Browse through the cinema section of a bookshop and sooner or later you will come across one of those tedious “movie gaff” compendiums: the sort that smugly take pleasure in listing those continuity errors that have somehow slipped past the filmmaker’s attention. Their zealous condemnation of, for instance, the scene when Brad Pitt’s clean-shaven face is “only moments later” sporting a fledgling beard, is based on an absolute assurance that the illusion of cinema’s fictive space cannot – and must not – ever be broken. To throw into focus the artifice of that constructed world is deemed, unequivocally, to be a “hilarious” error. In contrast, the moments when the irreality of Thomas Demand’s cardboard worlds seep through have a far more ambiguous status, and are a necessary key into his multilayered constructed domain.
Though not a retrospective as such, Demand’s exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery was diverse enough to give a sense of the increasing richness and complexity of his output. The German artist has become known for his large scale photographs of meticulously constructed cardboard and paper environments. His life-sized reconstructions are based on already existing photographs drawn from a range of sources including historical archives, the media, and private collections. Included here were many of his better known works including: the room full of photocopiers, Copy Shop (1999); the empty architect's office, Drafting Room (1996); and the perpetually turning film reels of the moving image work, Recorder (2000). Also included was a new series of works based around a hotel, Tavern I-V (2006), which acted as a focal point for the show and also provided the ivy motif of the patterned wallpaper which completely covered the gallery walls.
The immediate appeal of Demand’s constructed environments is their at first glance uncannily convincing naturalism. The attention given to shape, colour, lighting, texture, and scale in the work is impressive – yet Demand seems to want to stop short of absolute perfection. For instance in Kitchen (2004) – a photograph depicting an apparently unremarkable view of an unkempt kitchen – the first impression is convincing; the cooker, the water jug, the egg boxes, the crockery, are all very very nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. But keep looking and the cracks – often literally – start to show. For some reason the kitchen units don’t exhibit the solidity of real wood – their surfaces are ever so slightly misaligned, producing tiny gaps at the corners which ultimately betray their cardboard construction. And in the same photograph some orange peel lies on the floor. The care and attention given to its form is remarkable, sculpturally – making the apparently carelessly flimsy appearance of the rather more straightforward ninety-degree planes of the cooker seem even more conspicuous. Demand seems to be tempting us with the offer of a neat trompe-l’oeil photographed world, before, at the last moment, entangling us in its messy and troubling inconsistency. But unlike the “errors” of cinematic continuity, Demand’s transgressions can only ever be thought of as such against his own system. His rules are made up only to be broken; and the viewer, accordingly, is seduced into playing an ultimately tautological game of “is-it-real-or-isn’t-it?”
But what this exhibition emphasised more than anything else is that the naturalistic appeal of Demand’s work is really only a disarming point of entry into a broader meditation on the role of images in our collective consciousness. The new Tavern series is a good example. Based on images circulated in the German media of an infamous hotel where a gruesome murder of a young child took place, the affect of the works cannot be constrained within the logic of an aesthetic system. Whilst there is nothing visible in the photographs themselves to disclose their emotive origin, once we as viewers become aware of this contextual information (given here by the gallery wall-text) our understanding of the imagery cannot help but take on a far more urgent psychological and social inflection. The hotel’s ivy-clad wall, the reception desk, the forlorn looking house-plant in one of its rooms, even the cleaning cupboard – each of these formerly innocuous exercises in cardboard mimesis now take on a more sinister edge. We know the ivy is really cut and folded green paper, and we know the desk is made of cardboard; but such is the nature of our slippery and mediated relation to our image-saturated world that a photograph of a reconstruction of an image of an ordinary building can be so uncomfortably affecting.
It was here that the initially playful feel of the exhibition rapidly became secondary to a pervasive mood of portent. Even the safe banality of Kitchen proved to be an illusion – the scene apparently is based on a photograph of Sadaam Hussein’s hideout near Tikrit. It was at exactly this point – when the work seemed to be almost touching a “reality” of rawness and horror – that a certain level of imperfection in the artist’s reconstruction of that world was welcome. By cleverly puncturing the fabricated veracity of his imagery Demand managed to offer some light relief.