Shortly before the opening today of his show at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Thomas Demand spoke to the German film director and cultural critic about his work, revealing the conceptual ideas behind the central piece in the Serpentine show and the extraordinary Herculean task it has been to create it.
Alexander Kluge: You are currently working on a sculpture of a grotto; how would you describe it?
Thomas Demand: I initially had two different ideas for this piece. One was to create a ‘sight’, based on an actual grotto in Mallorca, that was also an image of itself. An image is often in itself a sight, something you go to a museum, for example, to view. In other words, you see a sight depicted and at the same time it is the sight. And it’s presented in such a way that the practical realisation has a slightly utopian character because it is so absurdly complex – which is why I reverted to the idea of a model made up of different strata like those used in architecture to simulate a specific landscape. However, instead of describing the topography of a landscape or the surface of a mountain, I was concerned with the inside, with the underworld, the world within the mountain.
The other starting point for Grotto, 2006, was my deliberations on how the digital could be incorporated into my images, since this had become inevitable. While my colleagues often concern themselves with digital cameras and the laws of their use, I felt certain that this wasn’t the path for me. For me it’s what happens in front of and behind the camera that requires my attention more than the camera itself or its peripherals. So, I decided to take that representational apparatus, the digitalised world (which is only interesting to me in this context), and translate it into reality, and then photograph it in order to regain it as a two-dimensional image.
Kluge: So you started with something that many people have seen, namely an image of a grotto in Mallorca?
Demand: Yes, it was a postcard. I collected postcards of grottoes in order to familiarise myself with the theme, and then at some point I came across one from Mallorca.
Kluge: Did you before that think about the RÃ¼beland Caves?
Demand: The RÃ¼beland Caves are also grottoes, but with a far greater Romantic thrust that came to play a role during German Romanticism.
Kluge: They are in the Harz mountains, not far from the Dora labour camp. For over a million years each of the caves has been gradually fusing, with the stalactites and stalagmites all the time growing closer together.
Demand: Exactly. And if I remember rightly even Goethe visited them during his first trip to the Harz one winter. They became a trope of the Romantic idea of nature, of virgin land, of solitude. The Cyclops lived in a grotto and kept Odysseus captive there. The grotto is a home for bears and the first dwelling for humans. It’s a trope that stretches back a long way, but it still fires the imagination. Just think of the film industry, of Batman, Harry Potter, Tom Hanks in Castaway. Wherever you look, you see images of picturesque caves. Or think of fairytales, of Mad King Ludwig, the ThannhÃ¤user awaiting their call in the cave – it’s always set in a grotto!
Kluge: Bizarre holes in the ground. In the 1920s a bar for night owls was built to resemble a grotto, promising intimacy and a magical world, like a jungle under the ground. Did you actually go to the grotto in Mallorca?
Demand: No, I didn’t. I didn’t really want to see it. I received the Mallorca postcard from a friend who knew I was looking for cards of grottoes. It was immediately clear to me that this was the right one because it was completely opaque and doesn’t use obvious clichÃ©s but is vaguely reminiscent of one of Max Ernst’s frottages.
Kluge: Can you talk about how the grotto will be displayed at the Serpentine Gallery?
Demand: It will kick off a show that’s intended to highlight the qualities of the venue itself, a pavilion in the middle of London’s Hyde Park. The building was originally a teahouse. I try to emphasise that domestic quality, rather than relying on an existing white cube. We will do our best to achieve this with wallpaper designed in four colour tones: there will be a night wallpaper, a sunny midday wallpaper, an abstract winter version and one that refers directly to the exhibits. These wallpapers will be manufactured using a decidedly old-fashioned printing technique in which eight Farbstempel colour stamps are block-printed wet in wet. I’m referring to the way in which the Arts and Crafts movement used this technique and above all to William Morris’s wallpaper designs. The grotto will kick off the exhibition since it represents the beginning of all dwellings. It also references Rem Koolhaas’s temporary pavilion, which will be built in front of the gallery and acts as the antithesis to mine. That’s the idea, anyway.
Another of my works, Clearing, 2003, is quite similar to Grotto in this respect. It’s a kind of clearing in a forest that we recreated using several hundred thousand sheets of paper attached to garden wire and rolls of carpet. The final photograph nevertheless looked very convincing. It reminds me of the cover of the CD of Beethoven’s Eroica, of photographic wallpaper. In part it’s simply a clichÃ©, but this is a deliberate reference.
Thomas Demand, Clearing, 2003
Kluge: So with Grotto you’re trying to construct, using card and paper, the difference between your inner image and that on the postcard. Your studio must be like a real craftsman’s workshop.
Demand: It has grown to be that. When I started making work the ideas I had were quite simple. I wanted to create things in just one or two days. I wanted to find solutions to problems with the least input imaginable.
Kluge: Yet initially you worked like a poet, like Novalis or HÃ¶lderlin who, to paraphrase, says: this is an object that kindles my imagination and I want to represent it. Then you became a sculptor or a craftsman – an artist who works with material, translating something that once actually existed in reality into another medium. And then in the next stage of metamorphosis you practically recreate the original object, but differently from the way the object was originally construed.
Demand: At first I had the naÃ¯ve idea of immersing myself in an object and using as a point of orientation everything that is indexically contained in the image, over and beyond the context that initially led to it.
Kluge: To go back to your own process, you first of all make a sculpture, in itself an artwork, which you later put through the medium of photography. Given that you are working in two media – building things up only to break them down during a process of construction and destruction – one might ask what constitutes an object for you?
