Friday, 19 December 2014

...than World to be Pictures: Narrative Takes

This is part two of a talk I gave at the Democratic Photo Club held at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh on November 6th. Members are invited to set a theme for others to interpret through photography with a talk, discussion and show of members work. For November I chose the theme of NARRATIVE TAKES and was interested in artists who create tensions between reality and fiction in their work, challenging our conventional scripts. To introduce the theme I told two stories of my own inspired by the artist Thomas Demand. Here is the second story.The first story with more background information on the artist is here

"There is no innocent room" Thomas Demand

Grotto, 2006 C-Print/Glass, 250 x 550 cm

I had an opportunity to see another work by Thomas Demand  in May this year in Dusseldorf, eight years after seeing his solo show in London. His photograph "Grotto" was part of an exhibition called Unter der Erde: Von Kafka zu Kippenberger (Under the ground: From Kafka to Kippenberger). When we visited the museum K21, it was "Family Day", which turned out to be a blessing and a curse. The entrance was free, though we discovered this would come at a cost, and an important part of the exhibit, a story by Franz Kafka, remained curiously absent during our visit.

The exhibition blurb drew me in - “artists and writers had interpreted the theme of underground -- in bunkers, cellars, caves, grottos, tunnels- which is closely connected to the utopias and anti-utopias of the 20th century". Kafka’s unfinished short story Der Bau (The Burrow) was to play an important role in the exhibition, “acting as a backdrop and inspiration” to the exhibits by 12 contemporary and 2 modern artists. 

We descended into the basement where the exhibition, appropriately enough, was located. I imagined the story of Kafka’s The Burrow then to run through the exhibition as you say in German, wie ein roter Faden (like a red thread). The implication was that it would thematically link the exhibits. How would the story unfold through the rooms I wondered? Would the story somehow link the artworks? I hadn't read the story: so who or what was the protagonist ?

Kafka's story turned out to be an elusive beast; we couldn’t find it anywhere. Not only that, but there was no information at all on display about the art exhibits, many of which were conceptual, or any information to connect them or to say how they related to the theme of underground at all.  

The first room of the exhibition showed a Thomas Demand photograph “Grotto”. Next to this hung some pencil drawings by Henry Moore of war shelters in the London underground.  Without any other information we began to make a game of creating our own (rather feeble) narratives about the exhibits, following art visitors around who seemed more in the know than us and also got chatting with the wardens. 

There was  a work by Martin Kippenberger,  a self-portrait of the artist sitting in a mobility scooter on rails."Is this supposed to move along the rails," we asked the ever patient wardens. "Yes, it used to, but I think it not working because of ‘Family Day’. "It might be too dangerous for the children". 

In retrospect perhaps the Demand image of a grotto was displayed in the same room as the Moore sketches because of the idea of refuge it conveys. Whereas Moore’s depicts figures sheltering in a manmade construction, Demand's  depicts the first form of human shelter. We marvel at Moore’s ink strokes to describe the figures and walls just as we marvel at the perfect construction of a grotto by Demand. Natural forms have been simulated and crafted with the aid of technology, apparently Demand used several computer programs which do not understand one another.  A manmade structure on the other hand  has been reproduced by hand. In Demand’s photograph it is as if technology has improved upon nature. Is it how we imagine a grotto in our mind's eye? What are our images of grottos based on? Demand says “When something comes to me, as trivial as it might sound it always has a history, a history of how it has been received. A piece of lawn seems initially at first to be just that. But the image of the lawn comes to me by any manner of paths, be it through ads, a film, or whatever.” Demand never saw the Mallorcan grotto in real life, but based his image on a postcard.

Diligently we walked through the exhibition and all the time I was on the look out for signs of Kafka's  story. Where was this story hiding?  We wondered if it had infested an ant farm by artist Roni Hall, crawled into Spider Hole by Christoph Büchel - a reconstruction of Sadaam Hussain's hideout, or unwittingly ventured into  Kinderzimmer (children's bedroom) by Gregor Schneider - a metal corridor leading to a creepy cell-like room with just a mirror, and a bare mattress on the floor. 

Finally, we asked another warden who told us that the story was all in the audio guide, we just had to go back upstairs and ask for one! My friend ran up and asked for an audio guide only to be told that as it was “Family Day” we couldn’t have one. You could only borrow an audio guide if you had purchased a ticket, and as we were unable to purchase a ticket because of it being “Family Day”, we were therefore unable to have an audio guide. It was absurd. If we hadn’t found Kafka in the exhibition our visit had at least become a Kafkaesque story that really did serve as a “red thread” running through our experience the exhibition.

Last week I looked up the Kafka story in Edinburgh lending library. I discovered that “The Burrow” is the story of a mole-like creature. In fear of some foe, imaginary or not, it lives in an intricate den, its life work. The efforts to build it has even caused the creature to draw blood from its head and its upkeep takes up all its energies and thoughts. Although the creature feels moments of security and serenity in its underground dwelling, it is also trapped by it. More than this, though, the burrow is a physical manifestation of its mental machinations. Its has built its very thoughts, paranoia and delusions into its environment

"And so I can pass my time here quite without care and in complete enjoyment, or rather I could, and yet I cannot. My burrow takes up too much of my thoughts"

Grotto, 2006 detail.  Thomas Demand

"There is no innocent room"says Demand on architecture, and this also seems to echo the themes of The Burrow, where a space becomes imbued with history and is shaped by narrative, whether that is personal or collective.  As Francois Quintin writes in his essay on Demand "All architecture takes on a story. In his work, he tries to recover innocence and purity - to recover and achieve a first impression by meticulously eluding all the accumulated signification of the place. 

“I deliberately make things that are so empty that they no longer transport a truth, but offer at most a sincerity or a certain faithfulness, as it were. When I make a piece of art I’m not yet at the point where I can say what its meaning should be.” Thomas Demand

Perhaps by not having an explanation to the exhibition that day, the museum did us a favour by freeing us up from the search or reliance on a fixed truth to interpret the artworks in the exhibition. Perhaps Demand, by presenting images emptied of meaning and association frees us of that burden too.

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