If Thomas Demand has a theme song these days, it might be Randy Newman's I Love L.A.. One of the most famous conceptual photographers of the international art scene, the 48-year-old artist has made the City of Angels his primary home since 2010 when, after a 16-year stay in Berlin, he was invited to be a research institute scholar at the J. Paul Getty Trust.
"It's a very unlikely coupling," Demand acknowledged on the phone the other day, "and I'm probably the most unlikely candidate for loving L.A." After all, German intellectuals – and Demand is definitely one of those, born in Munich, rigorously educated in the late 1980s and early 1990s at kunstakademien in Munich and Dusseldorf – are supposed to be prejudiced against Los Angeles – its superficiality, its lack of history and culture, the sameness of the weather. But, "really, the city is fantastic," he declared, "many cities, really." And there's no better natural high than bombing down Wilshire Boulevard in your car "where you see every layer of modern and contemporary 20th-century life and architecture. It's full of references and possibilities and space and different cultures."
Demand wasn't in Los Angeles when he offered this encomium but in cold, crisp Montreal where he was helping mount Thomas Demand: Animations, an exhibition of five of his films and videos – his preferred term for them, in fact, is "moving pictures" – and a handful of related photographs, organized by the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art in association with Des Moines Art Center. The exhibition runs in Montreal through May 12.
Demand, of course, is best known for his elegantly austere colour prints – they're often big things: 2003's Clearing, for instance, is 192 centimetres tall by 495 cm wide, – and the artifice behind them. In almost every instance, a Demand photograph begins with another photograph – an image torn from a magazine or tabloid, a still from a film or TV show, a reproduction in a monograph or catalogue, a postcard, an illustration recalled from a textbook. Demand then "translates" the content of the 2-D image into a life-sized (but, tellingly, not entirely lifelike) 3-D model made of cardboard and coloured paper, and photographs the facsimile, eventually making a 2-D chromogenic print of it and, after, destroying the model.
Time-consuming? Labour-intensive? You bet. On superficial inspection, Clearing, for example, seems no more than a sort of cinemascopic close-up of a deciduous forest, sunlight shafting through the foliage. But those leaves you're seeing are, in fact, 270,000 shapes that have been individually cut from green paper to resemble leaves, while the sunlight's courtesy of a 10,000-watt klieg light.
Demand's been making his "moving pictures" almost as long as he's been doing his photo-conceptualist work, and they incorporate many elements of his photographic methodology. Take his first film, Tunnel, a 35-millimetre loop, all of two minutes long, commissioned by the Tate London in 1998. Demand prepared a 32-metre-long model of a curved two-lane underpass divided by fake cardboard pylons. A model like that – indeed like all his models – "have this moment of complete fragility when their deterioration is in check, everything is ready to be photographed ... and then you walk through and there is something peculiar happening: You're walking through a space that is more like a mental space rather than a real space. And I wanted to catch that feeling in another way other than through a photograph because a photograph is always dictating to you the viewpoint you have to take it from."
With Tunnel, Demand felt he had two means to convey "this sensation of the space." One would have been to present the actual model at the Tate ("which I'm not interested in"), "the other [was] to go through the space" either with a still camera, taking hundreds, thousands of pictures and combining them into a stop-motion animation, or with a movie camera tracking through the underpass. Demand eventually filmed a dozen trips through his fake tunnel with a camera mounted on a special-effects dolly.
Tunnel isn't in the Montreal show but Pacific Sun, easily Demand's most ambitious and technically demanding video, is. Sun runs only 122 seconds – but its 2,400 frames took the artist and 12 assistants 15 months to complete. "It got so intense," he said with a chuckle, "people were crying when we were done, grown men." As usual, he created a life-size model, this time based on a YouTube video of a dining room in a cruise ship, the Pacific Sun, that was caught in a severe storm off the New Zealand coast in 2008.
Often there's a socio-political or historic charge to Demand's art. Tunnel, for instance, was inspired, in part, by the 1997 underground car crash in Paris that claimed the life of the Princess of Wales. The 1995 print Corridor derives from a model Demand made of the apartment floor on which Milwaukee mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer lived, while the organized chaos of Room (1994) references the famous 1944 attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler at his Eastern Front headquarters.
Asked if he's ever been compelled to visit the actual sites of his models, Demand said he's entertained "the itch" only once and that was out of necessity, in 2007, when he couldn't find any photographs of the African Republic of Niger's embassy in Rome. Back in 2003, the embassy was the source of reports (subsequently proved false) that then-Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein was planning to buy tonnes of a plutonium derivative from Niger called yellowcake with which to arm his weapons of mass destruction. Determined to build a model of the embassy and photograph it, Demand showed up there sans camera one afternoon and talked his way into what became a 25-minute visit to the converted apartment. "I became a camera myself, my inner eye," he recalled. Later, he reconstructed from memory what he'd seen in his Berlin studio, then made a series of prints as well as a seven-minute high-definition video of the model.
That scenario worked out well, he agreed, but he's not planning to make it a regular part of his practice. "You have an inspiration, and at the time it comes, it's a very fragile thing," he explained. "You don't know if it's going to make a picture. It might just be a mistake; you just have this glimpse of hope that the image might be the source for something worthwhile. [Before Rome] I was always afraid if I go to a place and it's trivial – and let's face it, most places are actually trivial – it would lose the inspiration. So I refused."
Twenty years on, does his process still engage him? "People have been asking that since I made my first work," he said with a laugh. "There is this kind of dogma that you should not do the same thing twice. But then if you think of some of the artists who are your favourites, many of them probably do the thing they like for a very long time. It's really wonderful that Mies van der Rohe didn't invent a new architecture every Tuesday; those architects who do that become very thin over time.
"I notice changes in my later work from my earlier work," he added, "but saying that, I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. Do you know what you're doing in five years? I have no clue what the next work will be. If you ask me now, I'm completely a blank page, to use a paper metaphor."
Thomas Demand: Animations is at DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, 451 and 465 rue St. Jean, Montreal, through May 12.