interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
portraits by MAXIME BALLESTEROS
All artworks courtesy of the artist, Matthew Marks Gallery and Sprüth Magers, Berlin, London
Destroying something that you just spent months building might sound crazy, but not to Thomas Demand. The 48-year-old German artist is best known for constructing life-sized paper models of places from our collective visual and social memory only to photograph them and then destroy them. His works are often based on images widely seen in the media, like the Oval Office, the kitchen of the compound where Saddam Hussein was found in hiding, or the New York hotel room where L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics. The large-scale photographs often immediately recall whatever it is that Demand has reconstructed, but they are never meant to be perfectly realistic. Upon further inspection it starts to become clear that the edges are too clean, the surfaces too perfect. The thought process begins…
The interview with the Los Angeles-based Demand took place in his Berlin studio.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Mr. Demand, you said a couple of years ago that you see the point coming where Berlin will be a city like any other. Is that why you left for L.A.?
THOMAS DEMAND — For me, the beauty of Berlin was the openness, the lack of definition and the sense of possibility you had when you came here. That has kind of disappeared, maybe because I have been here for 16 years, maybe because everything is much more institutionalized than before. Now you have rankings and you have people who are more important and people who are less important. I’m probably in the more-important league, but that never counted five or six years ago. That wasn’t an issue. Now it does count. Suddenly you have all the dinners with the “you get in, you don’t get in” dynamic, or something like that. I watched Berlin grow in that direction, and I find it absolutely boring and a waste of time to be concerned with that. That’s not why I came; it doesn’t have anything to do with art.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Where is that going to lead?
THOMAS DEMAND — It’s kind of going the path of Barcelona, which 15 years ago was such a cool city and now it’s just a tourist trap. Nobody wants to go there; everything that used to be called creative is not anymore. So that’s the reason I wanted to leave Berlin. I never liked to stay in the same city for longer than two or three years. I moved from Munich to Düsseldorf, from Düsseldorf to Paris, from Paris to London, from London to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam to New York, and then I thought I was going to come here for two or three years or something. And after 16 years I just had the feeling I needed to go.
SVEN SCHUMANN — When you were living in Berlin, you said, “My city is ugly and it will never be Paris.” Do you prefer ugly surroundings?
THOMAS DEMAND — Well, there is a difference between ugly and ugly. Of course, everybody has a different opinion about that, but the ugly I don’t like is the one that tries to be nice but is actually hideous — like most of the apartment buildings that are springing up here. Most of the office buildings look like someone dropped them straight from Kazakhstan. Apparently it’s the same architects. They are hideous; they are annoying. It’s like a disease. It’s not even like in Dubai where you have something that is so outrageous. It’s just mediocre.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What kind of ugliness do you like?
THOMAS DEMAND — The ugliness that I was talking about is the unresolved. There is something here, something there, it’s not exactly matching this one, there’s no master plan. There’s openness, there are unused areas that nobody can make any use of.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And L.A. has a lot of that?
THOMAS DEMAND — L.A. is actually full of that. It’s so vast; it’s so big. You see so many layers on top of each other. I felt… not at home, but I felt comfortable right when I came. Always. I had been there before, but I have many friends there; I have a gallery, museums, collectors, and so I knew that I wasn’t going to go into the desert. On the other hand I knew that I was going to be able to communicate with the place, see things you wouldn’t see anywhere else, and feel comfortable.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But isn’t the social hierarchy in L.A. much more extreme than in Berlin?
THOMAS DEMAND — Yeah, but the main thing in L.A. is film. The art scene is so small and so powerless and all this VIP kind of shit is actually just the film business — it lives from that. But I don’t care. I know a few film directors and you’ll get dragged along somewhere, but I’m not a part of that mechanism, so I don’t mind.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Where do you call home these days?
THOMAS DEMAND — My friends. Wherever my friends are.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What does friendship mean to you?
THOMAS DEMAND — Friendship is not only hanging out socially; it’s also a mindset. You have a couple of people you talk to and you know they kind of understand you. You can test ideas, and you can launch projects together or not launch projects together. It’s not only about hanging out and having a good time.
SVEN SCHUMANN — It’s about having people you can trust.
THOMAS DEMAND — Yes. But especially as an artist traveling all the time, you need some people who aren’t only a consequence of your fame or your status. I think every artist, no matter if you are successful or not successful, needs to have somebody who kind of appreciates your ideas and what you do. Maybe they say, “The last one was better than the new one,” or whatever. Just this kind of leveling, like a guitar player has to tune his instrument.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you feel like you’re making different art in different places?
THOMAS DEMAND — You just go somewhere and you do something. And of course you do things that you wouldn’t have thought of. I find out about many stories in the States that I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. But the thought processes take years. I’m currently working on things that I had the first idea for two or three years ago. I’m not making watercolors of the Sunset Strip now or anything.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How many ideas do you generally develop at the same time?
THOMAS DEMAND — Two or three.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And how many do you work on at a time?
THOMAS DEMAND — Always one.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why?
THOMAS DEMAND — Because the things I make are fragile, they’re falling to pieces, so you have to stay with them. Otherwise you have to repair them more than work on them. And I usually do it all myself.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You famously destroy your models after the pictures are taken, but the photos live on. How do you make sure your artworks will remain relevant in the future?
THOMAS DEMAND — When you send it out, when it’s done, it has to have the power to be independent. And many, many artworks I know, my own and from other people, once they’re out there they kind of develop a meaning that is actually more than the painter or the artist was thinking of in the beginning. You do something, and you don’t even know why, you just have a good, intuitive feeling that this is how it should be. Then you send it out and in 10 years it has to still be meaningful in some sense. When I look at art it has to be “now.” I look at it now, I read it now, I bring my background to it, and it has to work with that.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So all art is contemporary in a sense?