Demand: First, the two media contradict each other because they are different systems of representation. Sculpture aims for permanence, for presence, while the photograph is destined to render something visible that occurred at a particular moment in front of the lens. Essentially I play these two forms off against each other, adding a few neat complications that have to do with the concept of time. You can walk around a sculpture as often as you like, and with photographs – mine are very large so that, as with the sculptures, you can also walk around them – you have a moment and my particular angle of vision. My tyrannical condition, as it were, is that I prescribe your vision.
Kluge: So the product, the artwork, follows a process from the inner impression, the fired imagination, to the reconstruction as sculpture, photography, and then its presentation in the public sphere behind Plexiglas.
Demand: It’s like a window. All the sculptures are life-sized – I don’t think in terms of models in the sense of any reduction in size.
Kluge: You could live in them.
Demand: When I walk around them I feel a strange sense of destabilisation. Once such a space is finished you are very cautious in it, because you know that you would destroy everything if you took a wrong step. Yet it’s the idea of the space that you remember, even if you can’t yourself experience the memory of it. That’s the strange thing – you transpose yourself to a time and place in which you could never be. Yet you can of course be there in your imagination. You are standing in the midst of the thing that arose in your imagination and then it’s all gone and the photo takes over.
Kluge: Once in the public sphere, you can disappear.
Demand: Exactly, then I can disappear. The photo that stands life-sized before me reflects what stood life-sized before the camera.
Kluge: One can hardly call these works objects; they’re more like occurrences. In Grotto there’s also a subtext in the intensity of the narrative that you start with right at the beginning, namely your notion – and that of many other people – of the romantic grotto in Mallorca.
Demand: My assumption is that the narrative continues in the highly convoluted path it takes; that what I want to represent can always be somehow recognised by others.
Kluge: So you leave tracks. Much is not represented, much is realistic, imitatively, and at the same time there are key omissions which function like a vortex. Let’s move on in the process of production to how you actually built Grotto. I’ve seen how you make one stratum after the next, like the sediments of a mountain that form over thousands or millions of years.
Demand: That’s the starting point: translating the process back into a conventional model of strata. The object is structurally composed like a stalactite, yet it remains discernible purely as a model.
Kluge: So huge mountains of card and paper arrive – you need 50 tons for the grotto as a whole. It comes by train, is transported to your doorstep, taken inside and cut up.
Demand: No one single stratum gets repeated. There are 900,000 strata and no two are alike.
Kluge: Like Nature itself which also isn’t schematic and consists of similar strata.
Demand: The method is actually used in architecture, where things have to be generalised. In other words, the strata have a natural shape but, in the final instance, no computer can describe the actual complexity involved. You have to work in parts, but you can never assemble the parts to form a whole. We will see them for the first time when Grotto is finished. Partly this has to do with the fact that we used different programmes that don’t understand each other. And to give the whole thing yet one more twist I used a computer technology that made things thinkable that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, even if what was subsequently realised was in fact a 3-D model rather than a virtual space. in order to describe the oldest trope of architecture, the very first form of dwelling.
Kluge: But, as in evolution, these computer programmes, by misunderstanding one another, by making errors, surely create something that is beyond nature?
Demand: That’s what I’m able to generate with this method but I can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Kluge: I imagine it to be an interesting experience, which you don’t get when looking at, or taking, a photograph. A theorist should really do something to experience a similarly slowed-down process, something with his hands, with machines, so that theory enters his pores. The most intriguing aspect is that the computer programmes don’t understand each other, there isn’t a uniform programme subject to some overall control.
Demand: And surprisingly they have a limited imaginative reach. That is of course the software engineer’s revenge since he can’t imagine anything like it. In fact, you can only do what someone else has structurally imagined beforehand. So we had to write our own programmes.
Kluge: The word ‘grotesque’ derives from ‘grotto’. There’s a sense of astonishment triggered by these complex grottos, which Nature implants in the mountains.
Demand: They’re also spaces for a break.
Kluge: Yes, a break for nature. Lacunae. And these precious elements of nature, which as lacunae are special sights, are also a theme in your work. You occasionally mock the notion of sights.
Demand: On the one hand, yes. On the other, I’m at the end of an entire chain of worlds of images that present themselves to me. All my experience, everything I essentially am, is largely the upshot of things passed on to me. We all know that. I endeavour to put myself in a position in which I can actually add something to the chain. When something comes to me, as trivial as it may sound, it always has a history, a history of how it has been received. A piece of lawn seems initially to be just that. But the image of the lawn comes to me by any manner of paths, be it through ads, a film, or whatever. And sometimes I deliberately make things that are so empty that they no longer transport a truth, but offer at most sincerity or a certain faithfulness, as it were. When I make a piece of art I’m not yet at the point where I can say what its meaning should be. Initially I’m simply amazed.
Kluge: As an artist, you’re under no compulsion to create meaning. If you make something, then it’s not ornamental, but essential, so you have to make it, even if it doesn’t have meaning.
Demand: I simply want to know what I’m actually seeing, what I’m actually being shown, to see it from the inside, work it out again. The images that come to me – some are very banal, others are laden with meaning – are all things I know. So even if I’ve never been to the grotto in Mallorca, I essentially know it.
Thomas Demand, Klause 2/Tavern 2, 2006. Also on show at the Serpentine.
6 June-20 August
London W2 3XA
Tel: 0207 402 6075
A longer version of this interview appears in a new book of Thomas Demand’s work, published to coincide with the Serpentine exhibition by Schirmer and Mosel.