I loved Canopy, the photograph below, on show in the main gallery room at Sprüth Magers at the moment. It’s a sunny scene of some powdery blue apartment block, with a single, lemon sorbet-coloured canopy over-extended over one of the blocky white balconies. Given the work’s from 2020, the artist must have been thinking of our lockdown when he made it. The silent shadowy interiors signal the confinement of unseen occupants; I remember that for some city-dwellers, in the early days of the crisis, balconies were the only 'safe' outside space available to them.
The arresting strangeness of Demand’s work is that his photographs aren't often documenting real life: instead, they're photographs of accurate models of everyday scenes. I'm not looking at an actual apartment block then, it’s an imagined one, probably made of painted cardboard and thick paper. Only close inspection reveals the folds and joins. This c-print photo, along with the others in this exhibition, is layered behind thick and reflective glass, almost discouraging the close attention required of the viewer to reveal the artificiality of it all.
Taken as a whole, the works in this show are fun to look at, ingenious picture puzzles that must have been fun to construct. We can see a pink-hued plant nursery (the paper watering cans are adorable) and a lily pond, both tricking the viewer in the same way. There isn’t a sign of human life in any of them, other than the humans who stuck the paper and cardboard together, cast the lights... and took the photo.
As a viewer, it's fun to allow yourself to be fooled by these scenes, so convincing at first glance, then uncannily unreal at second glance. Luigi Ghirri did the same trick a few decades ago with his obsessive documenting of a local fairground, where his photo of some mountains suddenly shifted, on close attention, to a photo of a painted mountain backdrop to some ride.
Demand’s coyly drawing our attention to the own obsessive craft required to construct these unreal scenes, a link that becomes clearer with the newer work upstairs. These showcase the atelier of the great fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa. In one photograph, tissues marked with a careless but expert hand abut fat orange squares of cardboard. In another, a mannequin stands at an angle, cross-hatched with sure pencil marks. Everywhere in these shots is the strong guiding intelligence of the master designer.
These works are as spooky as that over-extended lemon-coloured canopy, though, as Alaïa died in 2017. It’s another silent space, organised and recreated under Demand’s exacting eye.
Thomas Demand is at Sprüth Magers (London). 13 April - 15 May 2021