By taking photos and transforming them into models made from cardboard and paper, the German artist Thomas Demand translates two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional ones. Then he brings the models back to their original state by photographing them. In doing so, Demand generates disturbing simulations of everything from the banal (a bathtub) to the notorious (Saddam Hussein’s hideout or Hitler’s personal military headquarters on the Eastern Front). The Neue Nationalgalerie’s Demand retrospective runs until January 17 – so catch it while you still can.
The title of the exhibition is Nationalgalerie. Is there a message behind your selection of photos?
There is no national thread [running] through the show, and if there is, then it’s coincidental. All I did was choose from all my works from the last 17 years that somewhat refer to German sources. But I had no intention of representing the German identity. It’s not a show at the German Historical Museum. Intentionally, there are two or three pictures that are iconic: “Bathtub”, for example, is something that any German over 40 or 50 will recognize immediately, “Room” [which recreates Hitler’s personal military headquarters after a failed attempt to kill him] and “Office” [which reconstructs an office in shambles at the Stasi headquarters after the fall of the Berlin Wall]. They will also give the audience a hint about the other, less obvious motives. All the other works are images of obscure events that might show something obliquely, but there is no ideology, no direction about what Germany might think of itself. In the end, it is an art show – not a pamphlet.
Yet a picture like “Room” is very emblematic of a certain part of German history.
It is admittedly a very German picture, a picture that you can find in every history book. I was confronted with it throughout my school years and my entire adolescence. Growing up in West Germany, you saw it over and over again. At the time it was taken, it was proof that Hitler was still alive; in the history books, it was proof that not all Germans were bad and not all Germans voted for Hitler; for me, it is also proof that I went through the German educational system. So its meaning fluctuates and changes all the time. There is not just one meaning: there are layers of meaning. It is a public memory as much as it is a personal one. Nevertheless, it is a picture, not a story, and the picture has to work on its own.
D id you recreate the scene from memory or did you use an actual picture?
From memory, as is often the case. My recreation of a photograph should be really obvious, but look completely different. So even if people say ‘oh it looks so real’, it actually doesn’t look real at all and the first impression of perfection fades away after a closer look. Memory gives you the ability to reduce your sensors and impressions to an amount of data that you can process and emulate when you need it. The key is to filter reality – otherwise you just go crazy.
So are the photographs the only records of your models? Do you just destroy them?
Yes. They don’t last anyway; most of them are made of paper and cardboard and they simply fall apart. I don’t want to have to fix it all the time in a museum. Also, I always want to do things I can get rid of. I move around a lot and I don’t want to have too many things. A room full of stuff drives me crazy.
But how about the time you spent building the model? It seems rather cold to just get rid of them.
It is a relief. It is also quite humbling because you need to get rid of things: it is a simple rule of life.
The texts by Botho Strauß, which accompany your work, are quite unusual. They never work as an explanation…
I just wanted to make sure that people look at the images using their own associations. I don’t want to offer a canonical and defined commentary because there is no such thing. It was clear to me that at some point the museum or the viewers would expect an explanation, but I tried, by all means, to avoid one. It is the Neue Nationalgalerie, not Madame Tussaud’s. Furthermore, I really wanted the wall texts, which you usually can expect in a museum, to become an artwork in itself; that’s why I asked the playwright and novelist Botho Strauß to do them.
The Neue Nationalgalerie is more of a glass cube than a White Cube. How difficult was it to fill the space?
The building is absolutely fantastic. It’s one of the five most amazing buildings for art in the world, along with the Kunsthaus Bregenz, the Serpentine Gallery, the Guggenheim and the Louisiana Museum for Modern Art. The building is so strong that it is only natural to find a way to work with it. Usually there are just one or two items exhibited there, and the space looks like a big hole with lots of windows.
Are the long gray curtains you’ve used a challenge to the legendary transparency of the building?
The transparency is highly overrated: it’s nice, but it’s always nice. There is no need to emphasize a quality that the building has all the time anyway. So by bringing in something that blocks the view, I try to emphasize that more private, homey quality. The curtains are made of domestic textiles, the sort of fabric better used for a sofa, and the wooden panels try to break the space down to a human size from those colossal, echoing, cold spaces.
NATIONALGALERIE | Neue Nationalgalerie, Potsdamer Str. 50, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz, Tel 030 2664 23040, Tue-Wed 10-18, Thu 10-22, Fri-Sat 10-20, Sun 10-18, www.neue-nationalgalerie.de. Through January 17