Presidency: THOMAS DEMAND‘s Oval Office and The New York Times Magazine
For any number of reasons Thomas Demand’s images of the Oval Office, entitled Presidency, stand apart from much of his work. Yet arguably, they are also his pieces that have been seen by the largest audience. Commissioned by The New York Times immediately before the 2008 American presidential election, the suite of five images (entitled I, II, III, IV, and V), one of which graced the cover of the weekend magazine supplement, depicts various wide angles and close-ups of the executive branch’s most intimate White House workspace. And though recognizable as the President’s office to almost any observer, the sometimes fuzzy, sometimes rough, always too smooth lines of Demand’s life-size paper cut-out reconstruction instantly call the truth of the scene before us into question. Clearly not the real thing, yet so attentive to detail that it just about could be, Presidency jeopardizes the viewer’s own tenuous ability to distinguish between fact and fiction – and by extension perhaps troubles our ability to accurately measure America’s democratic trajectory.
While this is the standard operating procedure in Demand’s work (everyday space recreated in paper, photographed, and then destroyed, leaving only the image to document that the model ever existed) the immediate familiarity of the Oval Office from television, movies, newspapers, or magazines – and the fact that the viewer need not strain his or her memory to situate the reality from which the pictures are drawn – pushes the work in a new, more explicitly political direction.
Often a media-sensationalized crime scene forms the indexical location in Demand’s photography, and typically this knowledge is enough to unlock the photographs’ uncanny power. Such a priori information allows us to perform a so-called postmortem on the images, and “solve” just how it is that they have linked discomfortingly into our personal memories, which have themselves now been revealed as merely the afterglow of the 24-hour throwaway news cycle. Yet what about Demand’s brightly lit and cheerily colored Oval Office, a room whose history is arbitrated less by tabloid journalism and more by the slow moving interests of international realpolitik? When we look at these images, we think we know all there is to know. But what dirty secrets have been inadvertently exposed when they are (paradoxically) “papered over” by Demand?
Presidency is in fact Demand’s second project for the Times, information not always available in an initial viewing. Back in 1997, photo editor Kathy Ryan explained, “The first project Thomas Demand did for us was a commission to create something for our special photo issue on Times Square, just at the moment when it was changing from the old, seedy Times Square, into the new Disneyfied Times Square.” This critical eye turned on the self-styled revitalization of an erstwhile clubhouse of hookers, hustlers, porn and pawn, and down-and-out sleaze, as well as starry Broadway dreams. As a contrast to the suburbanization of the city, Demand poked through the newspaper’s photo archives and decided to recreate a private room from an anonymous massage parlor in the area. The result was Parlor, a stickily claustrophobic medley of browns that captured the dying essence of a grittier time. While not nostalgic exactly, like all of Demand’s work Parlor plays on the often unquestioned images received from contemporary mass media – especially television and newspapers – which quickly and unconsciously become accepted features of the national memory.
Yet Parlor, just as much as Presidency, is more about capturing an ambivalent moment of transition than simply forcing viewers to question the origin of their own image saturated memories. “Artists love these kinds of assignments,” Ryan explained, “because they give them a chance to flex their muscles in a creative way, linking into something that they’re already working on. And we benefit hugely, going way beyond what most magazines do with photo illustrations.” In fact, illustration can be a problematic way to describe the images Demand has contributed to the The New York Times Magazine. Much of his repertoire involves places of transit like corridors and stairs; yet these later moments of transition seem to call for a reevaluation of conventional goods and bads, a reevaluation of the place truthfulness, and by extension, real, usable knowledge – usually journalistic in origin – have in both the big city and a participatory democracy.
Because the sites in Demand’s work tend to stir up only moderate recognition, the very immediacy of a commissioned “portrait” like Presidency shifts the images’ power center. When looking at these pictures in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic election to the White House, Presidency takes on both a solemn and, in some ways, a hopeful tone. “Perhaps,” they say, “the bloody days of political and racial partisanship that have decimated American idealism are behind us.” However, even though Demand and his team of assistants scrambled night and day for two and a half weeks in order to finish and photograph the paper models on deadline, the magazine in which they were printed was issued scarcely a week after Obama’s win. Meaning that had the race not gone to the Democrats, the eerie images of an empty, abstracted, shell of the Oval Office might have taken on a far darker shade.
Ryan, who, along with associate photo editor Joanna Milter, worked with Demand, thinks that “the tone of the pictures wouldn’t have changed much” had Obama lost. In her opinion the images present “a very visual manifestation of the sense of imperial power,” whose hypocrisies the new administration will hopefully resist. The difficult task for Ryan was for the Times “to figure out how to visually convey the power of that office. In that sense they’re bipartisan photos.” Corruption, of course, goes both ways, and Ryan had to remind Demand’s workshop about the paper’s responsibility to remain neutral when dealing with political candidates. “We report on politics in Washington several times a year – so how do you reinvent that? The images really help translate these thorny, complicated editorial notions.”
