That’s the tough message of Thomas Demand. By Waldemar Januszczak
Certainly, Demand himself has a clear sense of his own worth. His Serpentine installation smells of indulged whims and expensive Demands and demands. The first thing to notice when you enter is that the entire interior has been wallpapered in an insistent ivy pattern, and that the effect you usually get at the Serpentine, of entering an elegantly airy neoclassical interior, has been expensively obliterated and replaced by a mood that’s low-slung and claustrophobic. It’s not a nice feeling. Ahead of you is what you take to be a huge photograph of a cave, rather a beautiful cave, filled with tremendous stalactites and great swirls of evocative mineral oozings. I like caves because they seem to take you to another planet. By going underground, you end up in another world. This cave is like that. It’s full of weird and doomy gothic shadows. It’s low. It’s dark. Prehistory has landed a haymaker on neoclassicism’s elegant chin.
Demand’s cave looks straightforwardly real. Surely it’s just a photograph of somewhere? That’s what you assume the first time you see it. It’s still true the second time. And perhaps even the third. Only when you get really close to the photograph, right up against it, do you begin to notice the cracks in the stalactites. As you move along the huge interior, you gradually prove to yourself that it’s a fake. Man-made. Done with bits of cardboard. Amazingly skilful.
So, that’s Demand’s method. He makes life-size models out of ordinary materials such as paper and cardboard, then he photographs these models in such a way that they appear to record actual places. After that, he destroys the models, so only the photograph remains. It’s a painstaking process. He manages to complete only a few works a year. The cave is his latest effort. The earliest photo in the show, a false staircase in an apartment block, was taken in 1995. Thus, the Serpentine display allows you to encounter a decent range of his work — and should, therefore, feel more representative than it does.
The problem is the setting: all that ivy wallpaper pasted across every room. I had two main difficulties with it. The first was a simple physical dislike — it feels so oppressive. No doubt the artist intended deliberately to destroy the famous airiness of the Serpentine in order to fill the gallery with brooding and claustrophobic moods, but if so, he has succeeded too well. Some of London’s nicest art spaces aren’t nice any more. More seriously, perhaps, the sense of an installation that is being attempted here, the feeling that all the works in the show, from whatever year, are par- taking of the same mood and story line, overwhelms the individual photographs and makes them difficult to focus on. The ivy has taken over. It’s like making a cake with many flavours, then drowning the whole thing in choco- late sauce. It’s not the many flavours you remember, it’s the chocolate.
The cave, with its organic twirls and swirls, turns out to be entirely untypical of Demand’s work: a dramatic departure, even. Everywhere else we go in the show, all the other locations visited in Demand’s extra-large illusions, are dull domestic spaces or faceless bureaucratic work sites: offices, boardrooms, staircases, corridors. One photograph seems to show a dull modern kitchen, of the kind you get in a cheaply rented bachelor flat. There’s an empty boardroom, littered with pads, pencils and glasses of water, and a boxy modern house, seen from the outside, completely overgrown, again, with ivy. They’re pretty horrible places. You recognise them immediately, because the modern world is full of them. Indeed, they are the modern world. The artist obviously knows this. It’s obviously part of his point. Obviously, too, this isn’t a celebration of this grim utilitarian architecture or the faceless urban environment. So what is it? It turns out that all of the dull places Demand shows us, and re-creates for us so painstakingly, have a history. Usually a notorious history. The dull kitchen is modelled on the one in the safe house in Tikrit in which Saddam Hussein was holed up. The ivy-covered house was where a gang of paedophiles tortured and abused a young German boy before finally murdering him. His mother joined in.
So, Demand is involving us in a complicated game of visual bluff. The nowhere-special places he shows us turn out to be very special. They look real, but they’re not. They feel innocent, but they aren’t. The more you think about his work, the knottier it gets. All the photographs are based on images found readily in the media — newspaper front pages, television stills. So, ultimately, these are works about the power of the media image. In any other context, the kitchen we see here would be nothing more than a dull modern kitchen. But once we know it is Saddam’s kitchen, it immediately assumes an aura of phoney evil. The ordinariness of such places adds, of course, to their sinisterness. Think of those photographs of Fred West’s house in Gloucester. Think, even, of the set of photos Lee Miller took of Hitler’s flat.
All this strikes me as interesting. Demand’s main point seems to be that modern media has the Midas touch: it turns nowheres into somewheres. An ordinary bathroom becomes a butcher’s draining board. A dustbin bag in a kitchen becomes somewhere to stash the body. We are, I imagine, being urged not to trust such images. If Demand can create a paedophile’s hideaway out of some old toilet rolls and a few cardboard boxes, Blue Peter-style, what other illusions are the powerbrokers of modern media successfully getting past us? It’s a good point. An important point. And I really wish it didn’t have all that phoney ivy growing all over it.