Pin It
1. AN35_M6_Art_Project_part1_01
Blocks II, 2018, Framed pigment print, 83×110cmMODEL STUDIES III © THOMAS DEMAND, VG BILD-KUNST, BONN / DACS, LONDON.

Thomas Demand and Elizabeth Diller on Refraction and Reality

As the artist’s latest work is unveiled at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, he talks to the award-winning architect about the space between intention and realisation

Lead ImageBlocks II, 2018, Framed pigment print, 83×110cmMODEL STUDIES III © THOMAS DEMAND, VG BILD-KUNST, BONN / DACS, LONDON.

Models offer an idealistic rendering of reality – a streamlined and simplified replica. Their purpose is to communicate or represent something else: a place, an object, an idea or a social structure. For two decades, models have been a key concern of the contemporary artist Thomas Demand; photography is another. The son of two painters and the grandson of an architect, Demand first exhibited his work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1996, in the gallery’s annual ensemble photography show, New Photography 12. He has since been the subject of solo shows at MoMA again, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Fondazione Prada, Milan, and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Demand focuses on ideas of reality, beginning his process with a found photograph depicting a space or object of social significance. These span the archives of Nazi-propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl; the room-service table holding Whitney Houston’s last meal at the Beverly Hilton the night she died (a photograph that circulated widely online before her funeral); the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant control room, days after the 2011 tsunami; the Baader-Meinhof Group’s unexploded rocket launcher – a souvenir of an unfulfilled attack on the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, organised in 1977. From such pictures, Demand sculpts life-sized models using carefully folded paper and card. He then photographs them on a Swissmade Sinar – a large-format camera with a telescopic lens – after which the sculpture is destroyed and its two-dimensional simulation remains. Meticulous and uncanny, these images are at once hyper-real and hyper-strange, both confirming and disrupting our understanding of events. They operate as impressions of our collective realities and histories, refracted thrice – twice through the photographic lens, a piece of apparatus that has come to define our daily lives since its invention in the 19th century.

Demand’s Model Studies, however, appear to depart from this, his usual practice. Turning his lens on architects’ models, rather than his own, he investigates the space between conception and realisation. These abstract and textural series zoom in on often discarded and disregarded models – miniature imaginings of building designs that bear the marks of craft, hope, indecision and exploration. In fact, three-dimensional space has always framed Demand’s vision: he studied sculpture, not photography, under professor Fritz Schwegler, alongside Katharina Fritsch, Thomas Schütte and Gregor Schneider. His works have been girdled by architecture – by construction – ever since.

Here, he discusses the third in this series with award-winning architect Elizabeth Diller. Diller, who co-founded studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), is responsible for the visionary designs of the pending City of London concert hall, New York’s transformative High Line, and the forthcoming expansion of MoMA; she was the only architect to land a place in Time magazine’s 100 for 2018. Having entered the exhibition space as a conceptual artist – incidentally one of her first artworks, Para-site, was shown at that same museum she is now physically extending – she bridges Demand’s two worlds expertly, and lends a keen eye to the artist’s hitherto unseen series.

Elizabeth Diller: So, this is the first time that people are going to be introduced to this work?

Thomas Demand: Yes. This is the third in a series, but it started when I first went to the Getty Research Institute [Los Angeles], as a scholar – there wasn’t any material that I could work with, but they had this nondescript extra storage space outside in the Valley, where they held the crates of John Lautner’s office, among other bulky holdings. He always threw everything away, except those that didn’t get built. So when they cleaned the office, they had 12 of these really run-down, tiny little objects – you can’t show them, they’re way too fragile.

He wasn’t a great draughtsman so he’d make a model, give it to his staff, and they’d make a drawing of it. But he would change the look of the building on the model itself – not the drawing – so they were interesting for me because they’re not full representation, they’re not to be presented to the client, they’re for the creative process. They add value, they add insight, they add knowledge – they produce knowledge. That’s what I was after in these models.

ED: Were you already interested in Lautner’s buildings?

TD: Not at all, and actually all the architects I know thought he was a bad architect. In the beginning I couldn’t really deal with his architecture because it’s so convoluted and there are too many ideas going on at the same time. And then a friend of mine quipped, “The movie world was really fascinated by him,” and I thought, “That’s interesting!” And I realised why, because when you pan, the camera can follow a person through the architecture in a Lautner building. The backdrop changes – if you move the camera from left to right, you definitely don’t end up in the same architecture that you started in.

ED: There’s a phenomenon – his buildings are very present in Hollywood films, and they’re always owned by the villains.