In this case, the article by Jonathan Mahler that Demand’s photographs “translate” is entitled “After the Imperial Presidency,” and goes on to detail various aspects of the violence done to the United States’ democratic liberties under the administration of George W. Bush. The silent rooms of the Oval Office as seen through Demand’s unyielding lens reveal themselves through their slight imperfections to be a sham, a hollow version of the promises school children learn about justice and the rule of law.
However, these tiny defects also function as an important critique of the mass media’s and photography’s mythmaking effect, here heightening the pleasure of seeing a close-to- flawless recreation of an iconic room (the same pleasure that arises from seeing scale models or dollhouse miniatures), while also cruelly causing the viewer’s eye to trip over the “missing” pieces, preventing the full illusion from taking hold: The lack of faces in the framed photos, the absent text from the Presidential Seal, the carpet made of confetti, the curtains frozen in a ripple from an unblowing wind.
Demand told reporters at the time that he was “so proud about the way those curtains have turned out.” Before completing the models, Demand had to hustle down to an Apulian workshop in southern Italy to learn how baroque papier-mâché masters were able to properly texturize and mold the flowing drapery used in the decoration of churches too poor to afford carved marble or wood. Drawing a connection to the high artistry of this fakery, Demand explained, showed how his work can be about expressions of power – both secular and divine – how “we live in a world in which its fictionalizations are increasingly becoming more important in forming opinion than fact.”
Since the rise of television, power resides ever more in the pictures audiences receive, an analysis that carries over to how Demand never exhibits any of the actual paper sculpture that he creates. Like a televised image, the “reality” resides in a disposable, dispersible set, whose only evidence for having existed is the memory of its image, documented on film. Demand’s pictures, sealed behind Plexiglas, are about making the temporary permanent, a utopian ideal easily relatable to the theoretical underpinnings of liberal democracy, in which the fleeting needs and desires of the masses (“fictionalizations”) must be translated into the permanent fixtures of the state (“fact”).
In this way Demand works as a kind of “double artist” (a sculptor who creates a reality existent only in photographs), which becomes a metaphor for the eroded trust of the public in politicians to whom the distinction between fact and fiction means little in a hyperactive media environment. This is an erosion of trust that accelerated under the oxymoronically titled “Imperial Presidency” of George W. Bush. Perhaps his government’s actions then are what render Presidency into the scene of a crime – a kind of “after” image whose “before” is another reality that never actually occurred in the material world: a truly representative democracy intent on safeguarding civil liberties.
Such a nakedly political reading of Demand’s images makes more sense when the work is looked at in the context of his coming of age in Germany during the socially tumultuous 1970s. The politics of that time ostensibly form a background buzz in much of his work, which in turn picks up on the intersection of private and public memories created in the media-storms fueled by the disastrous Munich Olympics, an economic downturn, politicians’ suicides, and the threat of domestic terrorism. This is where the coolness and clarity of Demand’s images crisscross stylistically and thematically with the American artist Ed Ruscha’s deadpan aesthetic, which famously lacerates America’s pathetically unsavvy consuming masses.
Unlike Ruscha, though, Demand’s wiping of individuality, both through the use of commercially available materials and the appropriation of “collective” transitional locations, oddly enough helps restore some of the unseen, absent humanity to his photographs. In a way, his “double-artistry” gives viewers a mechanism with which they themselves can interrogate various truths – political, cultural, personal, or national.
This kind of thinking in fact makes the acquisition of Presidency by Washington’s National Gallery of Art a curious move. These were the first of Demand’s pieces to enter the collection – a coup for any living artist. Yet the museum’s gesture felt more self-congratulatory than reflective, especially in a city already so obsessed with insider power and media clout. It is unclear if the National Gallery would have been as interested in such devastatingly introspective pieces had the Republican ticket won the 2008 election, in which case Demand’s hints at transition – and potential restoration through an interrogation of reality – would be moot. No real change would occur. The symbols of the office would be emptied out that much more, and some of the criticisms of Demand’s photographs, that is, that they are “inert,” might be proved true.
Luckily, for the United States, the world, and, more prosaically, Demand himself, such an event did not come to pass. Instead, a renewed political consciousness seems to have set in. One related, of course, to the psychodrama subtly on display in Presidency. In the words of Roxana Marcoci, the curator of his 2005 solo show at the MoMA in New York, in his work, Demand doesn’t so much set out to determine “truth” (and certainly doesn’t ask that of those who view his photographs), but rather he seeks merely to “put it to work again.” Hopefully, the same can be said for democracy in America.