The following essay was written in Spring 2017 in partial fulfillment for coursework with Dr. Richard Shiff in the Art History Department at The University of Texas at Austin as part of a Master of Architecture focusing on Interdisciplinary Studies.


Truth and Meaning in the Work of Thomas Demand

Duration is that which undoes as well as what makes: to the extent that duration entails an open future, it involves the fracturing and opening up of the past and the present to what is virtual in them, to what in them differs from the actual, to what in them can bring forth the new.

-Elizabeth Grosz on Henri Bergson1

1 Grosz, Elizabeth. "Bergson, Deleuze and the Becoming of Unbecoming." parallax 11.2 (2005): 4-13.

Writing is difficult. Writing that we might call scholarly may be easier than producing great works of fiction or poetry, but its inherent constraints present a unique challenge when the topic at hand is hermeneutics and art. When I write, I feel an obligation to write with a clarity and purpose to convey my thoughts as concretely as possible. The written word carries with it a responsibility to communicate through discretely understandable concepts (words, sentences, paragraphs) broader ideas that compel us to reduce their complexity into smaller, discernible chunks. I write because I seek clarity where another form of communication might only provide me with ambiguity. It is probably easier to write more words than fewer when trying to relay the nuances of thought. I often over-mine a topic pursuing exhaustive clarity regarding what I mean to say when trying to say what I mean. Words have definitions, which are specific, resolute, and ostensibly final. Clarity is ally to fact and truth; and truth, we are told, is virtuous. This ability to convey truth (or what we understand to be truth) is the value of language. As a mode of language, writing – unlike live or recorded speech – leaves only a visual record. Words on a page stand to remind us of their presence when we’ve forgotten them and embody the original meanings that prompted their placement, but also must stand to be reinterpreted as time passes and interpretive models evolve or change. Photography, as pictorial modes of representation are concerned, is perhaps most similar to writing as a method of communication.

Photography, it can be argued, was developed to document the state of things as they present themselves, unadulterated, and with as much honesty or facticity as possible within the limits of the technological device (the camera). The photograph was to serve as a record of an event, place, and time. This is the special credibility of photographs: its “exceptional power of denotation.”2 If a photograph was to communicate a narrative to the viewer without supplemental text, it could only be inferred by the viewer through contextual clues of setting, lighting, and indicators of societal or cultural development that could convey a rough approximation of time such as clothing, technology, or other artifacts with which a style or message could be associated. A painting could be abstract because it could spring from ‘imagination’ and combine images that would otherwise be impossible to combine on page. Hand-rendered images provide filtered information, which ultimately may be more approachable than the photographic counterpart. A photograph on the other hand is always of something else. For a photograph to exist, there must be a physical (real-world) subject/phenomenon that is being documented. The appropriation by artists to use this medium was inevitable, and just as society allotted room for writing’s more artful (and less factitious) forms such as poetry and fiction, photography was accepted as another form of communication whose transmissions would thereafter be left open to interpretation. Once the photograph was given to interpretation, as opposed to regarded as a truthful account, its viewers could only lose faith and trust in its ability to convey information. The digital camera, as compared with its analog predecessor, lends itself to nearly infinite edits and manipulations by the technician after a photograph has been taken. The gradual distrust of the medium would come to a head with the advent of cameras on phones, widespread use of photo-editing software, and the internet’s proliferation of fake news stories (with hyper-realistic accompanying fraudulent photos). The presentation of a “doctored” photo can thus bear little to no resemblance to the original subject matter, as it exists in our three-dimensional reality. This condition is rampant in pop-culture where celebrities and public figures, in addition to their requisite amounts of makeup and physical enhancements, receive an additional layer of post- production editing and touch-ups to exaggerate features of their appearance that their actual appearances do not convey. The apprehension of such photos has become habituated to the point where the viewing public may not care of the authenticity of the subject matter’s presentation. The image takes primacy over the original subject matter. It is important then to consider all works of photography, painting, drawing, graphics, and other pictorial forms of communication generally and primarily for their quality and function as an image, and secondly as a product of their respective medium. The medium becomes important in understanding the specificity of the image, which lends itself distinction from its hypothetical existence in another medium and thus invites comparisons to the original subject being depicted by calling attention to the process used to capture the subject.

