The connections between aestheticism and surrealism—epitomized, par excellence, by the garish, flamboyant Salvador Dali—have been well-documented, and persevere. But what of the minimalist surrealists? The movement’s offshoot, Dada, is defined by them. And minimalism, to be sure, is far from anti-aesthetic, what with its commitment to the profundity and majesty of materials and surfaces.
Minimalism’s capacity to draw out tenets in both surrealism and aestheticism is, among other things, at the heart of the work of celebrated German artist Thomas Demand. Best known for his paper reconstructions of actual environments, which he then photographs, Demand puts nature, and indeed the human psyche, in service of the pristine built environment and the artist’s dissecting gaze. Life after modernism is, he suggests, as its backdrops are: inorganic, antiseptic and, yet, strangely haunted.
Demand’s recent project as a curator, “La Carte d’Après Nature,” which opened at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco last year and moved, in modified form, to New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery, where it recently closed, heralds a conspicuous achievement in his practice. It is, undoubtedly, part of a contemporary-art trend in which curators manipulate a variety of artists as a film director does actors. With Demand, an artist as well as a curator with experience in architecture and design to boot, the unified intelligence of the project transcends—or, at least, matches—its evident egoisms.
Demand created a space for “La Carte d’Après Nature” that was its own overriding artwork. The exhibition was based on hard-edged, clinical surrealist René Magritte, a visible influence on Demand. Indeed, “La Carte…” (supported in part by the René Magritte Foundation) acted as an effective monument. Three of Magritte’s paintings were in the show: L’Univers Démasqué, Le grand style and Parmi les bosquets légers. Demand designed wallpaper—a theatrical motif of undulating burgundy curtains—as the most appropriate backdrop for them. A vitrine in the gallery’s foyer displayed Magritte’s occasional magazine, published from 1951 to 1965, from which Demand’s title came. The space unfolded like a puzzle or maze, created after a drawing by British artist Martin Boyce, who also contributed coloured-glass windows that became vague peepholes to other parts of the exhibition and that look like stylized renderings of aquamarine beryls.
There was—unsurprisingly, given the title of the show (“La Carte d’Après Nature” means “the map from nature” or “according to nature”)—a list and floor plan available for viewers to take. (Also in keeping with new curatorial trends, there were no wall labels for the works.) The map quickly fractured; paths diverged. Although the show’s rooms were numbered, one had to backtrack through Boyce’s labyrinth in order to experience them in stipulated sequence.
The artists Demand selected—all of whose works contributed to his idea of, as he puts it, “domesticated nature”—hail from various countries and time periods. Domesticated nature, then, transcends circumstance: even, imply the absent labels, the identities of its creators. (Another implication is that conceptualism, despite its declared pluralities and hybridities, is a remarkably assimilating thing.) Quirkily, US architect William Kissiloff’s photographs of and maquette for the Canadian Pulp and Paper Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo 67 was the exhibition’s first work. The multiple pointed, pyramidal tree-shapes of the building’s rooftop are eminently Magrittean and Demandian. Now, its retro qualities emphasize its willful aesthetics. This is a populist view of nature at the hand of man: echoes are multiple, from Versailles topiaries to children’s Playmobil sets.
A big presence in the show was Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri. There were 60 of his Cibachrome prints, primarily views of Italian towns like Parma, Modena and Rimini. These are quietly revelatory. Demand seemed attuned to this, designing special frames for the photos: big white ones, sloping inward at sharp angles as if each image were food on a haute-cuisine dinner plate. The prints’ colours are muted and ethereal, similar to those of Tacita Dean’s 16mm films, two of which appeared in “La Carte….” The green hats of Parma, again topiary-like, summed up Demand’s aims just as well as Magritte’s three paintings.
The cumulative effect of the rest of the works was akin to a hothouse on ice. Chris Garofalo’s glazed porcelain sculptures of plant life, looking equally like sea creatures or geological finds, recall 19th-century natural-history museums. The exhibition might have ended in two spaces, underscoring its own unresolvedness. Indeed, aside from the theme of “domesticated nature,” what, exactly, was Demand saying? That the artist always, intentionally or not, seeks a kind of colonial control over nature? That she or he is necessarily either buoyed by or squeamishly divorced from nature’s entwining of design and disarray? That one can never encounter nature in contemporary life without the theatricality, and thus the safety, of art?
In one of the final rooms were sculptures from Becky Beasley, Plank (VIII) and Head Box, which reduce nature to pure geometric forms, created, sensuously, out of American black walnut veneer. This is classical minimalism, in which raw nature is under sleek, unfussy control. In the ostensibly final room, on the other side of the wall, lay Canadian Rodney Graham’s Phonokinetoscope, a film installation showing him tripping on acid (or simulating same) in Berlin’s Tiergarten. This is classical romantic surrealism, in which the artist succumbs to nature, his overactive imagination, put on par with psychedelics, enlivening and making absurd the landscape surrounding him. What was initially unified in the show, under Demand’s Magrittes, seemed, somehow, to digress here. Encounters with nature in art are myriad; so, despite any number of canny curatorial impositions, is style.