What If I Don’t See Anything?
What If I Don’t See Anything?
This text is part of the Travelling Concept series.
Visitors have commented that Thomas Demand’s exhibition at DHC/ART, titled Animations, seems to be in a state of perpetual suspense. Did something just occur or is it about to? Are we waiting for a person to arrive?
When questions are asked about the back-stories that Demand’s work references, my first inclination is to share the anecdotes about the media clippings and Youtube videos that have influenced Demand’s creative process. However, when I heard Thomas Demand speak at the Phi Centre on January 17th, he stated that he does not aspire to control the visitor’s reactions to his work. Will sharing a narrative about the back-story frame the work’s meaning and thus limit the visitor’s conceptual inquiry? Or, will offering a context actually deepen one’s appreciation of the work?
Furthermore, if a visit to the exhibition becomes focused on these narrative associations, will the aesthetic and affective qualities be more likely overlooked? In particularly, will the visitor be as encouraged to reflect on how their presence is implicated in making of the exhibition’s meaning?
For example, beginning the visit at DHC/ART with the works titled Recorder and Escalator, the visitor may notice that their shadow is cast onto the video screen as they walk across the installation rooms. The placement of the screen and projector are such that our presence disrupts the projector’s light. Some visitors react to the shadows by engaging playfully while others feel misplaced and rush to move out of the projector’s way. While our reaction may differ, we all become abruptly aware of our presence in the space. This is a strategic artistic decision.
Upon entering Embassy-Yellow Cake, a video portrays an empty hallway, a stairwell and some closed doors. Once again, the visitor’s shadow is cast into the image as they cross the room. As they continue to watch, the light in the video turns and off again and yet nobody appears. That is, nobody aside from the visitor’s shadow. In the photographic component of this same installation Demand’s uncanny, eerily un-detailed and un-peopled images are covered with a slick sheen of plexiglass that not only provides a clean and minimal surface, but also reflects the presence of visitors who are subtly inserted like apparitions, or perhaps, ephemeral layers of memory.
Demand has expressed that he intentionally omits people from the images so as to eschew anecdotal allusions to the original incident. Rather, his intention is to present facets of his personal investigations and interpretations. I would suggest, however, that this sense of human absence also activates a latent yet fertile ambiguity. It provides a space where the visitors become contributing elements, both conceptually and physically, to the meaning of the work.
My first guided visit to Demand’s exhibition was with a group of six and seven year old kids. Their reactions illustrate how Demand’s works may encourage narrative innovation and activate the imaginary.
The DHC/ART education team proposed an activity that began with the group sitting in front of a life-sized image of a closed, locked door in the Embassy-Yellow Cake installation. We then asked the kids to draw a picture of what they would see if they opened the door. After sitting and looking for a few minutes, some of the students began to draw with certainty, but one of the children asked me, “What if I don’t see anything?” Courageously, he persisted and after a few more minutes, he decided to draw several subtle yet certain outlines of human bodies in a seemingly circular rotation moving amidst one chair and a square. Other drawings included: rolling hills; a treasure of flying coins; Thomas Demand standing with his artwork; a girl walking in the sun with flowers; a bedroom; an office that looked similar to Demand’s constructions; a large pile of paper; as well as an entrance that opened to even more doors - or, as it was explained to me, infinite doors.
Pohanna Pyne Feinberg
Photo: Pohanna Pyne Feinberg