Thomas Demand Talks "Tunnel" and More at SFMoMA

Posted by David Ozanich — 18 Jan 2011

demand.jpgThomas Demand via SF Chronicle

I've been a fan of Thomas Demand, a German sculptor-turned-photographer, ever since I first encountered his work in the The Modern, the tony restaurant at the base of New York's Museum of Modern Art. He constructs elaborate and realistic cardboard dioramas and then photographs them. Below is "Clearing" (2003) which is for lack of a better term a trompe l'oeil photograph of a forest built from construction paper. It adorns the eastern wall of The Modern's bar area.


The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Demand about his work which is represented in SFMoMA's "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870." Below, an excerpt in which they discuss his piece "Tunnel" (1999):

Q: I know only your still photographs. When did you start doing moving images and why?

A: In 1998, I was invited by the Tate to do a piece for their Project Room. I did a piece about a tunnel. It was the year after the accident in Paris that killed Princess Diana, but I proposed it the year before. So I decided I had to change it to a camera moving through a building, because after the accident, everybody would think it was about the accident. ... Later I played around with animation a lot, so this is actually not a video in that sense, it's single pictures. For that reason, it's also very sharp, sharper than a video image would be. There are 780 individual pictures. The nicest moment, of course, is when you have the reflection in the camera glass.

Q: Yet that's the moment when it looks most artificial ...

A: But I like it because you have the movement of the fake video camera and the movement of the real camera, the handheld camera I used to take the pictures. So you have the movement of two cameras at the same time for every picture. ... The point is that with a photograph, as opposed to film, you can look at it very closely, and it reveals itself as being not what you thought it was, but as a construction.

Q: Let me ask you then about the choice of what your photographs depict, since they are all complete fabrications. Are they based on your observation of the world?

A: Very often they are based on other people's photographs. For example, the tunnel piece I mentioned earlier came out of observing many photographs of the Paris tunnel where the fatal accident occurred. It struck me then that everybody knows a little bit about this nondescript tunnel in Paris. It has this weird quality of putting us all on the same level of information, which is very different from 30 years ago. I find it very interesting to what extent pictures become our surroundings and to what extent they determine our ideas of the world.

I like the paparazzi pictures in the show because they are like a bastardized moment of something of public interest. Also, you are reminded how young this idea is of stars being photographed in this way.

Q: Have you ever used a camera surreptitiously?

A: No, because I'm not really a photographer. I studied sculpture. That's why I make the things I construct life size. I hate small models.

Here's the film "Tunnel" via The Exposure Project and Ubuweb which describes it thusly:

The film presumably shows a fast-paced tracking shot through the tunnel in which Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash. At first the viewer seems to remember seeing these images in the media. But in reality the set is a true to life, cardboard mock-up of architectural details. Under closer inspection, one also realizes that instead of reproducing reality Thomas Demand creates a perfectly-constructed model world. The cleverly-lit cardboard scenery takes up an incident of recent history and, in doing so, mirrors the illusionary features of what appear to be familiar images. The film literally reflects upon the model of our relationship to images from the mass media. In the process, the construction, representation and repetition of reality create a complex weaving of connections. That the accident used as the theme was the result of a hectic, car chase caused by paparazzi lends the work yet another aspect of the reflection of the media.

Read the rest of the Chronicle's interview here. Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 is on view at SFMoMA through April 17th.

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