Thomas Demand is in the paradoxical position of being a sculptor whose completed work takes a photographic form. Perhaps more accurately, he is an artist who negotiates the territory between the three-dimensionality of the world of objects and the flatness of pictorial reproduction. Emerging on the contemporary international art scene in the mid-1990s, Demand has developed a uniquely hybrid artistic method in which he painstakingly reconstructs images culled from our culture’s vast photographic archive, replicating them in his studio as life-size sculptural tableaux that he constructs out of paper and cardboard. These exceptionally precarious and meticulously lit structures act “as stage sets, existing in the artist’s studio only long enough to be captured on film by his camera, after which they are destroyed, living on only in the two-dimensional mnemonic half-life of his large-scale color photographic prints.
At first glance, these works appear to be hyperreal depictions of the banal architectural spaces that we inhabit in our day-to-day lives. We are confronted with a vacant staircase in an institutional setting, a generic hallway in an anonymous apartment building, or a ransacked office. Upon closer inspection, however, these images become visually unstable as the seams holding together their carefully constructed worlds begin to show. This instability is initially the product of the deliberately handmade look of Demand’s re-creations. Yet there is also an underlying psychological unease in these photographs, an uncanniness that emanates as much from the ambiguous content of the work, which rests just beyond the threshold of apprehension, as it does from its not quite trompe l’oeil means of production. As it turns out, these scenarios are based on found photographs of culturally significant, if unnotable, sites: the storage shelves of Leni Riefenstahl’s film archive in Archive (1995); the hallway outside serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment in Corridor (1996); or the room where L. Ron Hubbard wrote his manifesto of Scientology in Room (1996). Each of these subjects is psychologically loaded, yet completely devoid of any visual clues as to their significance and of any traces of human presence. Demand himself offers very little in the way of an interpretative foothold for the viewer—his deadpan, generic titles are as mute as the blank paper surfaces of his sculptural constructs.
This inscrutability is similarly at work in Barn (1997), in which Demand presents us with a haunting reconstruction of a darkened, rustic architectural interior. Deriving its only sources of light from two windows and the gaps between the boards making up its walls, this barn takes on a somewhat menacing aspect that is only amplified by the claustrophobic perspective of the image. Was this the scene of some horrible crime? The site of some literal (dis)embodiment of an American gothic? It is hard not to project our own obsessions into the blankness of Demand’s spaces as they reach out to us on both a psychological and a physical level. As it turns out, however, this image is modeled on a photograph of Jackson Pollock’s last painting studio on Long Island, which in itself triggers another chain of associations, along the path of photography’s relationship to painting, modernism, Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock, and so on. In the end, all of Demand’s images have been resurrected from a state of obscurity in the flow of history and the media’s news cycles, and respirate between a state of denotative solidity and decay, frozen in time by his lens, yet precariously captured just before their collapse into a chain of multiple associations.