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Reviews / January 8, 2009

Thomas Demand: Mom, Apple Pie and the Oval Office

Thomas Demand Presidency II 2008 © Thomas Demand VG Bild Kunst Bond

Of the many symbols deeply set in the American national psyche—think mom, apple pie, etc.—there is perhaps no better representation of a conflicted sense of history, power, celebrity and mass culture than the seat of the US presidency itself, the Oval Office. From JFK at his desk in Life Magazine to television’s The West Wing to blog speculation over Barack Obama’s decorative tastes (even IKEA is in on the act with its DIY Oval Office website), it is a space defined by the calculated optics of public image yet charged with an enduring aura of myth and mystery.

For German artist Thomas Demand, this manifold popular impression of a singularly famous site—grounded at times in fact, but also, increasingly, in fiction—epitomizes the paradox of mediated truth and constructed cultural memory. At least that’s the sense you get from a suite of five new large-scale photo works by Demand, currently on view at Sprüth Magers in London, depicting various views of the Oval Office. It’s familiar conceptual territory for Demand, whose critically acclaimed work has carefully focused on the arbitrary nature of mass media imagery and what he calls “the spectator’s perception of reality.” Take, for instance, his recent photo series on the embassy of the Republic of Niger in Rome, also known as the evidential “smoking gun” in the “weapons of mass destruction” debacle. Or earlier photo works that revisited sites associated with the 1970s Baader-Meinhof attacks as well as Saddam Hussein’s hideout during the 2003 Iraq invasion.

But subject is only half of the story in Demand’s work. Based on images culled from news archives, magazines, films and television programs, among other readily available sources, Demand meticulously reconstructs his sites with cardboard and paper as elaborate life-sized sculptural replicas which he photographs then destroys. So what at first appears to be the Oval Office in these photos is in fact a hybrid interpretation of reality. Demand does offer some clues to his conceptual conceit by removing specific details—a blank notepad on the presidential desk, faceless family photographs, stars missing from the Stars and Stripes—but the overall effect of this layering of fact and fiction is complete in its critically pointed deception. It’s all a lie, but nothing could be closer to the truth. (7a Grafton St, London UK)

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Senior Editor at Canadian Art.