Thomas Demand: artificiality, nature and Azzedine Alaïa

Thomas Demand: artificiality, nature and Azzedine Alaïa

At Sprüth Magers London, German sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand explores the tensions between artificiality and nature, and steps inside the atelier of legendary Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaïa

Thomas Demand’s exhibition at Sprüth Magers begins before you enter the door. Thanks to the gallery’s vast frontal bay window, the artist’s Pond becomes almost a public work of art, presenting a dose of tranquillity for all who pass by, and a temptation to uncover more. 

‘I think we still operate with an idea of beauty in nature, which is inevitably not what nature out there is, or can be, as we have realised that what nature gives us is not enough,’ says the German sculptor and photographer. ‘So the echo of an idyllic image may be still accessible for us (like the water lilies), but it will be over-imposed eventually by another beauty, the one of nutrition, artificial light and indoor farming. The interesting question here for me is what the notion of nature is.’

Thomas Demand, Nursery, 2020 C-print/Diasec which pictures a cannabis lab in Canada
Thomas Demand, Nursery, 2020 C-print/Diasec. © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2021. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Demand is best known for the enigmatic photographing of meticulously constructed three-dimensional models of rooms, spaces or structures, which he then destroys. This illusion of reality, only exposed as fantasy on intense close inspection, presents the idea of nature as entirely artificial. 

Delving deeper into this tension between artificiality and nature, Demand’s fourth exhibition at Sprüth Magers features new, imposing large-format photographic works. His Nursery sees a row of pink lights heavily illuminating long tables of intriguing horticultural specimens. The colours are abrasive, the composition dystopian. It’s reminiscent of a crime scene, but Demand’s meticulous construction depicts a legally compliant cannabis lab in Ontario, illustrating the future of farming. The photographer’s piece simultaneously nods to the nefarious past and present of cannabis production and explores how the industry has taken advantage of new government legislation and technology to transform into a multi-billion dollar business.

Thomas Demand, Towhee, 2020, Framed pigment print inside the atelier of Azzadine Alaia
Thomas Demand, Towhee, 2020, framed pigment print. © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2021 Courtesy Sprüth Magers

The show also presents a selection from the latest iteration of his Model Studies. This marks a departure in the series, whereby the artist shoots models, but not of his own making. He’d previously approached the architectural models of architects John Lautner, SANAA and Hans Hollein, but here, he turns his attention to the atelier of late legendary fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa

‘I was collecting images of tailoring workshops for many years, as the patterns always fascinated me formally. Now those patterns are like rulers, templates for making and perfecting a piece of clothing, translating a flat two-dimensional shape into a three-dimensional object, which doesn’t resemble any of those original shapes.’ Demand describes these as an arsenal of possibilities, and explored the coincidental potential of photography in this context. ‘I needed to catch the right moment to be there, like classic Cartier Bresson.’

Partridge, 2020 Framed pigment print. © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2021 Courtesy Sprüth Magers
Partridge, 2020, framed pigment print. © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2021 Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Intimate, spontaneous and suggestive of frenetic, electric activity, these images offer a rare insight into the everyday working practices of a fashion career that spanned half a century. ‘If you take a model from 1978, it will be made of a different material than from 1992, even if the shape and quality of the material is practically the same,’ says Demand. ‘I understood this as an enormously great finding because it would not be an archive in the classic sense of storing and withstanding time.’ 

For Demand, the model is the pattern; a sculptural object containing a wealth of history and narrative. ‘The shapes have a patina and biography, very different to my own models. These are like tools, not like stand-ins or representations. I consider these images my most abstract work to date – without losing figurativeness.’ §

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