Public housing, 2003, is a key work in the German photographer Thomas Demand’s recent oeuvre. What appears to show a deserted housing estate set beside a children’s playground is actually a replica model that the artist built and then photographed. This distinctive way of working derives, in part, from his initial training as a sculptor at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Munich (1987–89), and Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (1989–92). Demand began using the camera to document his ephemeral sculptural creations, but from 1993 made sculptures for the sole purpose of photographing them. To create his artworks Demand begins with an image, usually taken from media sources, and then constructs a life-size replica from paper and cardboard. The sculptures are generally destroyed after the photograph has been taken.
Public housing also shows the influence, in part, of Demand’s early photographic training. A member of the so-called Düsseldorf School (along with Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer and Andreas Gursky), Demand was taught photography by Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers had an austere approach, creating a vast archive of formally composed images of industrial structures. The rigour of this training is apparent in the objective approach Demand brings to his subjects. However, as Public housing demonstrates, from this starting point he creates work with a strange, disarming beauty in a style that is distinctly the artist’s own.
The origin for Public housing is the back of a Singapore $10 banknote which Demand recreates with great fidelity and in the characteristic pink tones of the original. The artist has expressed a fascination for currency that depicts modern architecture and has collected examples from many countries But, the meaning of his resulting image is somewhat ambiguous. It can be read either as a work that critiques modern housing estates with their often soulless and depressingly formulaic architecture or, in contrast, as an expression of national pride. It appears that the latter meaning was intended by the artist, who has written that Public housing ‘shows that the capital of finance in Asia also has a heart for the underprivileged’ (email to author).
The housing estate that Demand depicts is a characteristic example built by the Singapore Housing and Development Board, established in 1965 when Singapore became a republic and inherited a crises with slums and a lack of housing. The government responded by building low-cost, high-rise housing blocks and today around eighty-five per cent of Singaporeans live in these homes.
From this subject matter Demand has created an image that plays with notions of the real and the fictional in a disarming way. The uncanny effect of this photograph is similar to that of a movie set, where props are created for a short time and then disassembled. This sense of the artificial is especially apparent in Demand’s sculptural constructions which, on closer inspection, are without detail. What we are left with in this imposing photograph is a disconcerting sense of reality – a blank slate on which an unknown narrative seems about to unfold.
Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).