Culture  The fear between reality and illusion

Thomas Demand’s photorealistic paper sculpture

As soon as I walked through the doors of DHC/ART in the Old Port my uncertainty transformed into something new. This new sensation moved through me as I heard a haunting motif from the legendary unfinished Beach Boys’ album Smile play on a constant skittish loop. I walked into a dark room, unsure of what I was feeling, and saw a screen with a projected image of an 8-track recorder, constantly spinning, and playing the unending melancholy melody disjointedly through the pitch-black room. After a few minutes of observing this projection, the security guard standing nearby whispered to me, “Remember, everything is made with paper.” It was then that I recognized this emotion that had appeared when I entered the gallery, and had been my constant companion since: fear.

Fear, courtesy of German artist Thomas Demand’s new exhibition Thomas Demand: Animations, which features various films and photographs that depict his paper sculptures. He creates sculptures of everything from recorders and escalators to cruise ships. These paper images capture extremely realistic visions of the common objects of our daily lives. They distort the distinction between reality and illusion, creating the fear that captured me and filled me with wonder throughout my whole trip through the exhibit.

What fascinated me the most were the films of these lifelike paper deceptions in motion, created by Demand and his assistants with the use of stop-motion technique. The films were shown with projectors of various vintages, from grainy 35mm to modern digital. He uses stop motion to create visions of things as unlikely and surreal as rain (for which he employed translucent candy wrappers). I was beginning to lose my sense of reality: if an artist can create such realistic images out of paper, who’s to say that the world I inhabit is not itself artificial? Something created from paper by a master craftsman? These were the thoughts that caused the feelings of terror creeping through me as I saw the loops over and over again, and wondered at the unexpected mysteries of each film.

What entranced me the most was the film component of Yellowcake, a mixed-media piece that also utilized sculpture. Like the other pieces, Yellowcake had an entire floor of the gallery to itself. It depicted the Ethiopian embassy in the Vatican, from which stolen stationary was used as false evidence against Saddam Hussein, and used to promote President George W. Bush’s agenda to involve the United States in the Iraq War. The film showed surveillance images of an outdoor room with stairs and an elevator. I stood in a room, dark except for the projected image of the embassy, filled with expectation. Above me, sounds of night filled the room, and every now and then, bumps, bangs, and moans echoed through the darkness. “Someone is coming,” I immediately thought. Suddenly the room turned on, and was flooded with light. Suspense reached a new level, and for a moment my hands shook. Yet the climax never arrived, and I left the scene before its power of constant suspension could take full control of me.

Demand powerfully shows his viewers how easily reality can be created with the common media that surround us, such as paper. He establishes novel distortions of reality that challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of what is possible in a contemporary exhibition, and uses the lightest of materials to tackle the heaviest subjects.