This autumn M will present a retrospective exhibition of the work of German artist Thomas Demand (1964). Demand is a trained sculptor but became known mainly for his ‘models’: models made of coloured paper or cardboard, often based on existing visual material, which he then photographed and destroyed. The photographic representation itself, rather than the model, becomes the work of art. This makes his oeuvre a clever commentary on our visual culture, which is as layered as it is fleeting.
Photography creates reality. That is the core of my artistic practice. Thomas Demand
The exhibition at M pays a great deal of attention to architecture: a domain in which models of all sorts play an important role, and with which Demand has a complex relationship. In conversation with M, he provides text and explanation. But to begin with:
How does one arrive at the idea of building models, photographing them, and then destroying them again?
Thomas Demand: “It’s like this. I am trained as a sculptor. So, as a student I wanted to make sculptures, but I didn’t feel like stuffing my little apartment full of sculptures in bubble wrap. So I thought: I’m going to make sculptures out of paper. I can throw them away afterwards – and if I ever get a chance to exhibit them, I’ll take a look at the photos and just make them again. That’s how it started. And over the years I’ve developed that idea further.”
“I made these paper sculptures just like a sculptor would: I took into account the form, the properties of the material, the proportions … But because these sculptures represented objects we all know, they also played with the memory we have of these objects. What’s more, we also have memories of images – just look at how many photo and film images you have in your memory. And these in turn influence who we are and how we communicate, what we believe and what we don’t … Photography is a lot more complex than you might think at first glance.”
“We talk a lot about fake news these days, but fake news has always been part of photography. That’s what you do when you’re looking for the best shot: you manipulate the reality you see through your lens. I’ve taken this idea to the extreme by reconstructing images that bear witness to important events in recent history.”
“Then I took it a step further and started constructing unknown realities. In M, for example, ‘Embassy’ will be shown. That work shows a place that played a central role in the American invasion of Iraq, but of which there are no photographs: the embassy of Niger in Rome. Stationery had been stolen from that embassy, which was then used to recreate ‘official’ contracts. These contracts supposedly related to the smuggling of uranium ore from Niger to Iraq, with which Saddam Hussein could then supposedly make an atomic bomb. And the Americans used that pretext to invade Iraq – an event that changed the world.”
“That is the core of my artistic practice: photography creates reality, instead of just recording it.”
An important part of your exhibition at M are your ‘Model Studies’. What exactly are they?
“I already said that I had found a way to view images differently, to deconstruct them. Then I wondered what would happen if, instead of working with self-built models, I started to work with models others had made. I started with John Lautner, and after that I started working with SAANA (Sejima And Nishizawa And Associates), an award-winning architectural firm, Hans Hollein, Gio Ponti and most recently Azzedine Alaïa. Their models are much more abstract. They often show projects that have not been realized, or at least not in that form. They are possibilities, versions, abstractions.
In this list of names, the emphasis is on architecture: Lautner, Hollein and Ponti were renowned architects, and SANAA. Why exactly did you photograph their work for ‘Model Studies’?
“So, I started with John Lautner. Only twelve of his models have survived, and most of them are in the Getty Research Center, where I was a fellow in 2013. Lautner usually threw everything away when he had completed a project: in other words, those twelve models were never built.”
“I have always been interested in working models – more so than in the neatly finished models that the architect shows to the client, because there the design is already more or less fixed and the focus is on the formal elements. I like more the rough, working instrument that’s been handled, that they’ve been working with in the architect’s office, where they’ve tried out and shot down ideas, that they’ve changed and changed again, that was never meant to be realised in that form. The models I’ve made myself have no biography, no life story, but those working models do: they embody a moment in time, they show how you can think with your hands. That is what interests me.”
With a model we often think of a miniature version of reality. How does your idea of models relate to this?
“The whole idea of a model as a miniature version of something else I find … trivial. Because it creates an illusion of control: think of all the pictures of politicians proudly posing next to a model for some big new project. Models are much, much more than that. So many things are based on them, from the weather forecast in the news to the pension fund to which you contribute every month. You have statistical models, physical, medical, monetary, political – just think of electoral models … Models give us a filtered version of the world, because the world itself is far too complex to take in unfiltered – it would drive us crazy! Models have power. The models you’re talking about are just a very small niche. Models are navigation tools: we need them to guide us through life.”
In M you will also see works for which you have worked with architects yourself. How did those collaborations come about?
“Architects appreciated my work for years before I became aware of it. I’m sure there are several reasons for this, but I think it’s mainly because I create spaces with a certain character, with a narrative and iconic quality that architects strive for. I even heard that architects I’d never heard of referred to my work in invitations to tender without me knowing it or included design sketches in their files that looked very much like my work. They sometimes say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I found that somewhat exaggerated (laughs). But after a while this led to collaborations. On the one hand I work a lot with architecture in my exhibitions; on the other hand, I was asked more and more to develop my ideas into real architectural projects.”
“That is the core of the M exhibition: it is about my work and architecture, and about the interaction between the two. There are several artists who work with architecture, but not many who approach it the way I do. I thought it would be interesting to show how these two domains can overlap.”
“The exhibition has been maturing for twenty years. We can’t even show some of the works I made during that time – such as the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, a project by OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, in which I had a small contribution. Or, more recently, the design for KANAL, the museum in the old Citroën garage in Brussels. I had participated with 51N4E and Caruso St John, but our entry did not make it. Too bad, I was looking forward to becoming a museum director (laughs).”
What can people expect from the exhibition at M? For example, are there pieces that will be on view for the first time?
“Some pieces are not new, but are shown in a completely new context. Such as ‘Nagelhaus’, a controversial project in Zurich for which I worked with Caruso St John, but which was never completed. Or ‘Black Label’, my project for an exhibition space in Japan that probably no one in Europe has seen yet. Certainly not in combination with ‘Untitled (Thomas Demands Here)’, the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija that is based on ‘Black Label’, and that will also be shown in M.”
“But most of what you will see is new. For example, I am thinking of the series around the block patterns used by Azzedine Alaïa – a wonderful, unique fashion designer – to make his toiles. We’re also unveiling three pavilions I designed, which are currently under construction in Denmark. It’s the first time that the ‘Model Studies’ for that project will be exhibited together. For a photo exhibition, the expo is very three-dimensional, very immersive.”
“What’s more, it’s not a classic solo exhibition. I’ve invited several other artists – I already mentioned Rirkrit Tiravanija and Caruso St John, but I’m also thinking of the sculptor Martin Boyce, the architect Arno Brandlhuber … All these worlds will enter into dialogue with each other in M. I’m looking forward to it.”