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Finding the Artful in Artless Spaces: A Review of Thomas Demand’s ‘The Complete Papers’ | Features

Weighing in at over 6 pounds, the breadth of work and reference material makes The Complete Papers, the newest and most comprehensive book from the artist Thomas Demand, an indispensable resource for anyone invested in art, architecture or media theory. The catalogue raisonné compiles all of Demand’s individual works, selections from larger series works and the most critical texts from art and architecture historians over a 28 year span. 

Join us at Archinect Outpost on March 29th, from 7-9pm to host artist Thomas Demand and The Complete Papers, the comprehensive survey of the artist’s photographs to date. 

I have been dreading the thought of writing a review of The Complete Papers, Thomas Demand’s recently released monograph – not because I loathe the artist, nor because I find his work as banal as the artist might describe it himself, but rather because I have been a fan of Demand’s for so long without ever committing my reflections on paper. Our most important creative references, after all, are often those which leave us speechless.

But with the help of The Complete Papers, I have been able to gain perspective on the work of the incomparable artist in a way I never have before. Weighing in at over 6 pounds, the breadth of work and reference material makes it an indispensable resource for anyone invested in art, architecture or media theory (I happen to be a writer on all three). The catalogue raisonné compiles all of Demand’s individual works, selections from larger series works and the most critical texts from art and architecture historians over a 28 year span.

Kitchen [a recreation of Saddam Hussein’s cooking station in his fabled hideaway], by Thomas Demand. 2004.

One’s introduction to the work of Thomas Demand is typically based on its novelty: his photos of archival storage rooms, offices and other familiar spaces are, in reality, elaborate paper models destroyed shortly after being photographed. Once it is learned that Demand is principally a sculptor, rather than merely a photographer, and that the scenes constructed are recreations of sites made famous by media events (most typically crime scenes), the unfolding of the many layers of intention behind each photograph becomes the patient observer’s slow and pleasurable challenge to discover what an artist can teach us about architecture.

Media As Modern Architecture; An essay by Beatriz Colomina

Beatriz Colomina’s short essay, Media as Modern Architecture, included in the book expertly summarizes this connection: “Demand works at the speed of an architect – his process is so laborious and time consuming that he can only make a few photographs each year – and yet, little by little he is building a city made of diverse crime scenes (past and present) and other media-charged sites… He builds the architecture of the image.” Because we are not given access to the models beyond the photographs Demand takes of them, we are tasked with imagining their construction with more depth than we ever did their referents.

Control Room, by Thomas Demand. 2011.

And this is precisely what the monumentality of The Complete Papers stands for: the fact that architecture is almost always a deceptively elaborate image, constructed based on principles that we have come to expect of it. The experience of flipping through the pages of the book is interrupted by loose papers signifying the years, followed by a photo of one of Demand’s photos in an ‘actual’ architectural space, typically a museum or billboard. His work’s presence in exhibition settings is itself delightfully deceptive; they appear less as photographs than as spaces one can crawl into, allowing their observers to leave the finicky white boxes that house them and enter the precise, dirt-free scenes of the artist’s meticulous creation.

A spread from The Complete Papers, featuring Space Simulator. 2003.

But beyond all the conceptual layers of his paper-thick photographs, there is a simple and endlessly inspiring lesson one can take from his work as a whole: that the spaces we inhabit, no matter how seemingly banal, generic or characterless, are rarely given the level of scrutiny they deserve.

Join us at Archinect Outpost on March 29th, from 7-9pm to host artist Thomas Demand and The Complete Papers, the comprehensive survey of the artist’s photographs to date. 

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