Thomas Demand’s photographs are pictures of absence—they are intricate mysteries that pose questions about the things that are not apparent in the work. Demand doles out information in small portions and he provides few clues or referents that allow for simple readings of his prosaic images. His non-specific titles— Barn, Model, Terrace—provide little help in unraveling the meaning of his work. Yet, each image refers to a highly specific and psychologically charged location: Corridor is based on the hallway leading to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment. Like Corridor, Demand’s photographs refer to absent protagonists, the now-empty (and rather ordinary) settings they once inhabited, and the often times tangled events that occurred within these places.
Although Demand bases his works on actual places, his photographs are recreations of these settings made almost exclusively from paper and cardboard. This is not always immediately apparent, but, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes evident that details are missing, elements are approximated, and, perhaps above all, everything has a hint of peculiarity. In Studi, for example, name placards are blank and the beverage glasses sitting on the table contain color rings that give the illusion of being half full. By constructing all of his models out of the same basic material, his images have a uniformity and objectivity to them. Through photography, Demand makes these flimsy and ephemeral settings permanent.
The places Demand chooses to depict are always of note but never monuments from history. Normally, the locations seem completely without interest or import: standard public buildings, common domestic settings, or other arcane locations (bathrooms, dorm rooms, hallways, offices) that have been made significant solely by the actions of people. Corner, for example, reveals the simple dorm room where the young Bill Gates developed a version of the BASIC programming language. Demand’s locations and events exist on the periphery of notoriety. For him, the importance of these images resides in their subtexts.
Although he thwarts the tradition of photography as a faithful recorder of people, places, and events, Demand is interested in uncovering the power and neutralizing effect the media has on our culture. News, like history, is subject to a host of biases, distortions, and interpretations that affect how we receive information and deduce meaning about events. The photograph Poll, based on the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center wherethe 2000 presidential race recounts were staged, illustrates some of the shortcomings of media images. The most compelling aspect of photograph is what is not shown: the palpable tension that must have filled the room as lawyers, proctors, advisors, and the media searched for missing or dimpled chads—the controversy itself. Demand’s photograph is not a picture of the Florida recount, but rather a picture about the events surrounding the recount and how media images can fail at relaying a complete story about an incident.
Poll, like many of Demand’s works, has the look of the aftermath of a crime scene. Other Demand photographs—like Lawn, a nearly abstract detail of grass—appear like forensic evidence, as there is no other apparent reason for their intense scrutiny. His carefully constructed props always give the impression of being “left as they were.” Demand’s use of media and other reproductive sources remove his settings from their context, time, and place. Beyond the conceptual underpinnings of his process and the media-critique his work provides, his photographs are compelling visual objects. Demand has the rare ability to create images that linger in our continually distracted minds.
Thomas Demand is organized by the Aspen Art Museum and is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue, with essays by Aspen Art Museum Director/Curator Dean Sobel and Lars Lerup, Dean of the Rice School of Architecture, Rice University, Houston, TX. Following its ArtPace debut, the exhibition will travel to the Aspen Art Museum, CO and SITE Santa Fe, NM. Major funding provided by the AAM National Council. Additional support provided by Charles and Peggy Balbach, Elizabeth L. Barbatelli, Frannie Dittmer in memory of Randy Beier, Dick and Sylvia Kaufman, Robert and Nancy Magoon, Dennis and Debra Scholl, Paul and June Schorr, Paul and Gayle Stoffel, and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, e.V., Stuttgart.