Column: Art / Music / Theatre

Life’s Unfamiliarity

by Tim Roberts , December 18, 20121 Comment

Artist Thomas Demand. Photo credit: C. Lange

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.

Thomas Demand
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.

  • cars

    All large purchases are always intimidating, especially if
    you are uninformed about the industry. One of the scariest
    purchases is buying cars. Many people fear they are getting ripped off and you
    surely don’t want that. Avoid buying a lemon by looking through these great tips and tricks regarding car purchases.

9004993292_3d8f026110_z (1)

Samantha Forge

Apples and Oranges: The false economy of the parallel importation debate

The government’s recent decision to support the removal of parallel importation restrictions (PIR) on books shows that it is determined to treat Australian books like oranges. This stance makes it clear that the government sees no particular cultural value in the works of Australian authors, and in the production of Australian literature. Rather, it values above all else the unit price of a book, regardless of its origin. Read more »


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


Adam Rivett

Tell Me, Princess: The evolution of Disney’s princess songs

Two years ago today, Disney’s Frozen was unleashed upon the world. As far as rapacious corporate behemoths go, it’s one of the more appealing, and remains surprisingly resilient to repeat screenings. But at the heart of its achievement sits one indisputable melodic and cultural phenomenon: ‘Let It Go’. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »