Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto
Thomas Demand’s work is characterized by intellectual opacity steeped in a complex play of form, production, and ephemerality. His signature photographic compositions of full-scale paper and cardboard model vignettes re-creating notorious, newsworthy, or familiar scenes, absent of life as well as references to time and place, arouse both unease and familiarity. These images of reconstructions mimic memory, with only the essence of the thing remaining since Demand destroys the originals. In his first major Canadian exhibition, spanning over a decade of work, a lightness infuses this memory, more introspective than retrospective, telling less of where Demand has been than foreshadowing where he is going.
While “House of Card” (on view through January 8, 2023) purportedly “refers to the precariousness of Demand’s practice as a builder,” the show quickly unfolds into a presentation of his interdisciplinary strengths, encompassing a hybrid oeuvre of sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and archiving. It is a dizzying compilation, made all the more complex by a roll-call of collaborators (Caruso St John, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Martin Boyce) and practitioners (including SANAA, John Lautner, Hans Hollein, Azzedine Alaïa, and various students) whose models Demand has photographed for his ongoing “Model Studies” series.
What looks like a Demand paper model sprung from the confines of a photograph greets bedraggled visitors who’ve made it to the museum, which is currently marooned in a cacophony of construction. Paralleling that situation, this curious building presents a full-size replica of a karaoke bar that the artist discovered sandwiched within a parking lot in Japan. A multigenerational descendant of photographs, models, and rebuilds, the functioning bar marks a confounding departure from Demand’s inclination to destroy. In another twist, singing museum employees take a break from their regular duties to belt out songs while shy guests look on: performance and design bring Demand’s model to life, with many subjects now inserted into his once austere scenarios.
Exhibition-making as a medium further takes over on the second floor in a space full of color and light, which provides a distinct contrast to some of Demand’s more macabre stagings. A series of abstract photos (“Model Studies”) representing magnifications of working models (including a museum model), as well as colorful archived papers used for garment making, provide a window into his creative design process. In choosing to photograph other artists’ works, Demand deconstructs the process so central to his own creative inquiry. The images are beautiful, some mounted on a wall of composite cobalt wallpaper. A canopy of pink aluminum blossoms sprouts from the ceiling—Boyce’s Future Blossom (For Yokeno Residence), overhanging Demand’s Triple Folly, a unique model of a structure in Denmark. The expansive green base conjures the rolling hills of the countryside, dwarfing its playful paper parts. Though Demand once destroyed all traces of his work, here is a creation made real, while a wall of archived materials central to his first architectural project reinforce the revised narrative.
In the darkened halls of the third floor, Demand appears to return to his trademark interests, reconstructing and photographing a replica of the room occupied by Edward Snowden in Russia (Refuge). Even in this stark, foreign space, something has changed. A video of a crosswalk signal flashes red/green in the dark, while a large-scale photograph of a building stands guard over the installation. It takes a moment to recognize the model-façade as that of the lively bar downstairs, the memory revisited and implanted anew, as if you could just stop and go, either forward or back, demanding a new construct.