Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Processo Grottesco and Yellowcake by Thomas Demand

One year ago this month, Thomas Demand exhibited his work Grotto at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice. This large scale work is the final photograph of his mammoth reconstruction that took two years and 900,000 layers of 32 tons of cardboard to complete. The Fondazione Prada has facilitated the publishing of a two book, slipcased edition called Processo Grottesco.

I enjoy Demand's work immensely probably much in the same way that I enjoy dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. You know it is a contrivance but you allow yourself to live within this new reality for a moment - a moment that is taunted by logic and real order.

That being said Grotto treads dangerously into territory that is what I have come to call the "Crewdson effect." The "Crewdson effect" is, as the productions get larger, their sheer enormity starts impeding on the viewers ability detach from the process and just experience the emotion or a meaning of the work. When I look at Gregory Crewdson's recent work I mostly see his process and scale, and my mind is swimming with thoughts like, "wow, he put tons of lights way back there in the background." So much so that I care little about anything else (which, since he has been essentially making the same image over and over again with the same meanings, I guess is OK). It's kind of like the art version of arena rock. The euphoria induced has less to do with the music than the energy of the huge crowd and light show.

Grotto, in relation to Demand's other works, steps aside from his usual reconstructions of pre-existing images referring to controversial socio-political events. The grotto has appeared throughout art history and architecture since the 16th century with artificial grottoes being created to serve as gardens, baths, and chapels. The grotto reconstructed by Demand is based on a natural formation in Majorca, Spain that was featured on a postcard.

Processo Grottesco features the final photograph of the cardboard construction as a three-page foldout followed by over 450 pages of source material in postcards, photos and production stills. The book design is unique with a section of pages that are cut in to so that one can flip through the postcards on the top pages while comparing them to the details of the finished work on the lower ones.

Interestingly, the source material cites examples far from the typical images of caverns and into sources as seemingly distant as Dadaist studio creations by Schwitters (Merzbau 1923-42) and room decor from the 16th century.

The second book in the slipcase is Yellowcake and it is Demand's pictorial representation of the now infamous Nigergate scandal that led America into its current illegal quagmire known as the Iraq War.

In the evening of January 1, 2001, the Nigerian Embassy in Italy was ransacked but the only stolen items appeared to be a Breil watch, some perfume and blank embassy letterhead paper. Later, documents written on that letterhead would be sold through various sources claiming to be authentic correspondence between Niger and Saddam Hussein about the sale of hundreds of tons of weapons grade "Yellowcake" uranium to Iraq. The documents were laughably false as quick internet searches revealed (the main protocol agreement of the sale between Iraq and Niger bears the signature of a Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister who had retired 11 years before the date on the documents!) yet they went on to become the center "smoking gun" of the administrations justification for letting Osama Bin Laden off the hook and pursuing Saddam Hussein. We all remember those 16 words, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Office supplies of file boxes, post-it notes, generic industrial desks, file folders and the detritus of the common space take on an air of corruption. The scene of the crime isn't splattered with blood but instead looks as innocuous as the office of a CPA. Our reality of the materials common to an aisle at Staples has been turned on its head.

The book Yellowcake presents 9 interior views of the Nigerian embassy reconstructed in paper and photographed. Where the Processo Grottesco is a traditional vertical format book, Yellowcake is designed like a large hardcover, silver-edged notebook - bound at the top and utilizing lined white paper for the title pages. It includes essays by Carlo Bonini, Alex Farquharson, and Robert Storr.

Like the Serpentine Gallery catalog on Demand I wrote about last year, the elegance of the presentation is a huge draw. I think the content is full and justifies the extravagance but some may be hesitant to drop the expected $140.00 for this set. It is from Prada afterall, but since it's a book, it is a shame that there won't be a knock-off showing up on Canal Street.

Processo Grottesco


Anonymous said...

This controversial Prada- Demand product is the ultimate gift for the politically correct hipster!
Troy,East Williamsburgh

Anonymous said...

You had me going until I got to the price. Art books are just getting completely out of hand and becoming the luxuries of the wealthy. Even the "standard" hard back artist monographs are averaging $75 or more. It's got to be about a 25-50% price increase over roughly 5 years ago. Is it really just inflation?

Anonymous said...

A big part of it is inflation: paper costs more, inks cost more, shipping costs more and labor is starting to rise in the countries where the books are printed. But of equal importance is demand. Photography books are very popular right now and the large publishing houses, producing books by well-known photographers, know they can charge more and people will buy them and buy out a relatively small print run.

The other component of book publishing reality is that even in the field of photography, most books don't sell well. So in the end the best-sellers have to subsidize the ones that don't move.

But all that taken into consideration, the medium is very popular right, so prices rise accordingly.

Anonymous said...


You beat me to a response. All of those are contributing factors I wanted to mention.

Many publishers use a 5 times the production cost mark up to figure the retail price. By the time distributors take their cut and damaged books get returned, the final net money made is often laughable. It is a wonder publishers stay in business (you may notice how many don't).

That being said, I find it disturbing to come across books that are outlandishly expensive. Not so much the item mentioned in this post as this is obviously such a luxury item but the fact that the average price is now 60.00 to 75.00 for a book severely limits the audience and, in turn, the dialogue that needs to be taking place about the work itself.

Anonymous said...

Was more of a rhetorical question. We all are acutely aware of rising costs. And of course they're popular but 1, we're seeing a massive amount of books being printed and at prices higher than ever. Where is the drop off going to occur or is it already there? 2, I personally know some artists who can barely afford to buy these luxuries—they need to pick and choose carefully which artists they can read up on and study. (I know I know there's always the library right?) Still it's sad to see these things become so out of reach.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I'm studying book and type design at Royal College of Art London. This is one of the best photo book sites imaginable. Please keep going! Thank you!