Gate, 2004, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)
I can recall when I first encountered the work of Thomas Demand; it was this image, featured at the beginning of the book Image Makers, Image Takers by Anne-Celine Jaeger. Like, I’m sure, many others who see it for the first time, I thought it was a photograph of an airport security gate. Then one looks closely and it doesn’t feel right. We begin to realise that it is something very different – a photograph of a model of an airport security gate, a model constructed life-size, by Thomas Demand, from a still from a CCTV camera. The image was made not too long after 9/11 and the model was constructed from cardboard and paper – ‘realistic’ and yet not so, missing the little details that would finally convince the eye that it was ‘real’. That’s what unsettles the viewer; what makes us start to ‘question’. Demand photographs the model, carefully lighting it to mimic the original photograph; and then he destroys the model. It is the photographic image that is the work of art, not the model. (Worth mentioning, though, that Demand started out as a sculptor; and that when he chose to learn Photography, he did so with Bernd and Hilla Becher. He resists the description ‘photographer’ and, so far as it matters, I suppose one should call him an artist who uses photography, rather than a photographer.)
I have been drawn back to Demand, partly, at the recommendation of Peter H, my Contextual Studies tutor – not that I’d forgotten him but I hadn’t made as strong a connection with my own BoW as I might have done. The words ‘construction’ or ‘constructedness’ have cropped up more than once in my Level Three studies – the title of the Foam Magazine edition #38 from Spring this year – Under Construction – in which many of the contemporary photographic artists from whom I’ve drawn inspiration and context were featured. My own reference to some of the Textbook series images as ‘constructs’. It would, I think, be fair to describe Demand’s images as ‘constructed’. But what are they? How do we understand what he’s doing and why?
The process generally seems to start (as well as end) with a photographic image. Other examples include Saddam Hussein’s kitchen, an office in Hitler’s HQ after the failed attempt on his life in 1944, Engelbert Humperdinck’s display of his best-selling records, the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed, the barn where Jackson Pollock was photographed making one of his paintings, and so on – a decidedly eclectic collection of starting points. In this interview, Demand explains that if he knew what it was about certain images that strike him, he would stop! He doesn’t know what it is. Clearly, there could be a political angle in our interpretation of some of the subject matter above. In the same interview, he more or less denies it – or at least he says that any such connection is indirect and he would be careful about making too much of it. I think he is acknowledging that others might understandably read the work that way, but he doesn’t see it as art’s role to give an answer.
And so, back to the question of what he is actually doing and what its significance might be. Here I head back to another book that I originally read some time ago – Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried. Here, Fried devotes most of one chapter to Demand, and a comparison with two others from the ‘Becher school’ – Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer. He relates Demand’s images to the concepts of ‘theatricality’ and ‘antitheatricality’ – originally associated with Diderot but used by Fried, earlier, in his essay Art and Objecthood, published back in 1967, in which he defined Minimalist art as ‘theatrical’. I certainly don’t have the time and space here to get into the detail but, as I understand it, Diderot argued that Painters should seek to create work in which the ‘beholder’ does not get any sense that what he/she sees has been staged for them. Otherwise the work is merely ‘theatrical’. Fried’s 1967 essay laid this description on Minimalist Art. However, what interests me here is that he also uses the concept – and its opposite ‘antitheatricality’ to analyse Demand.
Fried argues that Demand’s images demonstrate “sheer artistic intention”, leaving the viewer no space other than to register their “madeness” (not a typo, by the way; though there could be some who would say madness!). The ‘photograph’, having frequently been defined as ‘weak on intention’ is exploited by Demand to ‘represent’ or ‘allegorise’ intendedness. This is complex; the reference to photography’s weakness on intention can be linked with Barthes’ ‘punctum’. Barthes seems to identify the punctum as something that is outside the photographer’s intention – Fried (in another essay, 2005 – Barthes’s Punctum) uses the example of the dusty road in a Kertész photo of a violinist that is featured in Camera Lucida. The photographer cannot avoid including it (possibly debateable today, but that’s of no consequence here) yet it is the feature that evokes Barthes’ travels in Hungary and Rumania – the punctum. Fried also mentions Lee Friedlander’s declaration that photography is a “generous medium”, for all the things that it includes in an image that he did not choose to put there. So, returning to Demand, Fried is arguing that he exploits this weakness in the sense that he is making photographic images that are “sheer artistic intention” – and it is this intendedness/intentionality that makes them matter as art. He uses two more Demand images to further develop the argument.
Poll, 2001, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)
In Poll, Demand is working from a photograph of the process of determining voter intentions in the US Presidential Election – the famous ‘hanging chads’. But, in Demand’s version, the ballot papers are pristine, devoid of detail like everything else; so being “the bearers of no intention other than the artist’s own”.
Sink, 1997, Thomas Demand (reproduced with the kind permission of the artist and The Design and Artists Copyright Society)
Fried looks at the circumstances surrounding the making of Sink. Demand thought of making a model of his own sink but realised that he could not avoid arranging items in it knowingly. So he telephoned a friend and asked if they would take a photograph of their sink. Circumventing his own sink, Fried says, put the emphasis squarely on conscious process.
So now I am prompted to consider if/how this is relevant to my own Body of Work. The ‘constructs’ from the Textbook project seem like the obvious place to start. I have referred to them as being devoid of meaning but seductive (a word Demand uses about models in another interview), tempting a viewer to look for meaning. I suppose the same could be said of Thomas Demand – the only reading, in the end, might be that someone has made a model and photographed it. We search for signs of ‘reality’ but all traces have been removed, leaving an image about itself. Interestingly, Demand also, apparently, leaves small traces of his construction work, which can be found in the detail of the image. So, the only ‘reward’ for looking in detail is confirmation of his intent. Perhaps the tentative links back to the old textbook are my equivalent of Demand’s ‘link’ to an original image. But the link is broken – my appropriation of the ‘outmoded’ signifiers – so what is left signifies nothing other than that I made it.
I suppose that, if the Portraits look like a performance for the viewer, then they will be ‘theatrical’. And, when viewed by people who know me, they could be entertaining. And, when I combine them with text that tells the back story in a light-hearted manner, the result could be entertainment, too. But I have been striving to make them capable of ‘working’ as ‘straight’ photographs – that would be read as signifying a ‘real’ identity if seen in isolation. However, viewed ‘straight’, as a series, by someone who doesn’t know me or anything about me, their individual (indexical?) links with reality are devalued. At that stage, I guess, they demonstrate nothing other than that they have been made.
And then I reflect that it is not up to me to find answers to such questions! Context – be it theoretical or in the works of other artists – may inform and even inspire the work I produce. It is useful, essential perhaps, to be able to talk about one’s work in a context and to see what kind of questions it might raise. But it is not up to the Body of Work to supply answers. My Portraits (Self-portraits? Or whatever they are?) express something about my response to some aspects of life, my life, the world I encounter. If they are any good, others will look at them and see something that is of interest to them, relevant to them in some way. If they were really good, someone might choose to analyse them and write about them. In a fantasy world where they came into the consciousness of Michael Fried (!), he might choose to consider whether they are ‘theatrical’ or ‘antitheatrical’! And no doubt that question might hover around in the back of my own mind … maybe even influence, to a slight extent, the way my mind is working when I set up the next one and stand in front of the camera. But, in the end, the work will be the work … no answers, but hopefully a few interesting questions.