Familiar strangers: Douglas Fogle on the work of Thomas Demand

A question that we have to ask about Demand’s works is whether or not we need to know their backstories. Is it enough to simply read them through the filter of historical events or personages, or does this information simply give us access to one basic level of cognition, while suppressing other possible readings? Do we need to know that Podium (2000) documents the site of an inflammatory political speech given by Slobodan Milošević in 1989 commemorating Serbian nationalists’ observation of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo that would presage the horrors of the subsequent wars and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans? The small podium, with its signs of human presence—microphones and a water glass—shrinks in significance underneath the quasi-fascistic graphic design of its stage.

This pretty much says it all, so perhaps that’s everything we need to read this image. Significantly, this is one of the few works by Demand that offers any graphic clues as to its origins and significance. His reproduction of the numerical rendition of the years “1389” and “1989” in the stage backdrop had an overdetermined ideological connotation within that context that would produce the oncoming human tragedy.

Similarly, we might ask if it’s important to know that Poll (2001) was based on an image of a series of desks at one of the secure centers where the Florida recount was taking place for the 2000 US presidential election that pitted Al Gore versus George W. Bush. As it turned out, the future of an entire global order and millions of lives were at stake in this political battle over paper, centered here on a few hundred hanging chads—incompletely punched holes in the ballots next to the candidates’ names. In Demand’s version we see stacks of sorted ballots with no traces of holes piled next to phones, file folders, and the flashlights used to determine whether the ballots had been acceptably “punched.”

Unusually for Demand’s work, Poll was created contemporaneously with the event depicted and was exhibited prior to its denouement—the swearing in of Bush as the forty-third president of the United States in January 2001. These stories certainly give us direct access to the underlying original narrative content of Demand’s sources, but in his willfully provisional re-creation of these images the record skips a beat, the photograph comes slightly out of focus, and the film jumps from its sprockets. 

There are indeed ghosts that haunt these works, only some of which are the people who once occupied these spaces, the lives that would be erased as a result of these events, and the stories that their source images once told. The truth is that the gaps in Demand’s paper constructions, their slightly imperfect replication of images of a world that no longer exists and is lost in time, allow other things and other stories to creep in and inhabit their corners and hide under their tables. The unease of the uncanny is generated here, in their material re-creation of a past reality that seems at once familiar and decidedly strange.

It is in these gaps—both metaphorical and sculptural—that Demand’s works begin to speak their own language and the fragile outlines of history begin to fall into a series of staccato utterances that address not only the occurrences being depicted but the precarious con- struction of history itself, be it in the re-imagining of a non-existent nationalist racial past or in the failure of an ideological group of jurists to uphold democracy. History’s disastrousness when it is deployed in the service of political ends can rival the consequences of its most tragic events.

 When we don’t know the story, sometimes disaster is quietly implied. In Demand’s work Control Room (2011), for example, the artist has constructed some kind of generic industrial-scientific complex arrayed with consoles replete with unrecognizable gauges, multiple control levers, computer screens, and read-outs. Surprisingly, the desks are also populated by file folders full of papers and what appear to be operating manuals. As with all of Demand’s work, this space is devoid of any visible human presence, its blank screens implying that this is a dead space. After an initial scan of this image, it is clear that something is not quite right here. We notice that the plastic tiles of its illuminated dropped ceiling have all come loose and hang precariously over this abandoned control room.

 Only after learning that this is a re-creation of a technician’s cell phone image of the abandoned and severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami do we begin to question the mute serenity of this image, which in the end is about technological hubris and the illusion of control. Sometimes disaster is far from spectacular in its visible effects.

Demand’s Ruin (2017), on the other hand, becomes a kind of stock image of all the disasters that circulate in the news media around the world. This nearly colorless depiction of a destroyed room, with its universally recognizable plastic chairs buried in rubble, is a flat and banal counterpoint to the Grand Guignol of Warhol’s silkscreen car crashes. We don’t need to know that the original source image captured children playing in this wreckage of a home in Gaza after a missile strike, as images like this have becoming depressingly interchangeable and circulate digitally as generic markers of an almost pornographic deployment of disaster and suffering.

Demand’s intentionally blank paper repetition of one of the endlessly interchangeable tragedies of contemporary conflict makes us question the very circulation of these images in the political economy of suffering, resistance, and exploitation that has come in part to define our contemporary culture of image consumption.

Extracted from Douglas Fogle’s essay ‘The Stutter of History’ from The Stutter of History by Thomas Demand (MACK, 2022)

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