TD: Huh. I didn’t even realise that.

ED: Yeah, it’s a pretty systematic Modernist critique. But coming back to Lautner’s models, so you found this archive...

TD: So these 12 crates – it’s a huge procedure to open them because of the protocol, but every other week I had an afternoon with one of them. It took me a year to get my photographs together. I hadn’t planned to make pictures for the wall, I just thought, “Let’s have a look and see where this leads me.” I looked at them as objects and not as representations of buildings. And that’s what’s great about them never having been built – you can’t really compare them with the real buildings. At the same time they are very hectic and very anti my model. My model is always this kind of utopian composition, as if – if time would stand still and there were no traces of anything, no writing, nothing – everything was kind of an abstract idea. And these ones are abstract but they’re not utopian and they are filled with markings, or clues to the people who’ve ripped them apart and then reglued them, made notes for the architect, made notes of where the trees would go and stuff. And I like that complete opposite to my own model – that’s what I saw in them. It’s probably the most photographic project that I’ve ever done.

ED: Maybe they’re not so different – I mean, they look different, but they’re both by-products of the process, of which the model itself is not the end product.

TD: Exactly. The next step was I didn’t want to leave the Lautners alone, I thought they had become so monumental that it becomes too much about Lautner, about why I think Lautner’s great or not great. And I was going to Japan anyway for a project and was going to visit the SANAA studio. [The Tokyo-based architecture firm SANAA was co-founded by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.] It’s a relatively small company – about 35 to 40 people – and they all come from different places. Most of them are American, German or Swiss and the other half are Japanese. But the Japanese people don’t speak very good English – or they don’t want to speak English – so the whole office communicates with models. The first time I went, [Kazuyo] Sejima showed me around and there were heaps and heaps of models sitting around on top of each other. They’re all made with office-printer paper – really flimsy – rarely bigger than an A4 sheet. So she picks this opera house up and the whole heap falls down, then she rummages around for something else, and it was so amazingly charming to just see her playing with these objects. Then I realised that by leaving it there – the opera house they never won, which never got built – it stays around, literally, physically. I liked the idea of something that may never see the light of day becoming part of the conversation. It’s really beautiful.

But there’s another role that paper, or the model, plays in that communication. The whiteness, or the lightness, often affects the colour of the buildings – or the lack of colour – with Sejima. And much of it comes from making these kind of really cheap, office-printer-paper models. The whiteness is really very beautiful. Once, she took me on a tour of her buildings in Japan, and in some, the roof was hanging down – sagging – and me, being German, I think a building has to be solid and last for ever, so I said, “Well, that’s really sad that it’s sagging,” and she said, “No we built it like that especially because we liked it on the model!”

This third part of the series is on Hans Hollein – he’s dead, obviously, but I had the opportunity to look into his bequest before it got thrown away. His kids let me in to see all the overflowing spaces he had filled over the decades. Formally, the work is very dated – it has these kind of rainbow colours, for instance. So it’s not about beauty, whereas with SANAA, that is about beauty, contemporary beauty, and about representing the feeling of how you want to live. These are old models, they’re from years ago and you just know that nobody would make them any more, but there is a certainspark of freshness in this that is not retro – it’s just very raw.

That’s what I am actually looking for in these models. Where the model itself plays a role in forming the ideas. The creative process of getting somewhere, or getting nowhere. And this is not about the digitisation of the office – I know that most architectural offices don’t use models very often now. I think part of my interest in the making of a model is the making of the model with my hands. I was wondering whether you feel that. Going through the books on DS+R, there are not many models in there, but I have the feeling that much of your exhibition work would have used models...

ED: Well...

TD: No?

ED: Actually, we do make a lot of models.

TD: But you never show them?

ED: We don’t really celebrate them. But for the Reviewing the Slow House project, [Desiring Eye: Reviewing the Slow House, 1989, the conceptual design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro – “conceived as a passage, a door that leads to a window... a physical entry to an optical departure” – existed only as a multimedia installation (a series of models) exhibited at Toto Gallery Ma, Tokyo, Le Magasin, Grenoble, and Arc en Rêve, Bordeaux.] we specifically made models that were new manifestations of the same idea. The model was not on its way to anything, it was the thing itself. After the building, they become a representation of, or the embodiment of, the idea. But the traditional way to think about a model is that you build it for a client, for them to understand what you’re doing.

TD: And also, I think that the regular model is about impressing your client.

