Thomas Demand's images have an ominous, almost suffocating atmosphere. His pet subjects — government buildings, offices, and archives — feel imbued with a history that just evades our grasp. This elusiveness owes much to the artist's working process: Demand patiently builds paper and card models that he shoots before destroying them. The pictures are almost recognizable, but not quite. For "The Dailies," currently exhibited at London's Sprüth Magers, Demand turned his camera — or rather his iPhone — to the little incidents of the everyday: a pretty flower-patterned stool, coffee cups stuck in a metal mesh, colourful pegs dangling on a washing line. True to his working technique, he reproduced these with paper models, but added a new trick at the final stage. All of the images have been printed using a dye transfer technique, an outmoded process involving fixing pigments on ordinary paper with gelatine.
"The Dailies" is also on show as the 25th Kaldor Public Art Project at Sydney's Commercial Travellers' Association, an iconic building in the centre of the city designed by modernist architect Harry Siedler. ARTINFO UK caught up with Demand to talk about obsolete processes, ephemerality, and working with Miuccia Prada.
What attracted you to the dye transfer technique?
The dye transfers, they look like a jewel, a gem, and I wanted to have a painterly quality to the photographs. It is a technique that is dying out because nobody has the material anymore. The ubiquitous way of printing photographs today is inkjet print, and somehow it felt too random to do it like that. The works I made are like these little haiku moments: you see something that has a very mundane and trivial beauty, and then you walk on. I thought that this very immediate, but also fading, and temporary kind of experience, would be really nicely balanced out by a technique which lasts longer than any other photograph technique you can find. That material hasn't been produced since 1991. They are five people in the world who still do this — and only one has the material in the size I needed.
So you met that person.
Well, I met three other ones before, and I thought: maybe it's not going to work out, I have to find another process. I tried to find that material somewhere, and the guy sits in a little island off Seattle, and we started working together. He's been printing that work since 2009. It takes 40 hours for each print. And it's not even the material you need, what you need is the experience. It's like juggling with 60 things at the same time. It's a very, very complex process.
You are best known for your photographs of paper models that take a very long time to make and are destroyed after the shoot. Is a lengthy process important to you? Do you feel it adds to the final image, as if time was imbued in the work?
No, it's not about the time. The notion of a photograph to be done in 1/16 of a second is very misleading. Only stupid people would ask a painter: how long did it take to paint this? That's not what it's about. [But] spending time with something is definitely a way of understanding what you are doing, or making it better. Here, instead of photographing other people's photographs, I decided to photograph my own at some point, just out of curiosity.
Some of your previous works were quite monumental — picturing big rooms, big objects and spaces — but with this series, you seem to have refocused your gaze on something quite modest.
It's a little bit like that. The original source material was done with an iPhone. Everybody has on their phone 3,000 photographs of something you kind of just wanted to photograph but you never know what to do with that photograph. It's just like a personal memory in a sense. And that's basically what [the pictures in this series] stand for. If you are a writer, you would write a novel, and then you would probably write another novel, but many writers also write poems. These things are much more like a short paragraph and not the big novel. It's still the same author — it's just a different form.
Could you tell me about how you've installed this particular series in Australia, in the fourth floor of Sydney's Commercial Travellers' Association?
I was walking in Sydney at one point and I just saw this building. It looks like a mushroom, right in the centre of the city, between the Tiffany and the Prada store. It's a good location, but it's completely mute to the outside. Nobody knows what's inside. The people who invited me to do a project eventually found out that this is a private club for travelling salesmen.
I found this quite interesting and funny. The hotel itself has been bought in 1974, and it's a very charming time capsule. I thought it would be a good site for a show. They have 15 rooms on that floor, and because the building is round, they are all shaped like a piece of cake. The next one is exactly the mirror to that piece of cake and so on, so you go in the same room, again, again, and again. In each room there is one picture that is changing, and a few other modifications. One of them is a short story in 15 parts by Louis Begley.
There's also a smell by Miuccia Prada. Because of the Prada store, I thought it would be nice it the space smelled like something very luxurious. I didn’t want to do interior design, I just wanted to change it and re-contextualize as something very luxurious. I thought the easiest way would be to do it with scent in the room. I called [Miuccia] and I said: "could I have the perfume of your store to use it in the air conditioning system of the hotel?" She said they didn't have any perfume in the store because the leather goods smell so distinctive, but added: "I can make you one if you want." So she designed a smell just for that, which is very generous and very beautiful.
Do you see yourself going more towards installation in the future or was it a one off?
The way you look at exhibition has been an ongoing theme in my work for 15 years. I always work with architects and exhibition designers and I did curate shows myself, which had certain exhibition devices. This time I got an invitation to do something in a public place. A public space is a little bit different. You are in competition with the neighbour's lunch, the telephone ringing on the other side, and the whole business of the city, especially in that hot spot there. So I thought I might have to think not so much as a space where I can hang my pictures onto, but make it into an experience.