My first encounter with Thomas Demand’s work was at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. After walking through the first-floor gallery spaces featuring works by many of the heroes of 20th century art, I made my way up to the second-floor galleries on the far end of the museum. On the second-floor I passed through a bright room featuring a collection of memorably colored paintings by Stanley Whitney and came upon a dimly-lit room featuring two large projection pieces on opposite ends and a series of discrete works hung on the adjacent walls. Among those works was a photograph by Demand called Backyard (2014) [Fig. 1]. The photo was large – 150 7/8” x 91” – and showed a scene of a porch leading to the side door of a house and the various clutter that is prone to accumulate in those interstitial spaces between properties. The image is framed on both sides by houses clad in painted wood shingles: to the left, in the space I might call the immediate foreground, a white-ish house with a white downspout and some disused panels – perhaps an old door – leaning against it; and to the right, the house to which the porch belongs, the siding is painted a muted yellow color and recedes to the background where a fence partially blocks the view of a cherry tree in full bloom. Among the clutter there is a slab of wood on the ground, a plastic stool behind some plastic crates, a crumpled blue tarp in the background, a green lid to an unseen bucket, and a table that seems to lack a top. There also seems to be a dog bowl on the porch and a potted plant on top of the plastic crates. A reflection of the cherry blossoms in the background can be seen in the window of the yellow house. Despite the detailed description, very little is memorable about the image – it looks at first glance like nothing more than an artfully taken photo of a recently vacated space. In the cadence of walking through an art museum with much else to see, I took the requisite 20 seconds one spends at a given piece and moved on. I made it two pieces further in the room before I turned around and hastily walked back to Backyard. In the context of an art gallery or museum, it can be easy to dismiss Demand’s work without a second look. But if you find yourself compelled to take a second look, you may find yourself confronting some serious questions about the tools we use to understand our environment.

2 Barthes, Roland. "The Photographic Message." Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 15-31.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1
Thomas Demand Backyard
C-print mounted on Plexiglas 150 7/8 x 91 in.

All image rights belong to the artist.

Much has already been made of Demand’s process, so I do not wish to dwell on it, but it is important to introduce his mode of working to get at the core of his art: the mental image. In most blurbs about Demand, his practice is described as something not quite sculpture and not quite photography. Demand takes widely-circulated images from mass media, often particularly memorable or politically-charged images and carefully reconstructs the settings in natural size out of cardboard and paper, and takes a photograph of the reconstruction. The resulting image is a meticulous facsimile of the original published photograph sans people, text, and other figural details. The photos he uses as source material often bear traces of human activity though, as is the case in Office (1994) [Fig. 2], and Room (Zimmer) (1996) [Fig. 3], where we see the remnants of work – a coffee mug, papers strewn about, typewriters, cabinet doors ajar. Once the photograph is taken, the constructed setting is destroyed, the photograph is printed at a large scale (72 1⁄4” x 92 1⁄2” for Office; and 67 3⁄4” x 91 3/8” for Room (Zimmer)), affixed to a reflective clear plexiglass, and displayed on the wall. The sculptural part of his process is simply a name given to the construction of a physical (three-dimensional) thing. But the language of critics to describe the process thereafter takes us down a different path, using words like “models” and “full-scale” or “life-size,” as if those terms had some self-evident meaning. A model, for instance, is usually merely a representation of another thing, typically at a smaller scale than the thing being represented. But Demand’s constructs are 1:1 (or as close as can be interpreted) to the original object, which is not actually what’s being re-constructed. Demand re-constructs an object from its depiction in a photograph, which is his source material. So, at this second stage of removal, what could “full-scale” or “life-size” possibly mean? A full-scale re-construction of an object in a photo would entail that the object bear volumetric compatibility with the photograph, which of course could have been presented in a newspaper, magnified on a screen, or projected onto a wall. His constructs are thus scale-less with respect to any comprehensive understanding of its source, which is perhaps why he calls them “natural size,”3 that is the size we might expect them to exist naturally. The photography component of his process is ultimately a distillation of his process to the thing that is produced as a result: a photograph. The two-part process of capturing and making manifest a photograph advances the removal process so that by the time we apprehend the work, we are at least four steps removed from the original event that inspired the process. To find his work in a museum is to find a representation (chromogenic print) of a representation (digital image) of a representation (paper construct) of a representation (photograph) of an event. The result of it all is – at face value – a photograph. But when we consider that it is a photo of a thing no longer in existence, which was even then only a rendition of a previous representation, its operative power as a photograph depicting the ‘reality’ of things is moot. It loses its special credibility. It is an image that - drawing upon images that had the capacity to leave lasting impressions on its viewers – seeks to imprint itself in the minds of viewers for new and different reasons.