THOMAS DEMAND — Exactly — because you see it now and not then. You come now with your worldview, and you look at the painting or the sculpture or whatever, and you just understand it now. So in that sense no artwork is old. Also, the aesthetics I like last longer. If you look at the last hundred years, the clean work, the very toned down and reduced work is actually the strongest.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Which artists are you talking about specifically?
THOMAS DEMAND — Look at Rothko, Lichtenstein, whatever. Look at Richard Prince, very hard and very sharp. That is where I locate myself in terms of aesthetics. When I think, “Should I leave something in, should I take it out?” I think that reducing is always better than adding, because everything you add might age really soon.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is the average visitor to a museum today too focused on the external aesthetic of an artwork?
THOMAS DEMAND — No, but it is the invitation. He will be attracted by the aesthetics. The statistical time people spend in front of an artwork is five seconds. So if you enter a big room and you see two things red over there and you like red, you are going to go for the red and you won’t really look at the other things. So in a sense it is inevitable; it’s all aesthetics. Because that is what art is about. It has an idea and it finds a form for it. You cannot escape the aesthetics.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Even with a deliberately “ugly” piece of art?
THOMAS DEMAND — Even if you shit on a canvas, it’s kind of an aesthetic act. It is just like the abandonment of what we call “aesthetic” in a sense. Aesthetics is inevitable; you cannot run away from it. However, you have this very short moment, the glimpse of an eye when the viewer should get the point why he should walk over there. When you have him there, in the second second of the five seconds, you might give him something that he thought he knows, but then it kind of doesn’t deliver. Then you have a doubt.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Which is a good thing?
THOMAS DEMAND — That doubt might involve him a little longer. But it might also be that he just likes the surface. Of course it would be nicer if I could engage him in a dialogue, which in my work would probably be the question why there is no trace of use or detail. The viewer can clearly see that it is a photograph.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is that why you leave imperfections in the paper models that you photograph? In order to catch somebody’s attention in those few seconds?
THOMAS DEMAND — In a sense, but I am not an illusionist. I find it tiring to try to convince people that it really looks like something when it doesn’t. That’s a pony trick; that’s not very interesting.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is perfection in art even achievable?
THOMAS DEMAND — Perfection is not a fixed idea. It is not a goal or a value. Perfection tends to run away. In the beginning you think perfection is, for instance, a very good print. Then you realize there is always a better print than a good print. But if it’s too good then it’s getting too slick — in the same way that a sculpture without any trace of how it’s made might be perfect in a very conventional sense, but completely imperfect in a conceptual sense.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Where does perfection lie for you?
THOMAS DEMAND — The most beautiful and perfect artwork is the one that has the smallest gesture and the biggest outcome. You want to give the viewer as much as he needs to understand what you’re showing, but then cut off. I don’t have a problem with people seeing the part that is constructed, the seam of the paper or whatever. That’s where perfection lies for me: how much effort you need for what. Of course you can always make it better, but you have to leave it at some point because you can kill things by being too nice, too worked over, and then you end up with a cadaver.
SVEN SCHUMANN — A major component of your work is the way that the viewer’s individual associations and memories interact with the image. What gets lost if someone doesn’t recognize the place you are referencing?
THOMAS DEMAND — Nothing. It’s still the same picture.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But if I recognize the place you are depicting, I would get something different out of it than if I don’t, wouldn’t I?
THOMAS DEMAND — Yes you do, but on the other hand I cannot say it’s better. It’s not necessary. The whole museum is full of stuff that we’d need explanations for. We can get these explanations, but we don’t have to get them. You can’t really say, “If you don’t read the biography of Rembrandt, you can’t understand any of his pictures.” On the other hand if you read a biography of Rembrandt, looking at his art might give you much more pleasure than otherwise. But who am I to tell you what you have to see? I don’t know what you see.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But with the advance of technology we have explanations not only for paintings in a museum but for literally everything constantly at our fingertips. Would you agree that the function of our memory is changing because of this?
THOMAS DEMAND — It makes our memory much less reliable, because we don’t need it so much anymore. In the past you needed the exact memory of a telephone number because you couldn’t reach your girlfriend otherwise. You needed to memorize things in a much more complex and exact way than you do now. Now you know that you can just look it up. You need to remember how to handle technology, but personal memories — who you are, what you want, where you go and all that — I think they’re getting softer and softer. You’re not depending on the precise reliability of them anymore because you have so many other memorizing gadgets in your pocket.
SVEN SCHUMANN — The way we travel has been hugely affected by that as well.
THOMAS DEMAND — Exactly, I can go to Dubai anytime and know how to get from A to B, which is much easier than it was 10 years ago, because I have a map on my phone. I can immediately Google the best hotel. I don’t have to have all the nasty experiences traveling that I had to have 15 years ago. Maybe I’ve become a part of the group of people who like boutique hotels, and I know if I go to this boutique hotel it will be fine. But that also limits me to a certain part of the world that is guided through the preconfigured experiences of other people.
SVEN SCHUMANN — It takes the exploration out of traveling, which kind of defeats the point.
THOMAS DEMAND — Totally. Nothing is innocent anymore. You don’t just walk out and find yourself in a place where you don’t know where you are, because you know where you are. You don’t have to learn the texture of a city anymore.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I barely even know how to get around the city that I live in anymore.
THOMAS DEMAND — You don’t need to.
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