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Thomas Demand: The Stutter of History

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston presents Thomas Demand: The Stutter of History, their newest exhibition on display from June 30-September 15, 2024. The MFAH is the only United States venue for this international touring exhibit. This retrospective look at the work of this innovative artist showcases a passion for finding the meaning in seemingly everyday things and immortalizing them through photographs that command attention through their life-size depictions of masterfully crafted paper sculptures.

From pieces inspired by the artist’s childhood and personal history in Germany to recreations of internationally recognizable images, Demand is focused on moments when paper, whether the object itself or the information housed within it, becomes important.

Demand works by first choosing a photograph, whether of personal, metaphorical, or historical importance, and then recreating the image in a life-size paper sculpture. He then photographs the sculpture before destroying his model, leaving only the picture as the ghostly echo of something that no longer exists.

The exhibition begins in a smaller, wallpapered room that showcases artworks inspired by the artist’s childhood and German background, before opening up into a larger, white-walled room with some of the larger pieces. One of them is his piece Control Room (2011), a work that is emblematic of Demand’s unique style and mastery of both the craft of sculpture and photography

It is also one such example of an artwork based on an image from a historical event. It models the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant damaged by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It is also a politically charged image, a theme that appears repeatedly in Demand’s work, as the photo contradicted the company’s assurances that everything was under control.

Another political image that features the importance of paper is Poll (2001) which depicts one of the rooms with ballots during the Florida recount during the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Here, there are no holes or names on any of the pieces of paper in his sculpture, but he recreated a flashlight on one of the desks, as they were used to determine whether the ballots had been all the way punched through.

Demand completed this project in only three weeks, in time for Bush’s swearing-in as president. The idea of paper playing such an influential role in one of the most impactful decisions in the nation inspired him to start the project and finish it in time for that symbolic date.

His imagse, while on the surface simply a recreation of another image, invites us to look closer at the underlying interplay between what is true and what is fabricated, just as the subject of the image is a paper sculpture depicting a real setting. Demand’s work features immense depth that prompts thought and questioning beyond what initially appears in each piece.

Demand is also heavily inspired by nature, as shown by his pieces Clearing (2003) and Pond (2020). The first depicts an idyllic natural scene, constructed with over 270,000 paper leaves and featuring a rich play of lighting entering from above into the canopy of the leaves. The second is an image rendered with paper water lilies, an immersive picture in its size and ability to command the attention of its viewers.

The subject matter of the work puts it into dialogue with the immensely popularized Water Lilies by Claude Monet. The contrast between the artificial nature of the liles themselves and their very real and authentic beauty sets up a dynamic between these two different depictions of the same natural phenomenon.

Demand has also worked with the medium of animation, such as in the piece Balloon (2018). For this work, he created the paper model himself before painstakingly shooting one frame at a time in a stop-motion animation technique. This piece finds a poetic metaphor in the mundane moment of a balloon string coasting along the ground. It features only the shadow of the balloon itself, an echo of the philosophical issue of the shadows of truth; the idea we are only able to see imperfect approximations of what is real.

Demand has a particular gift for finding the deeper metaphor and meaning to seemingly everyday occurrences, and for choosing events that model larger themes, helping us understand them through their presentation on a microcosmic level.

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