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Thomas Demand: and Decolonizing Architecture at Notttingham Contemporary

2 February 12 words: Thomas Norton
Tempreh kicks off 2012 with two distinct and unique exhibitions


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Thomas Demand, Model Studies. Installation view at Nottingham Contemporary. Photo by Andy Keate

In moments of conflict, the lingering debris of destruction tenders aggression and forces a consideration of how fighting ever began. No matter how damaging the occasion, there’s no casual solution to approaching the aftermath of violent drama and more often than not it appears far easier to appear quietly sympathetic towards those caught in outbreaks of anger or war. In this sense, there’s poignancy to the NCG’s debut exhibit for 2012 – an exploration of rebuilding and architecture that follows a year of worldwide upheaval as people struggle through social, financial and wartime crises. At the heart of this show are two unique spaces - one dedicated to a dynamic activist art group working in the Middle East, the other includes a collection of work from acclaimed photographer Thomas Demand. Distinct from each other, they still both aim to answer questions of identity and building from rubble. It’s a bold experiment that unites principles of international politics and conceptual design but is the demanding content digestible for a new-year audience?

For the first of the exhibits, the NCG chose to invite Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), to showcase material investigating present day occupation of Palestine. From the outset it’s remarkable that DAAR turned almost a decade of their research on such a daunting topic into such a palatable show. Their goal has been to offer positive development plans to communities along the West Bank that have suffered through territorial dispute over the last 50 years. Their proposals have included turning abandoned settlements in Ramallah into academic and sports facilities as well as resurrecting crumbling military structures into nature reserves.
Throughout the exhibit DAAR explore the phenomenon of the “lawless line” - a secretive demarcation zone created in the early 1990s used to separate areas of militarised authority patrolled by Palestinian and Israeli troops. The border was so roughly planned that it dissected through houses and businesses creating communities that are now split by the ad hoc ruling. This concept has been visualised across the gallery using steel barriers, marked with arbitrary measurements, punctuated with jutting walls and towers that blockade visitors’ movement. The most noticeable of these structures is a 20 foot high, black, lacquered staircase. Steel guard rails reaching into the ceiling and down into each step drive a barrier through the ascent of the installation. It’s framed by a backdrop of documentary footage exploring the construction of the Palestinian Parliamentary building which had (allegedly) been plotted to deliberately run through the boundary zone. Both the staircase’s formidable size and its deathly connotations of imprisonment, deliver a stark representation of DAAR’s democratic message.

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DAAR, Common Assembly 2011 - Installation
design by Runa Johannssen with Elizabeth
Paden and Sameena Sitabkhan.

The group’s effort might strike as a touch too worthy and there’s no right way to describe it without resorting to patronising, chin-stroking approval. Its value will rely on each visitor filtering through the plethora of material shown to decide whether DAAR have created something that invites fresh discussion on a topic of labyrinth complexity. Their optimistic approach to creating new foundations in conflict zones has the potential to translate further afield and it’s refreshing to see these issues opened to debate so publicly as well. Although younger audiences less acquainted with groups such as the PLO might require some further information, the exhibition still triumphs in both its detail and vivid aesthetic.

By contrast, Thomas Demand’s contribution feels underwhelming, given the strength of conviction shown by DAAR. It’s easier to try and enjoy his work as a separate investment of your time despite sharing some thematic goals with its nearby counterpart.
Demand is well known for his painstaking hand crafted paper-made landscapes that replicate an eerie notion of sterile commericialism  - in this instance he’s been set the task of shooting design layouts made by the late architect John Lautner. Demand’s eccentric practice of destroying his own creations after their completion is therefore restrained in this collection – he too has been forced to decide how to build something new rather than exploit or bury the past. It’s also a departure from the precision and cleanliness of earlier work – many of these models are built from shattered or damaged textures. The close-ups and fractured photography explores the insides of Lautner’s craft. Through feeble chip boards and shattered glass, Demand develops an intimate portrait of both the style and practice of his predecessor.
Framed in series, there’s a clear and genuine admiration of Lautner's legacy on display but it still lacks the challenge of its sister show. That’s not to say Demand reveals too little or lacks an engaging range but it’s a deflated experience when offered as comparison to the intellectual rigour and forethought of DAAR’s donation.
So while this sudden shift in interest by the NCG from the outset could have alienated audiences, there’s a possibility that this new agenda wasn’t pushed far enough. While Demand might have been greeted by droves of approval elsewhere, his inclusion feels marginalised by the passion of  the neighbouring political activism. There are merits to both offerings but in light of the character of the Palestinian exhibit, Demand is left overshadowed. However it’s still a must-see for the venerable flair and quality displayed throughout, regardless of any issue of balance.

Thomas Demand: Model Studies and Decolonizing Architechture runs at Nottingham Contemporary until 15 April

Main image credits - DAAR, Common Assembly, 2011. Installation view at Nottingham Contemporary. Photo by Andy Keate.

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