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Notes on Demand: A Curator’s Diary

DHC/ART Foundation, Montreal January 18 to May 13, 2013

This Friday, the DHC/ART Foundation in Montreal opens an exhibition by German artist Thomas Demand, who is renowned internationally for his carefully constructed photographs. Produced in collaboration with the Des Moines Art Center and accompanied by a bilingual catalogue featuring essays by Michael Fried and Bruce Sterling, “Thomas Demand: Animations” explores a relatively new territory for Demand—the moving image. Fried and Demand will hold a free public discussion at the PHI Centre tomorrow night, and in the lead-up to the show, Canadian Art asked DHC/ART curator John Zeppetelli to track his thinking on the development of the exhibition. The result is a diary, reproduced below, that locates the seeds of a curatorial endeavour and touches upon an exciting new oeuvre by a major artist.

 

In his recent book Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt asks insistently, and with a deceptive insouciance, the most sublime, psychosis-inducing and far-reaching of questions, one that scrubs the brain clean of all frivolity. A question that, despite its rhetorical and epigrammatic neatness, can, in the words of physicist Bernard Lovell, “tear the individual’s mind asunder.” That question is: why is there something rather than nothing?

I’m disturbed and enchanted by its ominous existential compression, its forceful and undeniable accuracy, its numinous intimations and poetic finality. Can our messy, confusing, imperfect something, whatever that might be—the universe, a house, our bodies, my consciousness, a cup of coffee, a magazine in your hands—be a “mere interlude between two nothings”?

In many ways, this encapsulates my response to Thomas Demand’s photographs and films. His singular and enduring strategy, which interlaces photography, sculpture and architecture, is to begin with some significant image culled from the media stream (a fleeting, transient, ephemeral nothing) and then painstakingly recreate it by hand in paper and cardboard (the interlude: a definite something), only to end up with the final photograph (the other nothing). The three-dimensional sculpture, or the set, is invariably destroyed after the photograph is taken.

The book I most want to read right now is Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal. I love The Invention of Solitude, an early memoir written after Auster’s father’s death and about his very complicated relationship with this mostly absent figure, and his deeply affecting Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, about his struggles as a writer. I love the grace and apparent simplicity of most of his novels, and the way he can imbue the everyday with such a strange potency. As someone devising and organizing exhibitions, I want fiction and writing to nurture my work, and I want to build a show like a narrative in some way: an itinerary with vivid characters, an engaging plot, an account of lived experience and all the seductions and pleasures of language. Or, as is the case with Auster, stories within stories, dotted with startling glimpses of beauty or at least the splendour of a momentary illusion of truth.

I think Demand is an acutely philosophical commentator on our image-saturated culture. Inspired by media depictions of political, social or domestic situations, usually loaded with backstory—with meanings and narratives—and often drawn from newspapers or the Internet, he produces works that lure the viewer into a reality that is not what it appears to be. But he does other things, too. Demand is the artist I’m working on next, and someone I’ve been courting for a long time—I hope we’ll open a show of his this January.

As I mentioned (and it’s worth repeating), Demand, on occasion aided by a team of assistants, laboriously fabricates and reconstructs, in coloured paper and cardboard, full-size replicas of images of usually newsworthy events, both epic and small. Sometimes taking weeks to complete, the sculptural models are carefully lit, then ultimately photographed. The resulting final images—photographs of paper sculptures based on newspaper images or video footage—retain tiny imperfections, while most of the detail is eliminated, and all human presence is excised. Making sculptures in the image of an image results in uncanny photographic or filmic works triply removed from reality. Buddhism also teaches that life is an illusion.

 

Winter Journal: such a good and guilty detour. I’m always impressed by the richness and passion held within a person, how our sometimes ferocious and uncontainable loves can overwhelm and define us—and how this is given form by capable writers such as Auster. He writes this memoir in the second person, “you,” somewhat aggressively addressing both the reader and himself—a necessary distance for a conversation with oneself. This modernist device recalls Arthur Rimbaud’s observation of 1871, Je est un autre (I is another), an objectification of the self under examination. It works.

Winter Journal is beautiful and touching, an unusual compendium of scars, wounds, sexual misadventures, panic attacks and the settling of scores. Both a lament for and an appreciation of his late mother, the book is also very poignantly a love letter to Auster’s wife, writer Siri Hustvedt. He describes a drive back home to New York from Connecticut and how a bursting bladder and momentary lapse in judgment conspired to cause him to turn prematurely left into oncoming traffic—a horrifying crash ensues. Inside the car are the two people he loves most: his teenage daughter is asleep in the back, but in the passenger seat, it’s his wife (she of the exquisitely long neck) who bears the brunt of the impact: “thunderous, convulsive, cataclysmic—an explosion loud enough to end the world.”

