The 2016 image Tent provides an intriguing opportunity for comparison. The source image was drawn from stories documenting a reintegration camp for former Somali al-Shabab militants, the process organized to help them more successfully leave behind radicalism and reenter society. One article ran in the BBC (here, image uncredited, shown above), with an accompanying image of the interior of one of the tents used to house the participants. Demand’s work recreates this glowing interior scene, but makes many subtle changes, from removing clothes hung over the bunk railings to eliminating one set of bunks altogether to improve the organization of the frame. Demand’s visual interpretation is lonelier, and as a result more powerful, the dark forms of the bunks more stark and empty than in real life. And conceptually, the image smartly doubles back on itself, with Demand reinterpreting an image of a place where people are reinterpreting themselves. With this before and after pairing as a backdrop, the intelligence and subtlety being employed by Demand in these kinds of recreations is even more evident.

In both sets of works, Demand is actively engaging with the endless circulation of imagery that now surrounds us, whether it be images we take ourselves on our smartphones or those that find their way to our eyes from the far corners of the Internet. He has responded to that instantaneous speed with conscious artistic slowness, forcing himself to invest significant time and effort in each recreated photograph, and resulting in reinterpretations that are measured and deliberate. In effect, he’s using a return to slowness as a way to fight the onslaught of stimuli, turing split-seconds into extended meditations and bringing physical touch back to mechanistic vision.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The dye transfer prints are €35000 each, while the larger c-prints are either €180000 or €200000. Demand’s work is generally available in the secondary markets. Recent prices have ranged between $15000 and $415000 for the works in small editions (3, 5, or 6), while works from larger editions (100) have typically found buyers between $1000 and $5000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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