with Thomas Demand
In a cavernous Californian warehouse the size of a football pitch, gifted German artist Thomas Demand creates giant photographs of life-sized models which he crafts entirely from sheets of coloured paper. Depicting mysteriously unpopulated rooms, street scenes and still lifes, Demand’s meticulous assemblages paraphrase the sometimes banal visuals that accompany sensational news. They also speak eloquently (if silently) to the frenzied pace at which images enter and leave our media-saturated lives. In more than two decades of producing his superbly distinctive work, Demand has rarely volunteered information regarding the inspiration behind his models. For his fans, this ambiguity only adds to the allure.
Katya Tylevich: Has your technical process evolved between your first project and now?
Thomas Demand: It’s changed, but probably not in a way that’s visible from the outside. For me, the process of simply getting paper, or even having it produced, has become more and more difficult.
KT: How so?
TD: When I first started, paper was one of the most ubiquitous and common materials in circulation, so it was always very easily accessible. I liked the fact that it was a material everybody recognised. It was cheap. Anybody could buy it, even throw it away. It was something every schoolchild would hold and work with. That relationship is changing now that students use laptops for everything. Schools don’t offer much in the way of art classes anymore either, so one of the big gest channels of the proliferation of paper is dying out.
KT: Does that mean that paper is considered more special now?
TD: Well, it is more special. Nobody is really making it anymore. When I want to source paper in large quantities these days, I have to find it in places like Japan.
KT: Have you ever ordered a batch of paper remotely, and then rejected it on arrival?
TD: Yes. For instance, I have 36 rolls at 1,000 metres each of curry-coloured kraft paper,* which I had made in Italy. I only needed four feet, but I couldn’t order in feet. It’s very cheap, but they told me that’s their minimum: 36 rolls. I still have those 36 rolls. [Laughs] I couldn’t use them. They’re completely wrong in every way. The wrong thickness, the wrong colour; everything is wrong. So, if you need curry-coloured paper, I have a lot of it.
KT: Do you have a rule of thumb when sourcing paper?
TD: I like my paper to be really middle-of-the-road. When specialist paper stores become your source of paper, the middle-of-the-road be comes more difficult to find.
KT: What does middle-of-the-road mean to you?
TD: When paper was widely used by schoolchildren, there were only about ten colours available to them. I find that idea nice in the same way that it might be useful for a painter to have a palette of only ten colours. Ten colours is a popular palette, those are colours that people tend to recognise and like. The more specialised a palette becomes, the less popular it is. This sounds banal, but it has to do with liking and buying what’s available to you. A colour that everybody knows is more popular, simply because it’s perceived as normal.
KT: Why is that normality important?
TD: It's important because I want for paper to remain a very understandable medium in my work, both for the viewer and for myself. Even today, everybody still knows what paper is because we live with it: we’ve all held it in our hands, whether paper money or a paper cup. For my process, I prefer working with paper to using computer-generated imagery. I just like the material. I like to have feedback from the material world. If something doesn’t work, then I see it, I feel it and I change it. Using a computer for that process is too elusive for me.
KT: If your relationship with paper has had to change over time, is the same true of the viewer’s relationship with your work?
TD: I don’t think the viewer is wondering where the paper came from. The point of the work is not whether or not the paper is nice. In my work, paper’s most important quality is that it’s temporary, that it doesn’t have much in terms of body. The moment my work becomes about specialist, handcrafted paper, it’s going in the wrong direction entirely. I feel the same way about photography or film. Once you place effects on new video to make it look like old film, you demonstrate that the new video wasn’t good enough on its own. That’s what I need to avoid, basically. I don’t want to be crafty. That’s not helpful. For my work: the plainer the better.
KT: Do you think of paper as a strong or a weak material?
TD: It’s a totally weak material. [Points to the paper model of the patio chair] If you sit on that chair, it’s going to fold. It doesn’t have any presence in and of itself. It’s always temporary. Aside from preserving a book on your shelf, everything else you do with paper is a temporary occurrence. It isn’t a steady material. We understand that paper will have one shape now, and another shape later. The cup you drank your coffee from this morning is temporary. You carry your purchases home in a paper bag and then you just throw that bag away. The paper goes back into some form of circulation.
KT: What about the environmental push to think of paper as reusable, recyclable, rather than disposable?
TD: The Germans recycle everything.** But that was the case when I started, too. That hasn’t really changed, and it was never central to my work. I recognise that there is a beauty in the process of recycling, but I don’t need it for what I do. Not for me. It doesn’t have any metaphorical meaning, though it would probably make you feel better if it did. [Laughs]
KT: You destroy 99 per cent of the models that you build, but does the same paper ever appear in more than one work?