I should find an image of Auster’s wrecked car. Demand could make a work from this; it would be a laboriously mangled piece, without the people, of course, who miraculously survive. Or perhaps he would prefer instead an image of the car before the accident. In any case, Demand’s strangely unpopulated photographs and films, full of architectural anomie and disquiet, are often imbued with the distant memory of violence or calamity. Recognizable yet out of reach, they act as screens for mental projection and distortion. His work brilliantly complicates the already vexed questions and debates around representation and simulacra—about images supplanting the so-called reality to which they are indexically linked, effectively eliminating the distinction between reality and representation. This theme, of the supremacy of the image, found a fascinating expression in Demand’s large, mid-career retrospective exhibition at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie in 2009, punningly titled “Nationalgalerie,” which examined, from a variety of perspectives, the German postwar period. Demand’s work usually concerns itself with pivotal moments in history and reconstructing an artificial representation to be reimagined and “remembered.”

A sizable section of Auster’s book is devoted to listing and describing all the addresses at which he has ever lived. After divorcing his first wife, he lived for a while in the walled-in world of a predominantly Italian neighbourhood in Brooklyn called Carroll Gardens. His renderings of suspicious looks from distrustful neighbours and brushes with casual racism and violent vigilante justice directed against visible outsiders or thieves are particularly distressing to read. I lived in this same neighbourhood with my own very young family some years after he did. My discomfort arises not from Auster’s possible crypto-bigotry or gross misrepresentation of a community—after all, he writes openly about the murder of his grandfather at the hands of his own grandmother—but from his icy accuracy and my mild shock of recognition. Suffice it to say, this area of Brooklyn is reputed to be the “safest” neighbourhood in all of New York City.

It’s very significant to me that Demand’s sets are destroyed after the photograph or film is produced, but also significant that he takes the time to restage images in model form by hand, and to animate the films as he does with subtle alterations to the sets, thereby wilfully shaping and slowing down the endless flux and cheap sensationalism of media imagery and information. Michael Fried calls these works “allegories of intention.” The large-format photos are the end result of a circuitous movement beginning with a media image (or video footage) depicting a known scene of political intrigue or other malfeasance, which is taken through to a painstakingly rendered sculpture, then re-emerges as the same, yet not-quite-the-same, photograph. Photography’s long-debated truth claims as well as its status as the ultimate purveyor of a certain indexicality are crucial to the context here. In light of this, Demand’s whole project seems to me a profoundly moving, melancholy and also very hopeful cultural gesture.

 

I’m procrastinating. Again. Falling down endless rabbit holes. Now I’m watching a YouTube video of Tina Brown interviewing Philip Roth, and she’s asking him how much rewriting he does. She calls that first rush of writing the vomit draft; he likes the expression, as do I, and says there are several vomit drafts and then many rewritings. I learn from this interview that he writes standing up at some sort of lectern—can this be possible? I think Demand might consider making a photograph of the lectern and the surrounding apartment, but without the writer. He might just call it Writing Desk.

Using the same technique as the pictures, insisting on the same conceptual chain reaction—especially the emphasis on the status of the image—Demand’s films consist of hundreds or sometimes thousands of individual photographs of the constructed scenes, where subtle frame-by-frame alterations to the paper sculptures impart the effect of motion. The clips are then looped to play in an endless cycle of repetition. The latest of these, and the centerpiece of the DHC/ART exhibition (focused mainly on the films), is the staggering Pacific Sun (2012). Drawn from a YouTube clip of a closed-circuit camera on a cruise ship caught in a violent storm in the South Pacific, it’s easily Demand’s most ambitious project to date. Recreating the panicked scene at the boat’s bar, he restages the dramatic original footage, which shows chairs, tables and people seesawing from one side of the room to the other. Demand’s film omits the people, but meticulously recreates all other movements of this near-disaster.

Consider the hundreds of objects (of varying density, shape and heft) engaged in complex movements that have to be carefully choreographed, frame by frame, to render the seamless effect of careening motion as a boat is repeatedly struck by colossal waves. Originally intended as something closer to slapstick, Pacific Sun has acquired a more sombre resonance, as it is inevitably linked to the recent Japanese tsunami and also that weird shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in Italy (the cruise ship was the set of Jean-Luc Godard’s baffling and sumptuous 2010 Film socialisme). During its premiere at an exhibition in New York, Pacific Sun was shown alongside the marked artifice of Demand’s Control Room (2011), an image of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. Disaster at sea pervaded the gallery.

The DHC/ART exhibition also includes Rain/Regen (2008), a wonderful film that recreates, with graceful precision, the pitter-patter of rain falling on a hard surface. Filmed through several layers of glass, the raindrops splash on a concrete floor in a grey monochrome of seemingly exquisite simplicity. Delightfully conveyed by candy wrappers appearing for exactly three frames each, the thousands of tiny raindrop splashes dancing across the screen constitute another choreographic tour de force. Rolltreppe/Escalator (2000) also provokes the disoriented and ultimately (in the larger constellation of meanings and readings) unimportant “How the hell was that done?” response. It recreates a desolate scene from surveillance footage that shows an empty London escalator, near Charing Cross Bridge, shortly after a gang robbed two men and threw them into the Thames, killing one of them. Remember, the thing is moving: one of the escalators is going up and the other is going down—and it’s made of paper.

 

The original form of this article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.


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