Why Thomas Demand’s New Exhibition is Perfect Post-Pandemic Art

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Photo credit: BELEN DE BENITO
Photo credit: BELEN DE BENITO

Centro Botín, the imposing contemporary arts centre opened in 2017 to do for Santander in northern Spain what the Guggenheim has done for neighbouring Bilbao, stands on the edge of the glittering bay. “Stands” is the operative word, as the Renzo Piano-designed building (actually two, joined by an elevated walkway), is balanced on implausibly thin columns that ensure that, at ground level, there is an uninterrupted view of the sea. If one were looking for a culturally specific – nay, lazy – metaphor, you might compare it to two slabs of tortilla of the kind you see in the city’s many pinchos bars, only inverted and balanced on its toothpicks.

Like almost every cultural event that is happening now, Centro Botín’s new exhibition, Mundo de Papel, or “World of Paper”, a selection of work by the German artist Thomas Demand, should have happened already. It was scheduled for last year in fact, though due to the world events with which we are all too wearily familiar, it has only now been able to open. An enormous drag, no doubt, for the numerous people who put the exhibition together – not least the artist himself – but peculiarly, for the themes of this striking show, something of a gift.

Photo credit: Thomas Demand
Photo credit: Thomas Demand

Demand’s work consists of photographs of scenes and views that are both ordinary and extraordinary. His often large-scale prints could show something as mundane as an empty room in an architect’s office, with blank paper and rulers on the desks and the chairs pushed back; or a pot plant that has seen better days. But what if the artist were to hint to you – which, with some titles he does and with others he doesn’t – that the office is that of architect Robert Vorhölzer, who rebuilt Demand’s home city of Munich after it was all but obliterated in WWII? Or that the pot plant was found in a tavern in Burbach, Germany, where a child was raped and murdered? Not so ordinary any more.

But Demand’s work is extraordinary in another way too, because, as the name of the show suggests, everything you can see – the desks, the rulers, the chairs, the plant – is made entirely out of paper. Demand, who is in his late fifties, trained as a sculptor and began using photography only as a way to record his works, which he discards when they are finished (initially because they were too large and expensive to store). However, like so many things in life that are not what they appear to be – particularly in 21st-century life – if you look closely enough at Demand’s work, you can spot the seams.

Photo credit: BELEN DE BENITO
Photo credit: BELEN DE BENITO

“These photographs are basically fake in a sense,” Demand told an assembly of international journalists at the press conference for the new show on Friday. “In another sense, they are very real because I made them all, and you can tell.” Around him were eight “pavilions”: three-dimensional structures on which his works were hung, and which were themselves hanging from the gallery’s ceiling. The unusual design of the exhibition was supposed to echo the building it was in: the pavilions do not reach the ground so that light reflecting off the sea can flood, unimpeded, across the gallery’s wooden floors; and yet it has latterly taken on a symbolic resonance too. “Our lives have been suspended,” said Demand, “so it’s kind of coincidental, but also quite beautiful.”

There are two works which take on directly the bizarre times in which we are living and which, had the show run when it was supposed to, would not been included at all. One is a view of six balconies over one of which a single yellow awning has been drawn. Once again the ordinariness of the scene has a darker resonance: “a rendering of all our situations during the pandemic,” as Demand put it. Another image, entitled “Princess”, shows a side view of the partitioned balconies of the Diamond Princess cruise ship which, in February 2003, was forced to anchor in the port of Yokohama for four weeks after a Covid outbreak onboard. “Suddenly from the jet-set life of cruising the Pacific, it became a quarantine station,” said Demand. “So suddenly you have the same idea representing the complete opposite: prison, isolation, separation.”

Photo credit: Thomas Demand
Photo credit: Thomas Demand

Mundo de Papel also features Demand’s recreation of Whitney Houston’s last meal at the Beverly Hilton Hotel before she drowned in the bath, the cascading piles of folders (later suspected to contain blank pieces of paper) stacked on Donald Trump’s desk during his first press conference as President-elect, and the control room of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima after it malfunctioned following the tsunami of 2011. One of the show's two video works is a particular highlight: the fastidious recreation – made from paper sculptures animated by stop-motion – of a viral video of the inside of a cruise ship during a storm. It’s clever, funny, dark and, because of the perverse intensity of the labour involved, something a fool’s errand.

And haven’t we embarked on a lot of those recently? All those hours learning languages from apps for trips we couldn’t take? All those frantic star jumps in front of the TV? All those sourdough starters turning grey in the back of the fridge? In the mundane insanity of our recent lives, building a replica lily pond out of paper as a nod to Monet's garden at Giverny seems like an entirely reasonable thing to do. Then there is the fact that Demand’s works always suggest, but never portray, actual human presence, which again became one of the visual tropes of the Covid era: one could easily imagine him recreating an empty Piccadilly Circus or Times Square (then again, given that he works at a 1:1 scale, perhaps not).

Photo credit: Thomas Demand
Photo credit: Thomas Demand

And there are yet more echoes of our strange times: as you walk around the show, you find yourself navigating the entryways of the hanging pavilions with the awkward, apologetic dance we now do around other humans in public spaces, and trying to block from your mind the realisation that the fact that you can see the feet of other gallery visitors beneath the floating walls recalls nothing so much as the view below paper curtains drawn around hospital beds.

Mundo de Papel should have happened earlier, but it resonates all the more for its unfortunate, unforeseen delay. Thomas Demand didn’t know what was coming as he made most of the works on show in this magnificent, light-filled space, but now they remind us of the revelations that we have recently experienced all too keenly: that the structures and systems and certainties we took for granted are, after all, paper-thin.

Thomas Demand: Mundo de Papel is at the Centro Botín in Santander until 6 March 2022, centrobotin.org

You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting