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Thomas Demand

The world-famous German shops shooting Saddam Hussein’s tupperware and works with paper CCTV

Thomas Demand’s photo-conceptualist practice needs no introduction, yet his current show -‘Animations’ at the DHC/ART Foundation in Montreal  - spirals his other worldly simulacra into a whole other realm.

Demand’s complex process unites the sculptural model and the culled media image through playing with a system of medium collapse. His photographs begin with another photograph, as he re-injects found images with volume by building life-size paper and cardboard reconstructions of disturbingly recognisable scenes. The models are photographed and subsequently destroyed, re-introduced to the world solely as large format images. In Demand’s alternate reality, photographs supersede objects.

Triply removed from reality, and mangled through a three-way translation of dimension, his animations harbour a photojournalistic fatalism equal to that of his most disturbing images.

With CCTV footage and YouTube clips replacing still imagery as his point of departure, Demand’s films are made using the same head-spinning process as his laborious photographic methodology. Triply removed from reality, and mangled through a three-way translation of dimension, his animations harbour a photojournalistic fatalism equal to that of his most disturbing images. Harking back to politically charged photographs like Kitchen (2004) where he recreates Saddam Hussein’s hideaway house in Tikrit, Iraq, Demand’s film Escalator (2001) disturbingly replicates a scene where a commuter was brutally robbed and killed by a gang on a London escalator. As the exhibition’s focal point, Pacific Sun (2012) also re-stages controversial CCTV footage, this time of a cruise liner caught in a violent storm off the coast of New Zealand – it is his most challenging animation to date.

Characterised by blankness, Demand’s videos, like his photographs, are ironically loaded with signification. He confronts the absence of reality itself as it retreats behind culled media footage, demonstrating a masterful wizardry of the uncanny where what’s real and imaginary become impossible to decipher. Boasting impressive international shows at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2004, MOMA New York in 2005, and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin 2009-2010, Animations is, excitingly, Demand’s first show dedicated to the moving image; and about time too.

You made a stop animation video, Tunnel, as long ago as 1999. Why only now have you chosen to show all your moving image works together?
Thomas Demand: I’ve had the plan for quite a while, but it never materialised. We wanted to do it in 2002, but it's not about showing everything you’ve ever done it's more about getting it into a context that makes sense.

What brought on this shift, using footage from CCTV and YouTube instead of still media imagery as your reference point?
Thomas Demand: When you work with objects in your space and you photograph them, you always have the feeling that access to your work is actually quite exclusive. I thought, ‘how could I give the viewer a glimpse into being in a space with a sculpture?’ It seemed to be a step backwards to actually show the sculpture, so I thought filming it was probably a better way of doing it. Moving to LA made it possible to work with the people at Disney, and that’s how I came up with the Pacific Sun project.

Pacific Sun (2012) is taken from CCTV footage of a cruise liner caught in a violent storm in the South Pacific off the coast of New Zealand. Why this clip?
Thomas Demand: Because it’s basically a portrait of a national event, and it’s transcribed by the impact on an interior space. The movement of the object describes the action by just moving around, so you're not watching a wave, but you’re watching the objects describing something that you associate with a wave. The objects become choreographed; they meet because of the several waves that throw them into each other. I chose objects that would be anthropomorphic and stand in for the actors, somehow the action of the people becomes the action of the objects, and that’s why it’s so remarkable.

How long did it take to make?
Thomas Demand: Well it’s a thing you do you know, and you run away with it. I can tell you who animated every object, everybody had to concentrate really hard because if you missed one movement, one frame, then the object suddenly stands still and everybody has to do everything again. We had a lot of computer-aided help but none of this is used in the film. We created it with people who work in the daytime on Superman, and then in the evening helped me out. Everybody knew it was impossible to do it by computer because there were so many things you just couldn’t predict.

Do you think that as a result of the ubiquity of infinite archives such as YouTube and the Internet, our interest in the physical object is getting lost?
Thomas Demand: We all live in a culture where depictions of objects are actually predominant to the real objects. Hardly anything anymore moves us that isn’t a representation of anything else - it’s this jungle of references that we are trying to cope with. It is a different reality now, and it’s amazing how we as humans are aware that it’s now perhaps more important to know who sent you the picture, rather than what the picture shows you. What I’m trying to do in my work is to talk about my surroundings in a hands on kind of way, where as at the same time my surroundings are actually slipping away from me. I probably know more about a control room in Fukushima than I know about my back yard. My eyes are open but they are mostly filled with content from overseas, so how do we make sense of that?  I don’t think it’s about not having any objects; it’s about how more and more we read our surroundings like a model. William Turner would sit on a boat and get seasick and paint the waves because that was the centre of his world, and the centre of my world is probably in a back room where I have a screen, and I just kind of get connected to everything and try to make sense of it.

Your models are made from paper and cardboard, but in Rain (2008) you used sweet wrappers. Can we expect an introduction of other materials?
Thomas Demand: Well every now and then I have other materials in play you just don’t seem them. Paper is unbelievably ubiquitous, you’ve had paper in your hand at least a dozen times today already. On one hand it’s everywhere and it’s really beautiful, and on the other hand it’s dying out and harbours a kind of nostalgia. Since I’ve been working with the material it's gone from something you’d never question as being part of the world, to being something rather outmoded.

In your 2006 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist you likened what was happening in the art world - this trend of re-appropriation – to what was also happening in pop music. Is this link still there?
Thomas Demand: Absolutely. My film Recorder uses a luring sound by the Beach Boys. It occurred to me that the Beatles and the Beach Boys - with their albums Revolver and Pet Sounds – were some of the first bands to creatively use this sampling idea - making sound artificially. The Beatles might have been able to play together, but the record itself is made up of many layers of people playing separately. Most of the music I find interesting is a highly abstract construction. Rather than the tape recorder recording reality it’s actually producing it, in the same sense that photography is producing our idea of the world.

You mentioned once that you see media as architecture, a kind of hyper-real ‘virtual terrain’. Do you still see it this way?
Thomas Demand: We are surrounded more and more by things that look good on a screen. The digital has changed our expectations of the analogue world, and so the real world is now guided by reproductions, not the other way around. It’s interesting because 20 years ago, lets say 1993, was actually quite a watershed year, that's when the Internet was fast enough to deliver pictures. Until then you would have been concerned with how to make a picture look like the thing, and now you want to make the thing look like the picture.

As places that are not quite real but perhaps once were, the epic scale of your film projections plays with ideas of the uncanny. Is this effect intentional?
Thomas Demand: Yes. I don’t understand what blowing up things means unless you actually blow them up. I make my works the size they are because that’s my experience as a human being. There’s something in the transfer between making a really tiny architectural model and making it big in reality where something is lost. It's my translation of something I have seen somewhere else. If I see an image of tupperware in Saddam Hussein’s kitchen then I think of my tupperware and it soon becomes my own, but you look at it and still think it’s Saddam Hussein’s. I think my work begins to filter reality, like a really weird pair of sunglasses or something. 

Thomas Demand’s Animations (In association with Des Moines Art Centre, Iowa) can be seen at the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art451 and 465 rue St. Jean, Montreal, through May 12th 2013.