A Personal Picture Gallery Touches a National Nerve: Thomas Demand at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie

Jessica Backus
Nov 22, 2012 4:34AM

Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin celebrated its fortieth anniversary this year. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the perimeter, creating a sleek symbol of modern rationalism and transparency in their marriage of interior and exterior space. Yet during the building’s first few years, heavy curtains hung along its entire expanse. As if in erudite tribute to the museum’s history, for his recently opened exhibition, Nationalgalerie, the German artist Thomas Demand elected to break up the cavernous interior into a number of more intimate galleries by use of muted gray, blue, and mustard curtains. Reaching floor to ceiling, the heavy draperies bracket galleries as vignettes in the otherwise undefined space of the Nationalgalerie. Their seemingly innocuous blandness creates the perfect stage for an artist who so resolutely undermines the nature of the photographic medium as a window onto the world. 

Demand is known for his large-scale, arid photographs of what appears to be an alternate reality, where the messy carbon-based matter of everyday life has been replaced by lines so impossibly crisp as to seem digitally rendered. But looks can be deceiving; what we see are in fact cardboard, paper and Plexiglas maquettes of settings both quotidian and historically important, painstakingly reconstructed on a one-to-one scale, then photographed straight on. Since Demand destroys the original models, his photographs are the only traces of these fly-by-night worlds. Sculptural, performative, and, ultimately, photographic, these compositions appear to be perfectly objective “prototypes of themselves,” as the artist calls them.

Demand’s practice revives a question that has long haunted the medium of photography: what claims to documentary truth may the photograph stake, and what is the nature of the reality it purports to capture? These questions of medium specificity have long provided a ready framework for understanding his oeuvre, and it is for this reason that the current exhibition is so pivotal in shifting attention to the subject matter of his work: the complex interplay between national identity and image-making.

The very title of the exhibition, which translates as “national gallery,” announces both its institutional indebtedness as well as its import as a national occasion (fittingly, it coincides with the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sixtieth of the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany). And what images make it into the halls of Demand’s national gallery? The Wolf’s Lair conference room that witnessed the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, a room in the STASI archive, and a small photo booth that took the mug shots of arrested members of the Red Army Faction, the home-grown leftist terrorist organization responsible for a string of high-profile assassinations in the late 1970s. Allusions to violence abound. Bathroom (1997), for example, shows a bathtub in the Hotel Beau-Rivage, where the Minister of Schleswig Holstein, Uwe Barschel, was found murdered in 1987; photographs of the bloody crime scene circulated widely in the tabloids of the day. Yet Demand does not exploit the inherent drama of such scenarios. On the contrary, all traces of human actors are removed. We are left with a pristine, inert bathroom interior that perfectly mimics the famous original photograph in every detail, save the gruesome forensics. To be sure, these works still traffic in the postmodern fascination with the ways images mediate reality, but they also exorcise historic settings of their malignancy, a need Germans, perhaps more so than any other European country, have felt with particular urgency following World War II.

For the anniversary of German reunification, popular media and official state outlets have pulled out all the stops to celebrate this landmark with self-congratulatory fanfare. With timely questions like “How German is it?” (the title of the accompanying lecture series), Demand’s exhibition is well positioned to run afield of national clichés and sentimental memorializing. But Demand looks to the past only to undermine its grandiose claims to truth. Remarking on the curtains in the exhibition design, he has said, “The fabric reminds me of an over-sized suit of Joseph Beuys,” referring to the legendary Post-War German performance artist. The exhibition at hand may wear the mantle of Beuys’ artistic struggle with being German after World War II. But it eschews his alchemical shamanism, instead presenting a banal, lifeless world that precludes any hope of transfiguration. Banality (one can’t help but think of Hannah Arendt’s theory on National Socialism as an instance of the banality of evil) is Demand’s idée fixe, and with Nationalgalerie he prompts the unsettling realization that this quality, more so than any single photograph, may define Germany’s real collective image bank.

This post has been modified from an exhibition review written in September 2009. Thomas DemandNationalgalerie was on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin from September 18, 2009 - January 17, 2010.

Jessica Backus