They have opened a new karaoke bar in the lobby at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto. It’s a tiny venue – a pint-sized plywood cabin where perhaps three drinkers could squeeze in for a beer and a song – but its origin story is a long winding tale. The little structure is just the latest manifestation of a decade-long artistic project by the German artist Thomas Demand, a collaboration that features a series of repetitions and reproductions as expansive as a hall of mirrors or Russian doll.
The Berlin-based artist, now showing recent work at MOCA under the title House of Card, is well known for his representations of built spaces and his fascination with paper models. Twisting between the actual and the represented, he has photographed architects’ models, turning these miniature structures into grand abstractions, and recreated rooms or buildings with his own small models or large photographs.
He first encountered what would become the karaoke bar in the Japanese steel town of Kitakyushu, where he was artist-in-residence at an art school. It was a narrow three-storey building with white siding stuck in the middle of a parking lot near the train station. What was it doing there? Who would go for a drink in such a place?
The story was that the bar’s previous incarnation had been expropriated to make way for the bullet train and the owner, who had refused to sell, was compensated with the same footprint in this odd new location. Demand photographed the building, which was so small he could build a scale model, completing the work back in his Berlin studio in 2008. He then photographed the model and sent those images back to the art school. A few years later, Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija was resident at the school: He unrolled the large-scale prints and instructed the students to build a new model of the bar.
Black Label (the name of both bar and art work) is a rebuild of Tiravanija’s build (which was also rebuilt for a show in Belgium) and represents at least the fifth-generation descendant, through photography and three-dimensional models, of the parking-lot structure – which was a replacement in the first place. MOCA has worked with Demand on a show that spreads his work over all three floors of the gallery; upstairs is a large-scale three-dimensional reproduction of the bar created from photographic panels, this time including its upper storeys. Meanwhile, the building back in Japan has been moved again.
“I like collaboration. Nobody does everything alone,” Demand said as he put the finishing touches on the work this week. “Architecture is never a one-man show and this is a one-man show in disguise as a group show – or the other way around.”
On the one hand, the many iterations of the bar clearly owe a debt to classic postmodern artistic concerns with original and reproduction. The bar’s history recalls the paradox of the ship of Theseus: If every part is replaced, is it still the same ship? On the other hand, the project is very much a crowd-sourced collaboration of the current moment. The karaoke is a new element added by MOCA, which is bringing in various Toronto bar tenders to serve in the tiny space. There is also a webcam with a live stream of the harbour at Kitakyushu.
Like the bar marooned in a parking lot, MOCA itself is an artistic island in a sea of condo construction these days – and yet the little wooden cabin seems at home amid all the digging and drilling at its doorstep.
Beyond the bar, Demand’s play with architecture models has grown so convincing that he has been drawn into architecture itself and just completed his first real building. It’s a meeting centre for a Danish textile designer and manufacturer in a remote town in Jutland – a place where clients who have made the journey can congregate for a meeting or a meal. It features a building of three geometric shapes and a tent-like roof, and is entitled Triple Folly. The building is represented at MOCA by a large model but, to judge from photos, the real thing also looks like an architectural model, which is rather the point.
For the textile company, Demand took his inspiration from tents – buildings made of cloth – and wanted translucent roofing: Suppliers had to develop a new fibreglass material to create the effect. A nearby vitrine filled with photos of tents, from army camps to the big top, is a fascinating snapshot of Demand’s visual thought process.
But how does a photographer and model maker safely design a real building?
“I have help,” Demand said. The London architecture firm Caruso St John was his collaborator this time around.
Viewers – or readers – who are beginning to find all these complex collaborations a bit hard to follow may discover some respite amid the simpler tributes Demand pays to other creators with his straight photographic work. In three lovely series, the artist turns various paper and cardboard models into enigmatic abstractions that recall the early 20th-century photography of surrealists such as Man Ray.
In the first series, Demand went into the archives to photograph old models by American architect John Lautner, creating mysterious angles and spaces. For another more colourful series, he shot rows of the cardboard patterns used in the studio of fashion designer Azzedine Alaia, looking for fortuitous combinations of pink, orange and brown. And in a third he visited the Japanese architecture firm SANAA, where the designers communicate their ideas through numerous paper models: To display these photographs of all-white forms, so pleasing in their simplicity, Demand has covered the walls of the gallery in a blue folded paper.
What makes these images so inviting is the beauty of the forms. What makes them so engaging is their own paradox: They are clearly pictures of something yet they don’t represent anything. White curves, coloured lines, they are every bit as intriguing as a tiny bar left behind in a parking lot.
House of Card continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto to Jan. 8.