TD: The only reason I don’t destroy 100 per cent of my models is if I see a way to work more quickly using something from an old piece. It’s a lot of work to build these models. [Points to the paper chair again] A chair like that, for instance, takes me four days to make. That’s not a bad thing, but when I need three more chairs like it for a new work, I start thinking about keeping some old models around.
KT: It could be said that the conceptual source of your work is also “normal” paper. You’re always browsing popular newspapers and magazines for new ideas, aren’t you?
TD: I used to do that, yes, but you can’t really get your hands on a newspaper anymore. I go to the coffee shop and I’m the only one there with a newspaper, so I feel like an old grandpa. That’s fine. I’ll move with the times. What’s important is that I’m able to communicate what I want to communicate, not the source. If the point of my work becomes “he’s using paper” in whatever way, then that’s not interesting. That’s how I feel about black-and-white photography, too: I’m not interested in it if it’s an effect available on your iPhone. I don’t like to relay an aesthetic value before you even get a chance to see what the photograph is. That’s what I’m trying to avoid by all means.
KT: Still, technical mastery is so important to your work...
TD: No, it isn’t. Anybody could do it. You need a lot of patience, that’s all. In the end, it’s very simple stuff.
KT: With all due respect, it doesn’t seem simple.
TD: What you need is a good memory for proportion and materiality. You need to know how light moves, and how someone must view an object to believe that it looks normal. We’ve learnt to see the world through photography now. When we try to memorise something, we concentrate on the photographic idea of how it looks. When you work from scratch, when you start from zero in representing something, as I do, you realise how many assumptions we make before photographing in a way that looks “natural.” Daily experience is different from photographic experience. That’s something I’m aware of as I work.
KT: Do you work with assistants?
TD: I only get assistance when the work is repetitive and I can’t finish it by myself. But nearly everything you see when you look at my photographs is done by me.
KT: Do you find the process meditative, or irritating?
TD: Good ideas come to me as I work, so in that sense maybe you could call it meditative. But meditative would suggest that I’m very calm. I’m actually not very calm and I’m not very patient. But what can I do? You would never ask Holbein*** how much time he spends on a painting. [Laughs] It takes as much time as it takes, and that’s all.
KT: How does your approach change when you move from constructing an interior to constructing an exterior – or to constructing nature?
TD: People tend to bring a very emotional response to a clearing or a blossoming tree. They often ascribe descriptions such as “it’s so full of energy!” to a depiction of springtime, for example. But interior spaces are just a sequence of objects that create a certain narrative. This is a kitchen. That is a pot. That is a desk. We live in a time and place without much outdoor propaganda – I’m talking about Soviet-style parades and rallies. Today, power mostly resides in interior spaces. And those spaces tend to look good when photographed, which creates an echo chamber. If I know that I look good, I will allow myself to be photographed, and because I am photographed, I know that I look good. Interior spaces are often tautological circles.
KT: You use paper to strip important information from objects: books lose their titles, boxed products lose their branding. Are you trying to remove some of their power?
TD: Art is not a clear identifiable message; it is not a given order such as “sit,” “stand,” or “look at me.” I don’t like to make work that tells you how it should be read. Art should be ambivalent, somehow. I don’t try to be a pamphlet. Still, my work resonates with what’s happening in the world, with our assumption that everything must be accessible at any given point, and that learning something is unnecessary because you can just Google it. Long-term memory is gone. So if I saw Saddam Hussein’s kitchen in the newspaper, I still don’t know anything about Saddam Hussein’s kitchen. How, then, can I claim that what I’ve made is Saddam Hussein’s kitchen? What I’ve made is not Saddam Hussein’s kitchen. It’s not.
KT: What is it, then?
TD: It’s just a paper model of something that resembles a kitchen.
*) Kraft paper is the sturdy brown paper created from wood pulp and used in several commercial contexts including the manufacture of grocery bags. A hardy wrapping for parcels and flower bouquets, it is also commonly deployed as the base layer for sandpaper.
**) Since Germany implemented its “Der Grüne Punkt” (Green Dot) recycling scheme in 1991, placing the responsibility for waste management in the hands of manufacturers and retailers, Germany has decreased its refuse production by approximately one million tonnes per annum. The south-western town of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse leads the local pack, recycling about 70 per cent of the total waste it produces.
***) Northern Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger is remembered for his perfectly proportioned drawings of his portrait subjects. Modern painter David Hockney has speculated that Holbein may have used a concave mirror to project an image of his sitters, allowing him to trace their image with near-photographic accuracy.