Article by Sean O’Hagan, The Guardian
Last year, Thomas Demand made two large-scale photographs, Pond and Nursery, that at first seem to suggest two conflicting ideas of nature: the sublime and the scientific. The former, a nod to Monet, shows a constellation of yellow, circular water lilies on an expanse of blue water. The second is an ominous, pink-lit interior in which small plants sit in identical boxes neatly arranged on long tables, their growth controlled by a network of pipes, cables and overhanging lights.
As with most photographs by Demand, though, nothing is quite what it seems. His signature process begins with the meticulous construction, in paper and card, of life-size models of actual locations. When completed, these are artfully photographed before being destroyed. Having made his name by creating oddly blank environments that nevertheless resonate with meaning, seeming to have a past as well as a present, he has now turned his attention to what he calls “constructed nature”.
To this end, Pond is inspired not by one of Monet’s water lily paintings, nor by the garden that inspired the French artist, but by a recreation of that garden in an art complex on Naoshima island in Japan. In dramatic contrast, Nursery is a recreation of a hydroponic laboratory situated on the science campus of Niagara College in Ontario, which offers what may be the world’s first degree in commercial cannabis production.
“The Monet garden is both natural and completely artificial,” says Demand, whose recent work is now on show at Sprüth Magers in London, in an exhibition that can be seen online. “It is that total commitment to artificiality that always struck me as fascinating.” With the cannabis lab, he says, “the fact that it is almost entirely automated shows that there is a complete lack of sentimentality about the project. I find that wonderful somehow.” By exhibiting the two constructed photographs together, he says, he is tentatively suggesting “a different idea of the sublime”.
Demand’s work has always been strangely seductive and often possesses a quietly mischievous, almost playful undertow. Having initially studied interior design in Munich in the 1980s, he began making small paper models as an art student in Düsseldorf the following decade, as a way of tentatively exploring sculpture. “As a student,” he says, “you find your own medium. So I began making these very banal, minimal sculptures: an ashtray, a cup, a cigarette.” When he placed one of these objects next to another, something unexpected happened. “Suddenly, I had a narrative. As soon as you place an ashtray next to a cup, you have someone smoking and drinking a cup of coffee.”