Following paper trail wears thin

THOMAS DEMAND NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road until March 17, 2013


NGV International,

180 St Kilda Road until March 17, 2013

ACCORDING to the thoughtful German artist Thomas Demand, the world is paper thin. It's a cutout construction that he makes especially for the camera, where everything is built from card.

If it sounds like a gimmick, the practice of building images as if they were models nevertheless achieves remarkable poetic qualities that would never have surfaced without the perverse and obsessive method.

To make a picture, Demand begins with source material in the archive that already has some fateful resonance. Following the legacy of Andy Warhol, Demand finds scenes that give you a shiver, such as Hitler's bunker, the control room of a nuclear plant before meltdown, paintings stashed ominously without racks in a museum, an anti-gravitation machine, or Jackson Pollock's studio.

His pictures were already photographs before he makes them into life-size sculptural environments and then turns them back into a photograph; but the remake, which so artfully stretches credibility, is strangely transfigured. Into the portentous sternness of the scene, Demand insinuates his crazy reason to be there: to make gravitas from photographic flimsiness.

One of the most potent images is Bullion. It represents a tight stack of gold ingots. With his skills as a sculptor and painter, he forms the volumes in paper and then gives it a reflective surface. It makes a good simulacrum of the untarnished element in its metallic density.

But because the eye is wise, it detects the forgery. And so the famous icon of unthinkable fortune - which might have played a part in some famous heist or the security of a national economy - is also a lie, a tinsel falsehood of no substance. The bullion is like the wrapper of some Viennese chocolate, where the attractiveness divides between the sheen of the perfect foil and the expectation of reaching the contents.

Paper is a kind of film, the opposite of anything solid, like bullion. All of Demand's pictures have an empty or hollow character, which defies the earnest weight of their associations. His pictures have an airless concentration on historical environments, which already seem sterile and obsolete.

Demand asks you to control your disbelief, not to suspend it. The risk is that you view the work as a kind of magic-show, where you're merely keen to discover the trick behind the verisimilitude. If Demand can make paper resemble a bathtub - and yes, the show showers you with wow factor - you'll still recognise that it isn't real; and from that moment, your engagement may be consumed with the tell-tale details that give away the method.

But the work also makes a virtue of its own absurdity. I imagine Demand scouring archives for suitable content, not just because of its historical or technological frisson but its appropriateness to the studio. I think of him looking at the world as a place that can be fashioned in paper.

Sharing this eccentricity, we aren't curious about the world but only its suitability for the technique and the adaptability of the style to the motif. To this end, Demand often chooses motifs that have a planar serial aspect, so the scene can be built up in modules.

In the digital age, technology is bound to offer speedier solutions to the business of measuring templates and calculating thousands of cuts in the paper. In a recent work Grotto, he creates a significant cave - also in paper - but for which all the horizontal strata have been designed through 3D computer modelling. I guess it's the next step in the studio process, because digital technology is structured, from the pixel upward, to modularise the world. In the process of using it for a logical purpose, however, a deeper problem is also revealed: the work begins to resemble output from a 3D printer.

And here, the absurdity of the project is regrettably fulfilled and the mystique of the studio process unravels. It seems to defeat the purpose of building the object if the studio is nothing but a printer, from which the artist then extracts a flat record. Demand works best when he has a problem but he runs aground when he solves it.

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