The DHC Art Foundation in Montreal is small, and wonderful. The exhibitions that I’ve seen there have been beautifully installed and it’s a lovely experience to see so few works at a time, curated as they are across four intimate floors and into a nearby space. Thomas Demand is well known in Europe as the photographer who meticulously recreates images from the media – in a 1:1 scale – out of paper, photographs them and then destroys the models. DHC was showing some photographs alongside his incredibly labour-intensive stop motion films so subtle and mysterious that they are best with no distractions.
Thomas Demand, Rolltreppe (Escalator), 2000. All images: VoCA
One of the first pieces in Animations is Rolltreppe (Escalator), 2000, showing the top of an escalator, improbably made of paper, with grey paper steps continually disappearing into its paper top. You can watch it HERE.
The repetitive motion of the escalator steps was echoed in an enormous projector across the room, whose film appeared to spool around and out the other side. I recall that artist Rodney Graham has also used this sort of ‘mirroring’ technique with elaborate projectors in his film pieces. It’s an effective relationship that makes the film as much about film (or in this case, its disappearance) as about Demand’s always present backstory. Here, the story had to do with a murder on the London Underground.
Rodney Graham, Rheinmetall/Victoria 8, 2003. Image: bombsite.com
Also in the exhibition were some pieces from a series about the Nigerian embassy in Rome. The backstory here involves a break-in in 2001, in which some official stationary and seals were stolen. Letters surfaced shortly thereafter that told of Saddam Hussein’s attempt to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons. Although the documents were dismissed as forgeries, President George W. Bush cited them as a reason to go to war with Iraq.
A photograph from the Embassy series, 2007.
This almost unbelievable story makes one question the very idea of ‘truth’. If ones truth is simply what one believes, the consequences can be clearly alarming. But Demand knows that we live in an age where we can’t take ‘truth’ at face value. When that idea is abstracted to Demand’s art, the wobbly ‘truth’ that we perceive in the media is used as a basis for a further re/deconstruction as fragile (and temporary) paper model which is then photographed, creating even more distance between the viewer and the actual, real thing (the original break-in.)
All this to say that for me, what makes Demand’s work great is that underneath all the layers it is ultimately about the idea that life – Truth – is an illusion.
The other piece that struck me was Pacific Sun, 2012, another stop motion film that shows furniture sliding dramatically across the lower floor of a cruise ship caught in a storm. The piece is based on THIS video, which is surreal, but in Demand’s reconstruction naturally everything is carefully reconstructed in paper, and there are no people. It’s interesting to compare my images of the film with the actual video.
Anchoring Demand’s piece is a hanging lamp in the background. As the most sensitive object, it swings first and alerts the viewer to the ‘reality’ of a completely unreal vision. It’s a destabilizing film on several levels, particularly since the original youtube video is so hard to believe. It goes against what we take for granted – that we are in control of our bodies and actions. But there are forces greater than we are. And it’s important to remember that.