ED: Yes, but there’s something about miniatures, or miniaturisation, that is very appealing and very universal in a way. It’s not so easy for a lot of people to look at two-dimensional representations – except perspective and renderings, which everyone fears is propaganda. The model on the other hand stands for an objective view of the thing, so that you, as a client, can actually see it any way you want, from whatever perspective you want. I don’t think much has changed there, although architects have added more tools to their repertoire – digital modelling and VR, even. We use models in all sorts of different ways. But I think the way you’re talking about models is very much the way we still work – things you can’t accomplish through other technologies. By cutting things, putting pieces of cardboard together with tape or glue, you can start to see the relationships between them. Whereas in digital modelling, you basically have to find the coordinates, to extract the entire process and then bring it back to some kind of version of representation. So I still think the latter allows you to think fast, but I also find that models are disposable and I don’t feel that kind of pressure.

TD: Would you say there is a degree of coincidence there? Can a coincidence come from the model and go back into the design process? Is it a two-way process?

ED: It is two-way. In my training I laboured over drawings and models. Drawings are basics – you know how to look at them. But with a model, you can circle it, turn it upside down, crush it, or deliberately misread it. That ability to misread it actually produces something else – you get a little bit of understanding of behaviour and performance. That’s why the story about Sejima is interesting – the sag came out of the paper, and then it was reproduced in a three-dimensional, solid way that’s permanent. I think that models are not going anywhere, but what’s interesting are new tools such as three-dimensional printing – you tell the printer what you want, you leave it over-night, you come down in the morning and the elves have made it.

TD: It’s a little bit like drawing in three dimensions, no?

ED: Yeah, it’s a weird process that doesn’t resemble the construction of an idea. It’s very much a kind of mould, or a product, of a concept. It doesn’t serve the same purpose as the models that you’re talking about, which are like action paintings or feedback.

TD: Yes, they’re feedback in the sense that you learn, you realise it’s not working. Whereas on a computer everything is so shiny it all looks good in the first place. With a model the failure is so much more visible. Whenever I do something on a computer it’s always so linear in terms of where it will end up. You never make a detour.

ED: Coming back to the trilogy, do you think of it as a trilogy? Or do you think of it as a series?

TD: No, it’s just that I can’t always make models. When I started The Dailies, [The Dailies is an ongoing series of photographs of models based on iPhone photos. They portray quotidian daily scenes: details of fences, rubbish, sinks – domestic ephemera that catches the artist’s eye.] I wanted to do something more like a poem, or a haiku, rather than a novel. As a parallel idea, a writer can also write about a post office and how that works, and it could be an interesting piece of writing, even if it’s not fictional. And in this case, the models are not fictional but they emphasise the notion of thinking by hand. In a sense they’re also not figurative. The work that I’m most known for is very representational. I find it interesting to work with architecture that is not about building, but about the process and how you find the form, and how you use the form, which I think is equally important.

ED: So, I’m curious about Hollein. He is this very particular figure of architecture, not that well known, not popular. He was part of a certain moment in the Sixties, when he was a rebel, but he continues to be unusual and interesting in lots of different ways.

TD: Well, first of all he was instrumental in architectural Modernism, for Schindler, Neutra, et cetera. There are a couple of things in early Hollein that are really interesting, like the collages, for example. Just amazing. There’s this scale and incredible freedom of thought. His Monument to Victims of the Holocaust [Hollein’s design – a vast concrete structure resembling an inverted train carriage monumentalised on the road – was never realised, but its graphic depiction, drawn in 1963, is held at MoMA.] is just outrageous. If I were to do that today I would probably be crucified. The blow-up office [designed in 1969] – a plastic bottle that you sit inside. They’re amazing and inspiring, especially if you look at the work of Raumlabor and other nomadic concepts lately.

ED: But he called a lot of that work his artwork, he didn’t call it architecture.

TD: No, no, it’s architecture. He just did whatever he wanted to do, when he got the chance.

ED: His architectural work is not his best work, but the early stuff...

TD: Like the Retti candle shop in Vienna. The candle shop is just unbelievable – have you ever been in?

ED: No.

TD: It's tiny, it’s the size of a toilet. The use of space and mirrors – it’s so genius, just fantastic. I really like the creative input. It’s Baroque, admittedly. I focused on the exhibition designs mostly, stands for the candle company, a room for a museum.

