Exhibition Review: House of Card

A new exhibition at Toronto's MOCA features the architecture-inspired work of German artist Thomas Demand.

Thomas Demand. 3. Refuge II, 2021, C-Print / Diasec, 160 x 200 cm

TEXT Peter Sealy

PHOTO Thomas Demand

A blue blanket, white sheet, and two wrinkled pillows cover a bed in the corner of a room lit by a single, wall-mounted light. An electrical socket provides relief on the room’s mauve-coloured walls. A fundamental banality resounds from the image: this could be anywhere and that is the point.

As with many works by the German artist Thomas Demand, Refuge II (2021) hovers between seemingly opposite registers. It depicts an anonymous yet infamous space. It was in this room that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is believed to have lived for over a month at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport following his flight from the United States in 2013.

Printed in large format, this photograph in fact depicts a model constructed in Demand’s studio, based on a press photograph. From afar, the model photograph is indistinguishable from its source. But as the viewer comes closer, the model’s materiality becomes present. The pillowcases’ creases are revealed to be crinkles in white paper.

Far from disappointment at any deception, or joy at uncovering an image’s origins, the viewer is instead greeted with a pleasant moment of suspension, in which the image hovers between a depicted reality and its materialized representation. While the historian Jesus Vassallo has celebrated a trend in recent architectural photography towards “seamless” images which merge architectural projects and their banal settings (proving the former is taking better account of the latter), it is instead the “seams” visible within Demand’s images—the moments where reality is shown to be a paper construct—which give them their power.

Refuge II is on display at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) as part of House of Card, which features works by Demand alongside those of other architects and artists. These include an eccentric array of photographs, surfaces, models, and installations. 

The most compelling of these are surface treatments. Demand has produced two large, wallpapered surfaces by photographing material textures: one wall features a flattened print of crinkled tissue paper, another, undulating felt. Both are reminders of the historic engagement between architecture, photography, and wall coverings: Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich famously patented photographic wallpapers back in the 1930s. Another gallery is spanned by Martin Boyce’s site-specific ceiling array, which deploys perforated metal finds in shades of pink, grey, and white. While the ceiling responds to a panoply of architectural references (including Oscar Neimeyer’s Headquarters for the French Communist Party), its strength lies in its ability to bring colour and proportion to MOCA’s galleries.

While the individual objects on display are remarkable, their ensemble falls into tautology. For example, a Japanese karaoke bar is shown in Demand’s model photograph on the third floor and as a 1:1 scale re-construction by Rirkrit Tiravanija in the lobby. Each is compelling in its own right, but strangely their juxtaposition (albeit on different floors on the exhibition) detracts from their mystery.

Architectural historian Peter Sealy is an Assistant Professor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

House of Card is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto, until January 9, 2023.