Thomas Demand's re-creations of famous media images explore the power of news photography

The photographs that leave a paper trail

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

In today’s complex world, in which we are routinely overburdened with data, intuition and a visceral response to imagery is increasingly trumping rational discourse, according to Thomas Demand. But this is something the German artist, whose work is the subject of a major solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, welcomes.

“I’m an optimist on that,” he says by phone from Bavaria in Germany, where he has just pulled off the road to talk to the Japan Times. “Instead of the dumbing down that people predicted, we see how capable we are of actually handling the unbelievable amount of information and also how quickly we adapt.”

An increasing amount of the information he is referring to is visual. This is also the starting point of his art, in which he photographs 3-D, paper recreations of scenes from photographs once published in the media, and then destroys the paper models. This unusual art form raises interesting questions about the way we process information, virtualization and the nature of reality itself.

“As an artist, you do something intuitively, without really knowing what it is, and, if you have good luck, it just reflects something that surrounds you — and afterward, you rationalize it,” he says. “When I started to do my paper sculptures, I thought that, in a weird way, they reflected me looking at computer games and trying to find out what sense of reality they have.”

Demand started to work in paper because he wanted a medium with which he could quickly create new forms and discard them without, as he puts it, “breaking my heart over it.”

“I made these crappy, really cheap things and I made quite a number,” he recalls. “At some point before throwing them away I thought I should probably photograph them first.”

For his earlier works, he tried to reconstruct his own memories but gradually turned to the recreation of photographic images, creating works of increasing sophistication and realism. Now his works are almost indistinguishable from the original images that inspired them.

The realistic surfaces of his work often seem too pristine, which creates an oddly unsettling effect. But, while it is interesting to search the pictures for any deviations from reality, the story behind the images and why Demand chose them is more fascinating. There seem to be two dynamics at work: Many of the images equate the famous or newsworthy with the banal, while others explore the totemic power of images.

In 2004, he made the series “Kitchen,” based on a soldier’s snapshot of the kitchen that Saddam Hussein used in his last hideout. Visually it is utterly unremarkable and could be anyone’s kitchen, but that is the point.

“Saddam Hussein, at that time, was the most sought after and the most evil person in the world in terms of public recognition,” he explains. “So, you find him in this really crappy place. That’s how ‘the Devil’ lives. It’s really the Devil’s kitchen in a sense.”

Although this work is not included in the show, there are similar pieces. The mysterious death in 1987 of the German politician, Uwe Barschel, is represented in “Bathroom” (1997), a recreation of the bathtub where Barschel’s body was found; while the genius of Bill Gates is referenced by “Corner” (1996), an image of an untidy corner of the dorm room where the Microsoft founder created his first computer operating system. In works like this, the message seems to be one of equivalence between the great and the grotty. Messy kitchens and untidy desks, rather than death or taxes, are the great equalizers.

Other works explore the totemic power of images. “Bullion” (2003) recreates the kind of stereotypical photographs of gold bars that are routinely used in the media during financial crises — as if to create a reassuring image of wealth and financial stability.

Also iconic, but in a much less reassuring way, is “Control Room” (2011), a work that recreates a photo taken in the control room of the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power station by one of the workers during the disaster. Demand had some doubts about doing this work.

“I hesitated because it’s a really heavy subject,” he explains. “You might end up saying something stupid about something that is really complex and difficult.”

One of the ways in which images have changed in recent years, according to Demand, is that the really important pictures are not taken by journalists but by the people who are actually involved in events. The filtered objectivity of the professional news media is increasingly supplanted by images that are much more direct and emotionally charged. The picture of the Fukushima control room is a case in point.

“I was just touched by the fact that somebody would risk their life to go there and do that and also send out images,” Demand recalls. “I was also struck by the ceiling panels hanging down because of the earthquake. That little detail is incredibly heavy, metaphorically speaking. It doesn’t make much sense to a newspaper to write about that — but as an artwork, suddenly that hanging artificial sky is actually quite amazing.”

Thomas Demand at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, runs till July 8; 10a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.mot-art-museum.jp.