November 25–January 17, 2008
Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers are delighted to present the first solo exhibition of new work by German artist Thomas Demand in the UK since his acclaimed Serpentine exhibition in summer 2006. Following an invitation from the New York Times, Demand has created a timely and unnerving body of work which examines the literal and metaphorical seat of global power in the twenty-first century – the Oval Office in the White House, Washington, D.C.
The Oval Office, the official workplace of the President of the United States of America, is one of the most instantly recognisable interior locations in the world, its image a symbolic shorthand for the exercise of ideological and geopolitical will. Yet Demand’s photographs, rather than capturing the original Oval Office in all its formal opulence, instead depict a meticulously recreated life-sized model, fabricated from paper, cardboard and confetti. Each of the five images of this near-perfect reconstruction of the most powerful room in the world is articulated through a complex compositional language, making the reading of each photograph an aesthetically and conceptually troubling experience.
Demand’s photography has long focussed on painstakingly detailed reenactments of specific and familiar places, public or private sites often loaded with social and political meanings. His models are highly detailed, yet they retain subtle but deliberate flaws and anachronisms to disrupt the viewer’s comfort with the scene. This series also renders an immediately recognisable scene alien through an innovative attention to perspective and formal composition. The oval shape of the Oval Office is not usually a prominent feature of the multiplicity of images of this iconic space, yet in Demand’s rendition, the eye is fascinated by it. Similarly, the viewer’s expectation is that this room will be inhabited, either by politicians or actors pretending to be politicians, and that it will be experienced on a human scale and at eye level. However, Demand’s Oval Office is conspicuous in its human absence, an emptiness that is heightened by the ground-level and bird’s eye perspectives from which the room is viewed.
The effect of Demand’s work has been to challenge any complacent assumptions about photography’s claims to verisimilitude, and to complicate conventional notions of authenticity and artifice. However, in the context of this new body of work, Demand’s practice gains an ever more politicised momentum. Blurring boundaries between believability and pretence in the Oval Office necessarily points to a critique of power as it has been wielded in the White House. Photographing a near-exact replica of the US President’s office suggests intriguing connections between statecraft and stagecraft, and the disposability of the construction materials (each of Demand’s models is destroyed after it has been photographed) undermines any naïve faith in the permanence and unshakeability of American, or indeed any, political authority.
This new exhibition marks a distinctive counterpoint to a number of Demand’s recent major works. Tavern (2006), currently on view at Tate Modern, is, like this body of work, a suite of five images which take a media-saturated location, in this case the site of a horrific murder in Germany, and powerfully evoke a sense of ambivalence and the uncanny in how images of such memorable and familiar places are received. It can also be viewed as a companion piece to Demand’s Embassy, part of his presentation at the Fondazione Prada at Fondazione Giorgio Cini, in Venice in June 2007. Embassy centred on the reproduction, physically then photographically, of Niger’s consulate in Rome, which was the ultimate destination of a trail of political intrigue involving the recent history of nuclear proliferation, and the basis of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. These photographs depict a highly politicised and geopolitically significant space, but one which was cluttered, dark, unknown and locked away from view. This contrasts with Demand’s image of the Oval Office – an eerily airy and instantly recognisable political environment which is defined by its public accessibility, and whose image is so widely dispersed it looms ever-present in the collective visual vocabulary of contemporary Western culture. The connection between the two works, in political and aesthetic terms, is confirmed by the presence in these photographs of a framed image of a black figure that appeared in Embassy. Not only does this intervention jar with the viewer’s visual expectation of the Oval Office, but it reifies the problematic ways in which race, history and the Third World might be located within the American political order.