Much of modern art aims – ad nauseam, in many cases – to uncover the intrinsic oddness of seemingly everyday experiences. Thomas Demand’s latest exhibition conforms to this template. Many of the photographs in his NGV exhibition depict superficially ‘normal’ scenes, which become more unsettling with each glance.
Unfortunately, Demand often seems content dealing in artistic clichés. Paneel (Peg Board, 1996), for example, is simply a printed pegboard – that is, a regular array of black dots on a white background. Given that dismal opener, I initially feared that I was in for a bleak hour of mini-Mondrian doodles.
Fortunately, things soon improve with the striking, high-sheen Lichtung (Clearing, 2003). Demand’s vision of dappled light filtered through leaves, while straightforward in subject matter, certainly contains deft use of texture. Warm light feathers the leaves, with the scene’s richly defined brown trunks creating a crisp collage-like contrast.
Demand’s reverence for nature is repeated in Grotto (2006), a magnificent panorama of a cave lacerated by horizontal striations which give it the appearance of an intricate Lego landscape. Yet the open-ended interpretability of this and other images also seemed to cloud the artist’s aims – is his exhibition a collection of stark and beautiful shots pregnant with meaning, or is there a higher purpose at work?
It’s too soon to tell, as these bucolic impulses give way to a far colder, detached and oblique perspective. This segue is perfectly represented by Labor (Laboratory, 2000), a photograph of a soundproof booth, which inventively manipulates perspective and vanishing point. The angle at which the room is photographed makes it resemble a giant Necker Cube, pivoting back and forth between convex and concave when the viewing angle shifts. Demand obviously savours the patterns interlaced with the constructed and natural worlds, as the booth’s geometric baffles resembled a fractal-like organism.
Another of Demand’s grand themes is the disconcerting perfection of our constructed world. For example, Copyshop (1999) presents what would, in less meticulous hands, appear as a banal photocopying room. Yet the tightly controlled details tell another story: careful arrangements of wrapped A4 reams, a buckled, decaying suspended ceiling, and the lumbering bulk of the photocopiers generate a slight feeling of unease.
This theme of emptied humans spaces continues in several other works – including Parlement (Parliament, 2009), which depicts a deserted council office divided by gold-studded black partitions. This sumptuous environment – which seems too ridiculously well-appointed for human-like creatures to work in – is presented as a beautiful object of quiet contemplation, like a Fabergé egg or the interior of a Byzantine court. Yet the reverent tone is cut against by the lever arch file on one of the desks, its cheap utility deflating the scene’s overall effect.
In Tribute (2011), a shrine to two women becomes something about which to harbour regret, as the warmth of a sea of flickering electric lanterns is undermined by the absence of people. Bullion (2003), which mines a similar vein of human absence, seems a little too much like a graphic in the Financial Review – or a particularly classy piece of clip art.
As the exhibition progresses, Demand’s intentions become buried even further under artistic opacity. By the time we get to Space Simulator (2003), for example, it’s anyone’s guess: polygonal shapes cluster around a piece of unidentified drug lab-style machinery. This theme of objects’ unyieldingness is duplicated in Shed (2006), which presents a well-ordered assemblage of pastel-tinted paint pots next to yet another miscellaneous machine (digital scales, perhaps?); Kontrollraum (Control Room, 2011), a pastel-green Goodies-style computer, draped with a lasagne of waffled plastic sheeting. At times, Demand’s endless, aimless portentousness reminded me of Resistentialism, that immortal smackdown of existential phenomenology.
One of the show’s more interpretation-friendly works, Vault (2012), depicts a storeroom of framed pictures, housed within pastel IKEA bookshelves. Each wrapped and stacked painting is gutted of its original meaning; the tissue paper-wrapped gilt frames cheapen the artworks irredeemably. A bust of Pericles peers out forlornly from one of the shelves, his majesty made ridiculous. Here, Demand portrays modern accoutrements as inherently deficient when compared with natural forms.
That’s my best guess, anyway – yet it’s impossible to know for sure. Demand’s intentions often seem to dissolve behind his undeniable mastery of mise-en-scene. Sharing the icy, withdrawn attitude of many contemporary artists, Demand’s addiction to enigmas prevents his works from breaking through the viewer’s quizzical stare. The photographs appear as brilliant tricks, rather than coherent artworks with an overarching vision.
As a result, the exhibition’s intellectual heft fails to justify its perverse resistance to any kind of interpretation. There’s no doubt Demand is a technical master, yet his motivations for creating art in the first place are unfathomable. We live in a cold manufactured environment that has traduced its natural roots, Demand seems to be telling us over and over again. Perhaps Demand’s obvious love of natural scenes makes him an odd sort of guarded sentimentalist. If so, he’s among history’s chilliest romantics.
30 November 2012 – 17 March 2013
Temporary Exhibition, Space 2 & 3
National Gallery of Victoria
Tim Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.