DEMAND, Thomas; Landing
By Asian Art
Landing is a major work by German artist Thomas Demand, a pioneering figure in contemporary photography, that was first displayed at the artist's 2007 survey exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, 'Thomas Demand: L'Esprit d'Escalier'.
Having studied sculpture at Dusseldorf's prestigious Kunstakademie alongside Katharina Fritsch and Thomas Schutte (who have since become two of Germany's most prominent contemporary sculptors), Demand began his career as a sculptor producing delicate paper constructions resembling models. In 1989, he began photographing his sculptures to record them and, over time, found himself more and more fascinated by these images. Ultimately, they led to a major shift in Demand's practice when, in 1993, he began to produce models for the sole purpose of photographing them.
Since then, Demand has become internationally renowned for his highly original and influential approach to photography. His works usually take their point of departure from a found image. Demand then proceeds to make a meticulous, large-scale model, reconstructing the image using paper and cardboard. The construction of the model takes place in front of the artist's camera, allowing him to compose the photograph by making adjustments to the actual model — a process directly inverse to the common practice of digitally manipulating a photograph after it has been captured. Once complete, Demand produces a single carefully lit and composed image, and then destroys the model.
Demand has said that an aim of his work is to slow things down — an idea that is reflected not only in the labour-intensive process for producing the image, but also in the way that we read the image as a viewer. Landing, for example, appears to depict a straightforward view of an accident on a set of stairs. There is, however, something unsettling and surreal about the image that entices us to spend time looking at the detail of the work and, as we do so, its artifice begins to unravel. Small details, such as the smooth finish to the floor, seem strangely unnatural and lead us to question other elements of the scene, ultimately revealing the image to be a construction.
Like many of Demand's works, Landing has a clinical, seemingly factual quality that we might associate with crime-scene photography; Demand is drawn to such images due to their attempt to faithfully represent reality. However, his process has the effect of depicting reality at a triple remove, and by drawing our attention to the image's construction — revealing what we might think of as 'cracks' in representation — he aims to problematise notions of photography's ability to accurately represent the world.
Landing is based on a conservator's photograph of an unfortunate incident at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England: a man tripped over his shoelaces, fell down the stairs, and knocked over three valuable Qing Dynasty vases. Images of the aftermath quickly found their way onto the internet and were even published on a special website set up by the museum to document the restoration process.(1) There is an undeniably slapstick quality to the photographs of the accident which Demand aims to exploit in his reconstruction. The title of the work also creates a kind of linguistic slapstick — 'landing' is an architectural term, but also it describes what happened to the vases.
Demand has noted that there is a self-reflexive aspect in this work in so far as the conservators' restoration of the vases relates to his reconstruction of the original scene. In Demand's words, 'the ceramics expert is reassembling the shards with the intention to make that hard landing undone (or at least invisible), whilst I reconstruct the view onto the fallen vases'.(2) On the other hand, we might also see the smashed vases echoed in Demand's own process and his destruction of the model which generated the image.
Nicholas Chambers, Artlines, no.3, 2008, p.22.
1 'Conserving art: The conservation and restoration of the Chinese vases broken in 2006', http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/chinesevases, viewed 3 August 2008.
2 Rachel Thomas, interview with Thomas Demand, 'Weapon of choice', in Thomas Demand: L'esprit d'Escalier [exhibition catalogue], Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2007, p.119.