Thomas Demand: The Stutter of History

Thinking with the Hands

May 23, 2023By Heidi EllisonArchive, Exhibitions

If you happened to visit the retrospective “Thomas Demand: The Stutter of History” at the Jeu de Paume without knowing anything about the German photographer, you might think, “How boring! These photos are technically impressive, but the subject matter is dull, dull, dull.” Once you have read the wall text about Demand’s working method and the descriptions of individual photos, however, you will be thinking, “How impressive!”

The photos you are looking at are not what they seem. Everything in them is based on images of a particular scene, almost always a (very) still life, which Demand then carefully replicates in life-size, three-dimensional paper forms he builds himself and then photographs. The paper model is then destroyed. The result is what you see in the exhibition.

The first impression is of the mystifying stillness and emptiness in images devoid of any living figures or sense of movement. Then you are dumbfounded by the amount of time and patience that must be involved in making the models. A good example is “Control Room,” (2011), a mock-up of every detail of a room jam-packed with computers, readouts and levers. The only things out of place are the unidentifiable sheets of material hanging haphazardly from the ceiling.

This image was based on a cellphone photo taken by a technician in the control room of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after it was damaged by the 2011 earthquake in Japan. The hanging white-plastic sheets are part of the room’s false ceiling, the only indication that things are out of control in the otherwise neat and orderly control room.

A number of images show such scenes in which all traces of disaster have been erased – another is “Bathroom” (2019), the image of a hotel bathtub in which a German politician killed himself, minus the body seen in the original news photo – but that is not his only theme. “Clearing” (2003), for example, is a large-format photo of a forest with light streaming through it, made up of what must be thousands of hand-made paper leaves.

Demand’s more recent photos depict models made by other artists, architects and artisans rather those he constructs himself, like the beautiful “Kinglet” (2020), shown at the top of this page, a photo of some of the late fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa’s fragile two-dimensional paper patterns, destined to be turned into sculptural three-dimensional garments. As Demand has said, “The models I’ve made myself have no biography, no life story, but those working models do. They embody a moment in time, they show how you can think with your hands. That is what interests me.”

Don’t miss Demand’s fascinating stop-motion animated film, “Pacific Sun” (2012), in which his model of the furnishings of a cruise ship scuttle across the floor as the ship rolls back and forth during heavy weather. The images are based on security footage from the ship of the same name. Unlike a similar scene in Ruben Östlund’s recent film Triangle of Sadness, there are no humans in this film, made a decade earlier.

If you haven’t seen this exhibition yet, make your way to the Jeu de Paume immediately. It ends on May 28.

See our list of Current & Upcoming Exhibitions to find out what else is happening in the Paris art world.


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