Review: Thomas Demand at Matthew Marks

by Pac Pobric

May 5 – June 23, 2012

Kontrollraum / Control Room, 2011 by Thomas Demand. C-print mounted on plexiglas, 78 3/4 x 118 1/8 inches,
200 x 300 cm
© Thomas Demand / Artists’ Rights Society (ARS), New York / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Thomas Demand’s exhibit at Matthew Marks has its both high and low points. When at its strongest, the work mediates the particular through the general. The three photographs on view do this well. If there was ever any question as to why the artist necessarily needed to build the sets he photographs out of cardboard, these provide a clear answer. It’s not out of any loyalty to “the ephemeral” as an idea. That the sets are destroyed after the picture is taken is irrelevant. The actual function of prop building is instead about abstracting the object, and thereby defamiliarizing what is pictured. 

Kontrollraum embodies this particularly well. According to the press release, it is “an image of the interior of the Fukushima Daichi power plant after last year’s Tsunami forced its workers to evacuate.” Yet that’s precisely what it isn’t. We see nothing explicitly alluding to Fukushima in particular, nor to Japan at large because the objects photographed are bare of any particular referent. Built of cardboard, the props are abstracted from any particularity (no logos, no calligraphy) and the image takes the place of any control room, except for the hanging ceiling panels. These, no doubt, signal disorder, but that is all they can do on their own. They say nothing specifically about Japan’s disaster. What we’re left with is a control room in disarray, in general. (The press release seemingly concedes the point, highlighting the photograph’s “general state of disorder.”)

Pacific Sun, 2012 by Thomas Demand. Film and sound installation, Dimensions variable
© Thomas Demand / Artists’ Rights Society (ARS), New York / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery 

So, the historical moment Demand is supposedly referring to is made absent through built abstraction. In this image as with others, Demand successfully avoids tying the work too obviously to whatever it ostensibly refers to, so that the photograph loses its familiarity: it’s not an image of Fukushima’s disaster, with which we’re all acquainted, but of chaos at large, which the particularity of Fukushima brings to bear. The artist here makes something new out of that which we already know.

This makes the exhibit’s video installation, Pacific Sun, all the more bewildering. A shot-by-shot recreation of security camera footage captured aboard a ship caught at storm, the short video struggles to be anything more than cartoonish in its psuedo-clayanimated silliness. It’s simply too easy to shrug off, and in comparison to the photographs, it just looks like a joke. Is Demand consciously courting humor in this work? It’s difficult to say. It’s no doubt possible that the film is meant to be as “serious” (whatever one can take that to mean) as the photographs. Regardless, humor rarely (although not inconceivably) plays well in effective art, and Demand’s film is an object-lesson in the potential of that kind of failure.

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