ED: He came at a certain moment when Postmodernism arose in architecture. His work was really radical and independent, and then all of a sudden he does a building and it’s axial, it’s symmetrical, has the features you’d expect. But then, your work on the models – there are three different kinds of model and three different types of response, from what I’m seeing. With Hollein, it’s not in the empathetic way that you shot the Lautner. There, one feels the abjectness, those sort of memories that are unrecoupable – you don’t know what they stand for, and you lose sense of it. I think with SANAA, you really see a process – the multiplicity of the process. There’s something very much about real time. Your approach to those photos, you were left with the boxes, you had to figure out what they were, you decoded them, you figured out which ones represented Hollein. It was much more archaeological. With Lautner, you’re just seeing it as it is, this material.

TD: And it’s well-processed material. I’m seeing this in a crate that costs probably $4,000 to make earthquake-safe and trying to get these alive again. And trying to get something out that is not seen because the Getty doesn’t process mistakes and ruptures, that’s not why they keep it. They just keep it because they can’t throw it away. The Holleins are rather on the edge of disappearing, it’s stuff left in overfilled apartments.

ED: This is the problem with making archives, there’s all this knowledge that is going to keep accruing – we’re going to run out of space. We’re very sentimental about these things, maybe there’s some kind of belief that they’re going to be worth something. There’s a sort of cultural need for some institution to represent them.

TD: ‘Cultural need’ is a good term to use because I think the model is a completely underexposed cultural need. We always talk about iconoclasm, we talk about pictures replacing text. The internet completely depends on pictures now – text is actually in the way, and shouldn’t be more than 280 characters. What’s really behind that is we model our world because it’s too complex to understand it. Retirement funds – they work with models, demographic models. The weather forecast is a model. We’re making models all the time because we need to, to represent our sense of reality. I think there’s also a relationship between the object and yourself as a person, and that’s why I was asking in the beginning whether your models are for exhibitions, because you don’t show models of your works in a show.

ED: You rarely make models for exhibition purposes, you make models for other reasons, but also everything you do and everything you make – at whatever scale – has to have an official relationship. At the same time, you’ve talked about loss in models, about the space between image and subject. In the cases of Model Studies you have said that you were drawn to what gets lost between the model and the building, between those initial intentions and the practicality of the building itself. I guess, with architecture, there’s the loss of a big idea when it’s translated into a bunch of processes, into budgets. Is there a different kind of loss that takes place in the journey from the vision of a thing – of a real space that you understand from photos, or from being there – to a model, then to a photo? Again, it’s translation, translation, translation – do you look at that as a loss? How would you put that?

TD: It’s actually the game. It’s what I’m after, I’m after the mini mistake, the copy mistake. Because I’m not trying to make something that looks like the real thing. I’m trying to retell this story with my own experiences. Like with Kitchen, [Kitchen, 2004, is a C-print photograph of Demand’s own paper reconstruction of the kitchen in Saddam Hussein’s hideaway in Tikrit, Iraq.] I’ve never been inside Saddam Hussein’s kitchen but I know that he has the same Tupperware as I do at home. The way we read the world is through what we know to be in the world – we have a pretty good overview of the western consuming world, and what configures a kitchen, what configures a bedroom, what configures the light coming through a window. That’s not only because we have a kitchen at home, it’s because we’ve seen a thousand kitchens in pictures. I’m not trying to make the kitchen authentic, I’m trying to get an abstract idea of it. We all have a kitchen in our head – if we talk about a kitchen, we both know what that is. If I say, “Now imagine the kitchen of Saddam Hussein,” you’ll go through your inner archive, to find whether you have any memories of that. However, it’s a construction – a complete construction. We don’t have pictures in our head – the construction happens from the moment I mention it, or you see my picture. You just construct something yourself. That’s what we see, and there’s a lot of loss in there, because otherwise you would go bonkers, you need to leave a lot of information behind.

So the space between is what I’m after. I love fictional literature for that, for the speed of imagination that develops. If you read a good book, you’re imagining what the characters look like. At the same time, I always have to keep it very clear that it’s a modern mock-up, and that this of course isn’t in the real photograph, I’m putting something in that replaces the authenticity of the original, in a sense.

ED: That’s a beautiful thought – the loss is actually, I think, the gain. The extraction is the process and that’s something that gets into the essence of something, and allows it to be interpretable.

TD: Yeah, that’s exactly everything. It needs to be open though, because then I don’t need a label on my work in 50 years, explaining it. Of course, there can be a label because we all share stories and you can always find out what a certain painting is about if you don’t see it yourself. But in the end, the work I do has to have a life on its own. If it’s too close to what it’s supposed to represent, it doesn’t fly.

Model Series III will be exhibited at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, from November 15, 2018, until January 17, 2019.

This story originally featured in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine which is on sale internationally now.