3 Demand, Thomas. "Thomas Demand: Constructing the Authentic." Two Days of Art. Marc-Christoph Wagner. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, May 2012. <00:40>

Fig. 2

Fig. 2
Thomas Demand
Office, 1995
72 1/4 x 94 1/2 inches; 183.5 x 240 cm

Matthew Marks Gallery

Fig. 3

Fig. 3
Thomas Demand
Room (Zimmer)
67 3/4′′ × 7′ 7 3/8′′ (172 × 232 cm)

The Museum of Modern Art

Imagery is a literary term, denoting visually descriptive or figurative language. The word has alternate definitions as well: visual images collectively; and visual symbolism. But we should take a moment to consider that the principle definition for imagery refers to language in its descriptive power to elicit mental pictures, and not to an actual pictorial mode. The purpose of using imagery is somewhat evident by its name. In lieu of images, writers must rely on an extensive vocabulary and their command of syntax to evoke specious images in the minds of the readers. The images aren’t real – the words simply stimulate the process in the minds of the readers. They are inherently different for each reader for it is each individual reader who forms the images in their own minds. These images are not total either – they may have verisimilitude, but even the best writers would admit to falling short of a complete image. They are not technologically elicited recordings of actual events, and so – no matter how imagistic the words are – information gets left out. Words can only denote one component of a scene at a time. Reality permits us to perceive multiple things simultaneously – writing must develop scenes incrementally. If some combination of words could complete an image, we wouldn’t need the distinction between language and images. Because the words were left on the page at some point in the past, they cannot provide durational feedback. Reading them and subsequently developing mental image feedback requires (at least) one intermediate step of processing the words first into (habitually) determined discrete definitions, and then to a contextual interpretation of the words in amalgam. The process of reading thus entails developing a re-presentation (associative mental image) of a re-presentation (transmitted/cognized definitions of words) of a re-presentation (written text) of a re-presentation (original creative impulse) of an idea. Vivid imagery in text is the reciprocal operation of diffused denotation of images. Making abstract or diffuse the special credibility of a photograph is to move it closer to words – to render the actual image closer to the function of literary imagery.

When reading Demand’s imagery, the subtext to consider belongs to Roland Barthes. For Barthes, the reality effect is when seemingly extraneous details get added to a text to refer to the reality of the scene being formed in the mind of the reader. Barthes writes, “... the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.”4 Demand participates in an inverted reality effect. Depicting too concrete of a reality in his images would not provide difference from the actual reality of things. Demand’s effect thus comes from the removal of details – always the subjects (people) themselves, and often details concerned with time like patina. In Bathroom (Badezimmer) (1997) [Fig. 4], we see a blue tile bathroom, its door ajar, the shower curtain nested in the foreground, and a bathmat curled up on itself. We also see a bathtub full of water and what seem to be bubbles or some other surface irregularity suggestive of soap or recent activity. If you look close enough you can see a seam on the door, perhaps the result of modeling an object whose volume was too broad to be constructed soundly, or in which the paper was too small to do the job. But there are no stains in the grouts of the tiles or discolorations on the tub that we would find in nearly every bathroom.

Fig. 4

The decision not to model certain details could be attributed to the limits of modeling accurately in paper fine details like text or human features, but the resulting image stands alone, ambivalent to the constraints of a self-imposed method and the empirical laws that govern the environment being depicted. Like Barthes’ reality effect in literature, this inverted reality effect refers to an alternate reality constructed in the mind of the viewer – not the reality of the viewer’s present time and space. The difference between Demand’s new reality and the reality created through descriptive text comes from their intended effect. The purpose of the reality effect in text is to convince the reader that the reality being developed while reading is unified with the reader’s own reality; an entirely cognitive process. The reality of Demand’s images does not offer a sense of certitude or make a convincing case for anything, but rather seeks to induce skepticism and uncertainty about a scene with which the reader may already be familiar, but ultimately to raise doubts about the truth of what the reader perceives. In other words, textual reality effect seeks to make a fictive reality feel real, while Demand’s reality suggests that maybe our reality is actually fictive. Through the removal of the subjects (people) and traces of time and decay, Demand creates an image of a sterile, empty reality – one that bears traces of some active agent but no hard evidence of humanity. His images present us with a view of a reality that shows what we understand to be products of human endeavor (created objects, disheveled papers, houses, tiles and other man-made materials, etc.), but no record of an actual human’s presence – no hairs or DNA evidence; no dirt kicked up or footprints; no stains or imperfections; nothing that implies humanity beyond the presence of objects and things we know to be human invention. The effect is unnerving. This sterile effect is undoubtedly enhanced by the reflective plexiglass surface to which his large C-prints are adhered. This response to the printed image’s physical qualities invites further questioning into the truth of the image’s reality in relation to our own. Demand’s inverted reality effect is not about adding what is irrelevant or unessential, but instead removing what might otherwise be regarded as most relevant to the content of the image or essential to the narrative being depicted. Our question at this stage becomes: when we remove these most essential subjective and contextual ingredients, how does the message change?

