National Gallery of Victoria, 30 November 2012 to 17 March 2013
Representations of representations. Photos of sculptures. Thomas Demand produces incredible images, beautifully presented as prints on perspex. Famously, he makes models of objects, of entire scenes in fact, out of cardboard and paper and then photographs them. The skill in the making, coupled with the skill of the photography, results in highly realistic scenes that can fool you into thinking you’re looking at a photo of an actual bathroom, science lab or sweep of lawn. Something nags at you until the penny drops though and you realise that these are paper models. That moment of shift is only a tiny fraction of the joy of his work. Of course, once you know that about the images, the effect is expected at each new encounter. And while it continues to register as an effect, there’s got to be more to keep you engaged. And more there is.
Thomas Demand, Copyshop (1999)
Demand shoots his images of spaces – whether a section of a Parliamentary chamber, a photocopy room or a cheese-maker’s workshop – predominantly from a diagonal angle, which activates a sense of dynamism and enhances the feeling of documentation of an actual location. His scenes are devoid of human presence and register as places of quiet stillness. But these places evoke the ghostly presence of the recently absent. There are hints of occupation – an opened copy machine lid with pad and pencil, a pushed back chair, a filled bath. And this all echoes the invisible hand of the artist’s inventive creation of those spaces in the first place. The puppet-master lurks silently behind everything, emerging only momentarily with the glimpse of a wire armature on a tree branch or a slightly less-than-solid machine side panel. The hand of the artist is ever present and yet buried in illusion.
It’s at this point that I’m reminded of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of market economics. Which confronts me again with full force, from a different angle, when viewing Bullion (2003). A pile of gold bullion is nothing but folded gold paper in this smaller work. And a pile of folded paper can be something akin to a pile of gold bullion in the conversion exchange of the global financial market. Furthermore, art can be a conversion to both paper money and gold bullion in the bureau de change of the international art market. Is it all illusion in the end? Which material outcome is dominant in this slip-slide transition from form to meaning to form?
The absence of living things in the work doesn’t strip the work of life. In fact, it feels charged in a way that is not expected from seeing the works in reproduction online or in magazines. Perhaps it is the scale of the works themselves, large enough to feel that you could almost step into the scenes. Perhaps it is the manner in which they are printed onto perspex, with its semi-gloss/semi-translucent surfacing. Perhaps it is that sense of recent occupation created by the positioning of objects. Enlivening, in an all together more apparent way, is the three video pieces in the middle section of the exhibition. The first work, Regen (2008), is an animation of falling rain on a concrete-like surface. Sound accompanies the video and amplifies a sense of immersion. Simple but highly captivating, Demand very astutely represents the falling raindrops, with splashes appearing randomly and without apparent pattern, evocatively replicating the mesmerising and hypnotic effect that comes from staring at the chaos of nature, as into the flames of a fire.
In Pacific Sun (2012) a powerful work reproduces the effect of a ship’s cafeteria being tossed about in hazardous seas. Chairs and tables, cash registers and cupboards, are dragged from one side of the room to the other with the force of gravity. The camera holds still, as if a recording from a CCTV from on high, and while the room stands still, the contents are strewn. It’s impossible not to feel the tug of gravity on your own central nervous system. And all the while, in a third video projection set high above you, on the opposite wall to Pacific Sun, an animation of a CCTV camera sweeping back and forth plays on loop. It’s clear, as we well know by now, that this is a sequence of photographs of a sculpture made of paper. And yet, the feeling of watching the object that watches, and actually of being watched still registers somewhere in your gut.
Thomas Demand, Camera (2007), still
There’s a dominance of institutional scenes in the show but Demand has turned his hand to replications of nature as well. In fact, the first main image you see is of a forest canopy, Lichtung (2003), striking in its use of light as a material presence on par with the paper of the objects. Another work, Grotte (2006), is of a large cave, complete with stalagmites and stalactites. The layering of the cardboard used to build up the rock formations giving the work a pixelated feel. Where some institutional scenes raise issues around models of models (Parliament as model microcosm of society, acoustic studio as model of engineering outcomes, science lab as model of empirical testing), these natural scenes raise the same provocations from a different angle – as models of idyllic locales normally only received in imagery from nature documentaries.
This show partners wonderfully with the exhibition of Jeff Wall’s photography at the NGV Ian Potter. In fact, your ticket to either show includes admission to the other, and it’s well worth seeing both. And not just because they’re interesting shows in their own right, but because there is a variety of relationships that run between the shows as well. These are powerhouse artists dealing with an interest in human labour and in our relationship to the spaces we build and occupy. Wonderful stuff and a testament to photography’s power as an artform.