Paper Tigers: Thomas Demand’s Embassy

It is perhaps fitting that I first came across Thomas Demand’s work on Instagram. After all, just like Instagram, his photographs deal with the “trivial splendor” of everyday images — images, some of which come “from pictures from newspapers, some of them come from sources which we all have available like TMZ, some of them are completely obscure, and some of them are complete clichés.”

FitzandCo Thomas Demand

At first thumb-scroll, “Junior Suite” seems exactly like the trivial splendor of the interwebs. In reality, however, the used room-service cart with its lime colored tablecloth, sugar packets and lemons is a life-size paper reconstruction of a now-famous TMZ image of Whitney Houston’s last meal. It is the hard-edges of the objects that stopped me in my thumb-scrolling tracks: the tablecloth’s drapery is stiffer than starch, the sugar packets look unreal and the tin-cans have an edgy-ness that’s alluring but not entirely real. It is this edgy-ness that deceives — it’s the image’s lines that give away its “truth” as simply a documentary photograph.

This “liney-ness” brings to mind John Updike’s essay, “The Clarity of Things.” In it, Updike writes,

A line is a child’s first instrument of depiction, the boundary where one thing ends and another begins […] lines serve facts […] A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain liney-ness, as the artist intently maps the visible…

Embassy5

 Liney-ness in Demands work, however, points not to the evidential object but to the image’s illusion. In his Embassy series, on view as part of his Animations exhibition at DHC/Art Foundation for Contemporary Art, Demand uses the firmness, rigidity and “liney-ness” of paper and cardboard to reveal questions about truth. This revelation’s mise-en-scene, is, fittingly, the Niger Embassy in Italy where, on New Year’s Eve in 2001, a break-in led to the discovery of documents detailing Saddam Hussein’s purchase of “yellow-cake” –a uranium concentrate. Despite being discredited as forgeries, the yellow-cake documents were later used as empirical evidence of Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and the so-called “smoking gun” that is said to have launched the Iraq War.

As we move through Embassy we take part in the exhibitions “too-good-to-be-true polish.” Guards stand stoically on every floor as if guarding the exhibition’s secrets and what appears to be thick green draped walls, it turns out, is simply  trompe l’oeil wallpaper —  all part of the installation’s game of true-or-false.

Demand

Like theatre sets, Demand’s constructions are exactly that – built realities. But theatrical they are not. The embassy’s exterior appears on the gallery’s third floor, and like so many government buildings, seems innocuous and banal.

 Embassy 4

The building is a boring modernist box, and the hard edges of the paper construction highlight its ennui. Throughout the installation, we encounter images of closed doors, and later, an animated, unassuming landing with three apartment doors. The animation (one of many in the exhibition, and again, entirely constructed out of paper and cardboard) barely changes except for a few shadows and lighting.

Without the narrative the gallery provides the images would be unassuming, if not boring. In this way, Demand’s work suggests how easily we pass by banalities without question, as if the boring and unglamorous seems more factual and less deserving of scrutiny.

Yellow Cake

On the gallery’s top floor we enter an office space with abandoned desks, papers and half-consumed coffee cups. We wonder whose desks these are, if the papers on them are consequential.  But the desk, the papers and the room’s other accoutrements – liked the forged documents in the Iraq-war narrative – are forgeries of their own subjects. A coffee cup’s conjure paper cuts, an ash tray looks like a caricature of itself, and papers are disconcertingly empty of text. Instead of “mapping the visible” Demand’s constructions map a territory of fantasies and facts we imagine – or hope (like in Whitney Houston’s hotel room) will to find.

Embassy2

Updike writes “an abundance of detail becomes, then, a reassurance that the vision is true, or will come true.” Lines and details in Demand’s work are more disconcerting than reassuring. In the end, it is not facts that his lines serve, but forgeries. Where we rely on documentary photographs to show us evidence, Demand reveals empty truths, or at best, a deep murkiness and skepticism. After all, as Demand himself puts it, “things always seem to be more interesting in photographs.”

Thomas Demand’s “Animations” is on view at DHC/Art in Montreal until May 10th, 2013.

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