BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Thomas Demand

303 Gallery, New York, USA

BY Jenni Sorkin in Reviews | 06 JUN 01

In Mike Leigh's film Naked (1993), of the most memorable and ironic scenes is when the anti-hero Johnny, played by David Thewliss, is seen ranting to an office security guard in the middle of the night. 'You're guarding space? That's stupid, isn't it?' he gloats, 'because someone could break in there and steal all the fuckin' space and you wouldn't know it's gone, would you?'

Like the night watchman, Thomas Demand is also a keeper of spaces. His large-scale photographs are actually sculptural events, clever simulations of obscure yet notorious sites in recent history such as the dorm room at Harvard where Bill Gates wrote his first software program, or the barn in which Jackson Pollock created his first drip paintings. More recently, Demand has moved on to press imagery, the cool, lacklustre TV moments that ride on a quality of ill-fated recognition - something you are sure to have seen if you watch the late news. Made of coloured cardboard and carefully lit, the artist's painstaking dioramas are media souvenirs, circumstantial trinkets of last year's headlines. Podium (all works 2000) is a garish recreation of a lectern used by Slobodan Milosevic at a press conference in 1989. The clown-red wall lettering, large enough to be legible from the back of an auditorium, reads '1389-1989'. In 1389 the Ottomans destroyed the Serbian army, an event of legendary importance in Serbian national memory. The revolutions of 1989 induced the resurgence of Serbian nationalism at its most extreme. The most political piece in the show, Podium references a moment of enormous political and social calamity that the West never actually experienced firsthand. In 1989, did anyone know who Milosevic was, and more importantly, was anyone paying attention? Demand implicates his audience, but perhaps himself as well. His interest is not actually in current events, but in dead spaces - the physical sterility of the stage and its glaring exposure. There is a chilly, inhumane quality to the artist's work which lends itself rather well to Milosevic as a subject. The photograph assumes, rather than creates, the absence of the dictator atop his bully pulpit. Instead he is barely invoked through the presence of an empty water glass.

Wonderfully deadpan, Poll reconstitutes the sham of the Florida 're-count' centre complete with unplugged, numberless phones, empty archival boxes, corporate folders, blank memo pads and unused desks. Here, the deception is cleverly transparent, obvious to the viewer and wholly reflective of the election outcome itself.

The rear gallery consists of a looped film, Escalator, which depicts an escalator without people, taken from surveillance footage, animated from 24 individual stills. The projector is rigged to a see-through table, the film running mid-air, looped so as not to require a projectionist. This set-up is physically intrusive and wonderfully sculptural, more interesting than the film itself. As escalators are only found within public settings, the reference is to a high-density area, such as a train depot or airport. In actuality, Demand was referencing the nightmarish and highly publicized 1993 abduction of two-year-old James Bulger by a couple of youngsters who tortured and killed him. Even with this crucial information, the escalator fails to be threatening, which is exactly the point of Demand's project: the neutralization of a loaded space through its recreation.

This is interesting in relation to trauma theory, first articulated by Sigmund Freud and continued by theorists such as Cathy Carruth and psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman. It contends that although an individual is destined to recreate a traumatic moment out of the need for mastery and control, it's a process doomed to fail. And certainly, Demand does fail. His titles are noncommittal to the point of obscurity, to fully comprehend the works requires either a verbal explanation or a didactic wall label. But what Demand lacks in commitment he makes up for in artifice. Bathed in a permanent fluorescent gloom, his extreme fabrications are artfully blank rather than dramatically mundane.