Thomas Demand: Mirror Without Memory
On ViewGarage MCA
September 10, 2021–January 22, 2022
It was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who, writing for the Atlantic Monthly in 1859, coined the expression “mirror with a memory” in reference to photography. To nod to the phrase in a 2021 exhibition title should then feel like a cliché—and yet, having from the start failed to register the title of Thomas Demand’s two-floor retrospective at Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Mirror Without Memory, the ineluctable precision of its summation struck me like a minor revelation.
Demand has traditionally focused his work on the (promised) mnemonically specific indexicality of photography as a medium, and on the peculiar means by which it achieves said indexicality through the aid of mirrors and simulated proximity. Demand’s focus on his medium is not so much material as ontological, dissecting the particular documentary premise of the practice he has chosen to engage in and reassembling its constituent parts into a facsimile of the expected outcome. The artist’s modus operandi has remained largely unchanged over the years: he fastidiously recreates settings of historical importance culled from the media as plain, smoothly surfaced cardboard models, then photographs the resulting topographies before destroying the structures.
There is an eerie and unexpected comfort in Demand’s programmatically blank landscapes’ condition of being stripped of specificity. In Ruine / Ruin (2017), the scene is of a devastated domestic interior captured in the aftermath of an aerial bombardment—yet its impact is that of a cozy and pleasing tactility: the immersively haptic cartoonishness of the cardboard boulders of rubble and the dainty paper furnishings bringing to mind the stop-motion safety of a PG-rated movie. Similarly, the very recent Princess (2021) delights with the visceral corporeality of its plastic forms, glistening white surfaces, and neatly symmetrical rows of balcony separators. There is a profound cognitive dissonance in the fact that the scene depicts an overhead view of the doomed Diamond Princess cruise ship that became a nightmarish symbol of the early days of the COVID outbreak when over 500 of its passengers fell ill with the virus and became de facto prisoners of the moored vessel—the cozy enclosure and pleasing snugness of its quarters becoming a solitary confinement chamber’s stifling barrier, in reality as much as in the recreated image, with the addition of a backstory. So much theorizing about photography revolves around Roland Barthes’s famous notion of the punctum, a “sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice, […] that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” In husking the atmospheric stings, specks, and cuts off the surface of his sites, Demand deliberately severs, and forecloses, the possibility of a viewer’s connection to a place in time, the resulting images’ poignancy becoming displaced onto the act of separation from the place of origin in itself.
Throughout all of the exhibition’s scenes—in the ordinary domestic banality of 2014’s Backyard (a recreation of the Boston Marathon bomber’s house) as much as in the eerily deserted, uncharacteristically welcoming-seeming TSA station of Gate (2004) (its source photo captured after one of the 9/11 attackers passed through), among others—the simultaneously delightful and horrifying blankness and plastic-ness of the objects that make up Demand’s interiors is what both hypnotizes and repels. Nothing in your world is real, it suggests; its particularity is fictional filler filtered through the prism of sentimental delusion. “Of all the means of expression,” Henri Cartier-Bresson famously observed, “photography is the only one that fixes the precise moment. We play with things that disappear and that, once disappeared, it is impossible to revive. For us, what disappears, disappears forever: hence our anguish and also the essential originality of our trade.” Demand’s work, then, is paradoxically both a confirmation and a mockery of the Bressonian Decisive Moment, as much as of Barthes’s extra-optical punctum—his photos exacerbate the unavailability of a past while highlighting the importance of its smaller peculiarities. What hard work, they seem to suggest, is noticing!
In a clever design touch, the exhibition itself is installed within a maze of wall-sized stacks of plain white paper sheets, constituting a sui generis internal architecture separate from the hefty solidity of the museum’s Rem Koolhaas-designed space. The effect is of immersing oneself into an environment akin to Demand’s non-sites. It’s a feature that further highlights the impotence of objects that all of these photographs convey. The impression resonates through the selection of “Dailies,” Demand’s smaller-scale series of works based on smartphone snapshots of the quotidian mundanity that the artist himself has described as “an exercise in modesty,” depicting, as they do, the de-personalized, newly “undecisive” scenes like a bus stop tear-off flyer (Daily #34, 2020) or a glass of apple juice on a window sill (Daily #20, 2012). Do these singular, particular moments hold significance in the memory of their capture? They do, of course, inescapably—but not for the viewer on the other side of the camera. A mirror without memory, indeed.