Removing the people from photos in which they were central subjects depoliticizes the images, draining them of their aura. Removing any traces of time, irregularity, and imperfection creates an image of a world that does not align with the perceptions we have of our own. Perfection is suspicious. Rendering in paper whatever is left of a scene once these elements are removed induces further distrust. If we do not notice at first this fakery, the effect can be even stranger. This strangeness is perhaps better understood as a vagueness correlated with the number of steps Demand has taken to remove an image from a direct relation to its source. This vagueness is something about which we have a cursory understanding from experience: diffused perception allows us to filter visual information to that which we find most discernible and useful. Demand concretizes this vague and diffused kind of perception through intentional generation loss. The translation (of a translation of a translation of a translation) between mediums is not the digital generation loss of photocopying photocopies or saving and resaving jpeg files ad nauseam to which we are accustomed. Digital generation loss is an exposure of technological limits as it pertains to the resolution and precision of an image. Demand’s images showcase a generation loss brought about through human choice and material limits, an ironic observation considering the subject matter (or lack thereof).

Irony is a literary device, wherein the full significance of a piece of dialogue or a character’s actions is made obvious to the audience/reader, while implying that the characters themselves may not grasp it. In contemporary culture, irony has come to mean a state of affairs that seems contrary to one’s expectations. Irony is often amusing, if not downright comedic in nature. Art has long relied on subverting viewers’ expectations to elicit new experiences or provoke new reactions. The irony of all images is that they do not exist in a vacuum. Images without language cannot be interpreted. What they communicate inevitably must be translated (back) into words. But the irony of language is that words always fail to communicate the whole picture – they are bound by their own structure and exist in closed loops. You can reopen those loops, but they wouldn’t be words and may not be language again until you closed it. Definition requires some amount of definite-ness. Ironically, it is through language that we articulate what amounts to change, reinterpretation, and everything in flux about the durational world in which we exist. Language needs meaning for it to function properly between people; and meaning needs language if it is to exist at all. Demand re-opens the loop.

Here it’s worth noting the aesthetic component of his work, and to point out that his practice is not limited to still images, nor to heavily politicized or widely-circulated imagery. All of the model-making on display requires an extraordinary level of craftsmanship. Nearly anyone who has been to kindergarten has been asked to manipulate paper by folding and cutting it. To take such a rudimentary practice – one that we have all experienced – and to pursue it to the depth that he has to tackle such politically mature images and philosophically dense concepts is another irony. The craft is magnified further in his stop-motion animation titled Pacific Sun, which re-enacts CCTV footage of the interior of a cruise ship being hit by a tropical storm. The original footage depicts passengers of the ship violently sliding back and forth on a ship with all the furniture and objects in the room. The stop-motion footage, a format I typically associate with family films about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, adds to the comedic irony. The film, though presents us with moving images that induce feelings and doubts about foundations of the ground we walk on and places we occupy. While it’s noteworthy that most of the titles for his work are of places, there are exceptions as well. Pacific Sun, Diving Board, and Gangway are more like object-places, notable for their transience or fluctuant place-ness. Other works, like Bullion, Bloom, and Parkett seem to depict more abstract vignettes; close-ups that may in fact be studies for something larger (Bloom appears to depict the same cherry blossom in Backyard), or anomalous photos of nouns or settings that would link to general cultural connotations or specific memories but not necessarily to a specific documentation of an event. Further deviating from these are his Daily series, which consists of photos of models of mundane scenes taken from his iPhone. Relatively speaking, an iPhone’s technological limitations are far greater than the high-end camera Demand uses to document his paper constructs. The irony of documenting something with a poor image-taking device, reconstruct the document’s contents out of paper, document the construct with a decidedly better camera, and then print it on paper is perhaps even greater when we consider how much of the art-viewing experience in museums and galleries suggests to us that these photos will be re-documented by a large percentage of viewers with their own cell phones.

4 Barthes, Roland. "The Reality Effect." Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986. 141-148.

Fig. 4
Thomas Demand Bathroom (Badezimmer) 1997
63 x 48 inches, 160 x 122 cm

Fig. 5

Whereas Barthes often sought to understand how we derive meaning from various forms of language (including photography), Demand seemingly works to unmake meaning. The selection of heavily connoted images, such as a photo of Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, widow of Boston marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, leaving her house [Fig. 5], or of the widely-circulated photograph depicting the body of Uwe Barschel, a former German politician found in a bathtub [Fig. 6], allows Demand to begin with meaning and thereafter depart from it. If most art is undeveloped meaning and it is the mission of the artist to seek meaning through the creation of their art or the mission of the art critic to derive meaning from it, Demand’s mission seems more rhetorical. I do not believe he would claim the images are devoid of meaning; but the images seem to prompt the question of whether the remaining meaning has any value to us by forcing us to confront the truth of what is being depicted.

