Does knowing make it better? Or is it better not to know?
When looking at the photograph Patio by German artist Thomas Demand, is it enough to know that because it is a work of Demand’s that it is a life-size paper re-creation of a balcony and chair that has some connection to a major news event?
Or is it more resonant to know that the white chair perched on a sisal welcome mat on a narrow apartment balcony fronted by a waist-high guard rail is Demand’s re-creation of the Santa Monica hideout of Whitey Bulger?
Demand takes real events and places, re-creates the elements in exact detail using only paper and cardboard, photographs the results, makes six prints, then destroys the set.
He brought three of his large prints of specific history-laden locations, all with an American connection, to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, for “Focus: Thomas Demand,” an exhibition that runs through July 17.
He says it is not essential to recognize the location. “It’s important, but not so important that you can’t see the picture.”
He points to Backyard, from 2014. A narrow sidewalk between two houses leads to a set of concrete steps; the yard is littered with trash. A blue plastic tarp is wadded up against the picket privacy fence. Behind the fence is a row of cherry trees in full bloom. For this photograph, Demand says, it was the contrast between the foreground that presages hidden danger and the background blossoms that speak of joy, spring, future and love.
The background does not register. The foreground tells a story that is so heavy.
“The background does not register,” Demand says. “The foreground tells a story that is so heavy. It is the discrepancy between what we do and what nature does.”
Several minutes after the original news photograph was taken, a veiled Katherine Russell, wife of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, exited the house holding a child and never returned.
Demand chose the backdoor photograph, rather than the bullet-ridden, blood-spattered boat in which his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found, because the yard was more ambiguous. The boat, he said, was too blunt, and it had too many metaphorical implications.
He chose to wallpaper the gallery in blue paper, with the crisp folds still evident, so each wall looks like a blue tarp when it is first unpacked from the hardware store — crisp and unsullied, ready to shroud something calamitous.
I try to reprivatize an image of the world and the meaning of the world with very simple means.
Demand’s use of documentary photography, re-created in paper and then photographed again, is a third iteration of someplace seen as historical. “I try to reprivatize an image of the world and the meaning of the world with very simple means,” says the artist, who has reconstructed the Oval Office (Presidency I-V, 2008), Henri Matisse’s studio floor (Atelier, 2014) and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the 2011 tsunami (Control Room, 2011).
The resulting photographs are a little flat, the elements fragile and sexless, relating just enough information to make a positive identification on a flimsy memory.
“I am sharing the same world as you. My role in this is we share a lot of stories,” he says. “We know it because we are exposed to the same information.”
He says it is like looking at an old master’s portrait. “It tells you something about the person 600 years later, what humans were like at that time. It doesn’t matter if we know who that person is.”
To test his assertion, take a look at Hole, a photograph from 2013. It has an American connection, but there is no information about it in the brochure.
“If you are curious, you can ask at the museum, you can read, the information is available,” the artist says.
So, is it better to know?
Focus: Thomas Demand
- Through July 17
- Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St.
- 817-738-9215; www.themodern.org