Thomas Demand has been honored with major mid-career retrospectives at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 2005, London's Serpentine Gallery in 2006, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2007. With new two new projects on view at Venice's Fondazione Prada through July, Berlin-based Demand talks with Artkrush contributing editor H.G. Masters about his identity as a German artist, an artist's relationship to history, and how his practice is evolving in the wake of broad critical acclaim.
AK: Your work is on view in the group show Reality Bites: Making Avant-garde Art in Post-Wall Germany, which chronicles German art following the fall of the Berlin Wall. How did Germany's re-unification affect your artistic development?
TD: It was perhaps less important to my development than to my interest in narratives, and hopefully my sensitivity towards changes, frictions, and patterns of references in society — especially the one that I grew up in.
AK: Do you mean that re-unification permitted you and others to speak about a collective history — a more coherent narrative — for Germany and Europe?
TD: Those are big words, but let's put it this way: I had the feeling that the objectiveness of the previous generation and their fear of any narrative had become obsolete.
AK: Though you work from photographs often related to important historical events, the dramatic action has already occurred. In reconstructing these scenes, do you feel like a participant or a witness to history?
TD: It's extremely difficult to distinguish the two, I think. The only purpose of historical consciousness is to influence your actions or, at least, your understanding of who you are and where you want to go. If it's only entertainment, then it's banal — then my work is part of the service industry.
AK: One of your new projects, Yellowcake, which is currently on display at the Fondazione Prada, deals with the Italian involvement in the Iraq War, and your other recent projects also address current events. Do you feel finished with German history? Does your approach to contemporary events differ from your engagement with the historical?
TD: No, German history is not finished. That's nonsense. Maybe speeds of developments are changing differently, so the German one is going down a gear now, but the European one might accelerate a bit.
There is a certain safety feature built into historic references, which is the assurance that the event was significant — that's why we remember it. If we look at more recent things, objectivity goes out the window. Both our notions of events as well as our representations of them are more opinionated and probably less clear as to where they can go.
AK: But do you feel finished with German history as a subject matter for your work, or are you turning away from episodes in German history to address a broader history?
TD: I knew that's what you were after, but you see, I don't think of myself as a German as such. I might make things that others may identify to serve their preoccupations about Germans, but that's really beyond my concerns. I think demarcation of subjects leads to very broad generalizations. I'm not through with German history, but I was never a fan of it either. If there is something coming my way that's interesting enough to trigger a work, fine. But it's not like I tick off boxes and then I'm through.
AK: Your recreation of Saddam Hussein's hideaway kitchen during the American invasion and your new photograph about the destruction of three Qing-dynasty vases by a stumbling visitor at the Fitzwilliam Museum reveal a dry sense of wit. Is humor playing a greater role in your work?
TD: It's probably more visible than before, but the whole undertaking has some ridiculous aspects, so I guess I'm able to make those productive for my work now as well.
AK: What aspect of the undertaking is ridiculous? Is it the tedious studio labor?
TD: No, the fact that it's all bricolage and can't support more than its own surface.
AK: Your photographs are the only extant records of the models built in your studio, but you've also shown images of your construction process in small works like Five Drafts (Simulator). In the other half of the Fondazione Prada project, Processo grottesco, you're exhibiting the model of a grotto alongside your photographs of it. Why and when do you permit a glimpse at your method?
TD: If the process is valid, there isn't anything wrong with shedding light on it for a moment, but it's more complicated than simply documenting and displaying. On the one hand, the grotto is, in its making, a rather different sculptural endeavor than the other sculptures I do, because it's solid and its shape is generated in a very different way; but it might also have another effect on other work, which is to "fluidize" the reading of my images again. One tends to think of this practice a bit too much from the end of the process — its product — a C-print on the wall. I believe there are other aspects, which I also want to make productive.
AK: Do you think of your work as being handmade?
TD: Sure. But is that a category that can lead to anything other than a rather trivial judgment?
AK: I think it's important as way of gauging whether the locus of your work is in the constructions or in the photographs themselves. Do you significantly manipulate the photographs after shooting the sculpture? Or would that defeat the point?
TD: The entire work is about manipulation. And furthermore, there is no hierarchy: the image is as important as the sculpture, but both have different places in my process. I might shift attention, maybe, but I don't see why I would need to give preference to one of them if they depend on each other.
AK: You've said before that you've brought the concerns of a painter and of a sculptor to photography, but you also make 35mm films, which are very much like animations of your photographs. How is your work different when it's captured on film, and how do those films relate to your photographs?
TD: I'd like to keep in mind that these are, first of all, sculptures, documented. I think if the film shows a sculpture, it implies different meanings than a still image, and I always test myself before making a film; if it can be made as one image, then the film is redundant.
AK: In the past, you've exhibited in traditional white-box spaces like the Museum of Modern Art, outdoors at the Venice Biennale, and also, collaborating with architects Caruso St John, in Florence's Galleria d'arte at the Palazzo Pitti. How do these different contexts challenge your work?
TD: That's another part of a process. It isn't so much of a concern when you start as an artist, but increasingly you find yourself in a position where you can either do a traditional nail-in-wall-and-hang-me-on-it show or try to make it more complex overall. I obviously prefer the latter. I also like to make each show a very specific experience for the viewer and for myself. That's when something like a viewing device comes into play, such as wallpaper or exhibition architecture.
AK: For last year's exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London you designed wallpaper for each of the rooms in which your photographs were shown, and a frieze for Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond's pavilion. Were these projects a way of creating a new kind of venue for your art?
TD: No, I've used wallpaper before (at the Fondation Cartier in Paris) and after (at IMMA in Dublin); but as a German artist and having the unique opportunity to have earned the trust of the director and curator of the Serpentine Gallery, I wanted to go a bit further towards a gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork); I also wanted to keep the MoMA project unique for a few years in its referential approach to 15 years of working, so I tried to make a very different show in London. Therefore, I looked carefully at the building and the options for my two-dimensional works, and I wanted to create some sort of a display feature, as Richard Hamilton called it.
Thomas Demand's work is available at Esther Schipper's booth at Art Basel. His project for Fondazione Prada takes place at Fondazione Giorgio Cini on San Giorgio Maggiore Island in Venice through July 7.