Fig. 5
Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, outside the Cambridge apartment where she lived with her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. EVAN MCGLINN/NEW YORK TIMES/FILE 2013

Photo and caption from The Boston Globe

Fig. 6

Fig. 6
Uwe Barschel, former Minister of State in the State of Schleswig-Holstein, who was found dead in the bath in a Geneva hotel by a reporter from "Stern" magazine. An autopsy claimed that he had committed suicide. There were five different sorts of barbituratres and tranquilisers in his stomach and blood. His wife and brother, however, claim that he was executed, and have demanded a second independent autopsy.
October 1987
Copyright Camera Press LTD.

Photo and caption from scanned archive photo found on auction site

The danger of both writing and photography is that they purport to tell the truth. When we can say with some certainty that what is being presented to us is or is not the truth, we do so with the premise that we can know what truth is and therefore what it is not. Because I know Demand’s work is a photograph, I begin my investigation under the pretense that it presents the truth, unadulterated. The photograph is of something that either exists or has existed in what I understand to be a reality governed by the same laws as the reality I am in now (and the reality of my time/space when I first apprehended the image). To question the truth of the image is to search for glitches in the way different things are rendered and – through a process of elimination – decide upon the certitude of the photo’s reality. But I cannot fact-check Demand’s images, for what they depict no longer exists (the models are always destroyed), and what the model had depicted is not made available to me unless I have had the experience of seeing the photo on which it was based in the first place, the ability to identify it because I have committed it to memory, the mental archive to recall the photo with some amount of clarity, and the resources or good fortune to be in front of Demand’s image while this is all happening. This fact-checking is not the point. What might be the point is to recognize our own agency and presence in relation to the image while we attempt to close the loop. If we cannot close the loop while looking at it – and if it is good art, this seems like a criterion – we must attempt to do so when the image is not in front of us any longer. For this we must rely again on a representation (perhaps a digital image, or a print of a digital image) for reference and, more importantly, the mental image we have made of it. This mental reconstruction may be the purest form for discussing his work because it relies on our (human) aptitude of memory to deter further generation loss.

Some of Demand’s own words, originally spoken in German with English subtitles, might provide us with an insight:

Recollection is a new construction each time. It changes things, and that is what interests me about the pictures. The reshaping that I do omits certain things that seem less important, such as patina, details, writing, things which are very important to others, but which I, in portraying the idea of a photo, consider less relevant. And I add other things.

This is a quite basic cultural technique, as when an author writes about his childhood. He omits or adds things, and the value of his literature does not depend on whether he remembers the names of all the aunts, but on whether he communicates something to me. Whether I understand what he says, and whether I feel his version of his childhood is authentic or not. It is a personal concept of truth. One can distinguish between truth and truthfulness which also has a moral consequence. And the re-told tales I tell are not journalistically true to life, but rather a literary version. A visual and literary version of what the original photo means to me.5

5 ( Demand <5:43>)

When I first encountered Demand’s Backyard, I did not know anything about the artist or his process. I did not even know with any certainty whether what I saw was real, whatever that might mean. All I knew was that the photo was strange and I kept thinking about it after I left. My mental image of Backyard includes both a reconstruction of the image on the wall beneath its glossy clear acrylic surface and, an image of myself standing in front of it. Of course, my perception at the time did not include a third-person awareness of myself standing in front of it, but the awareness of myself in the scene reminds me that the event actually happened because it is an image of a memory. I afford myself this latitude because the memory, the truth of the scene, is my own. My truth is different from your truth, which is different from any intrinsic truth of the image. Individual truths, I reckon, have no virtue whatsoever because they cannot stand as paragons of collective understanding. I have the (mis)fortune of knowing more about the photograph now than I did when I first viewed it. I have seen the source photo from the Boston Globe and now know about the artist and his process. The more details I seem to learn about the circumstances surrounding the photo (the fuller picture I get), the less certain I am of the photo’s value. Stranded in a diffused ether of meaning and non-meaning, I continue to grapple with my truth of the photo. Though I may never find that truth, much less the means to articulate it, I know with certainty that the image exists. And if there ever comes a time when the image is destroyed – a hypothetical next step in Demand’s process or a possible consequence of societal entropy – I will remain certain of the image’s existence, if not in others’ minds, then in my own. That much is true.

Max Mahaffey
Spring 2017