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Rather like his more than four decades’ worth of creative output, Munich-born, Berlin-based Thomas Demand is not an easy artist to pin down; unsurprisingly. A fascination with ephemerality and the innovative ways in which Demand explores the concept are the foundation of his robust international reputation.
“House of Card,” a new season-launching exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, the first major showing of his work in Canada, admirable on its own terms, is less a comprehensive Demand primer than a vivid glimpse of where the 58-year-old artist’s constantly evolving interests are leading him.
The exhibition, supervised by chief curator and associate director November Paynter, is what MOCA describes as an “updated iteration” of an exhibition originally presented two years ago in Belgium.
While Demand’s is the marquee name, “House of Card” also reflects the artist’s collaborative and interdisciplinary interests. In this case it’s Turner Prize-winning Scottish sculptor Martin Boyce whose commissioned, site-specific ceiling installation adorns the second level of this three-level show; and Argentinian-born, Toronto-trained conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who early in his career famously cooked and served food for visitors to his “pad thai” exhibition at New York’s Paula Allen Gallery.
Most conspicuous is Demand’s recent collaboration with Caruso St John Architects, the London firm run by Montreal-born, McGill-trained Adam Caruso and British-trained Peter St John. Demand, in town for the MOCA exhibition’s opening this week, jovially described it during an informative walk-through as “a group show in disguise.”
It was Caruso St John who executed Demand’s design for “The Triple Folly,” a newly opened event pavilion in Ebeltoft near Aarhus, Denmark, for the textile company Kvadrat. Demand’s model of the building is displayed on a large undulating platform, purpose-built with the aid of University of Toronto students, representing the area’s rolling countryside.
Accompanying the model is a collection of postcards depicting tents of all sorts and vintages, a source of inspiration for one section of Demand’s triple “folly,” the name a reference to whimsical buildings, often made to look old or ruined, that were all the rage in 18th-century French and English landscape gardening.
In Demand’s design, a tent-like canopy roof is made of a folded sheet of office paper, complete with punch-hole. Another section of roof is created with a paper plate. The performance hall is encased in fibreglass walls evoking a soda jerk’s paper hat, the colours carefully chosen to blend with the surrounding flora.
In an instructive way, this part of the exhibition helps throw a retrospective light on Demand’s habit of making paper and cardboard models — he initially trained as a sculptor — based on found objects or environments, often themselves sourced from photographs, which he would in turn then photograph before destroying the models.
His career-long interest in photography, originally taken up as a practical way to record his model-making without cluttering up a small studio, grew into a way of investigating materiality and our perceptions and emotional reactions to the world of images that constantly bombard us in varied media.
“The Triple Folly” also speaks to Demand’s interest in models other than his own, particularly those usually unseen and discarded models many architects utilize in conceptualizing and developing their ideas. The walls of MOCA’s second floor display Demand’s “Model Studies,” which feature mostly decontextualized photographs of models from Kazuyo Sejima’s and Ryue Nishizawa’s Japanese firm, SANAA, and from the late American architect John Lautner. As with Demand’s photographs of cardboard templates from the fashion house of the late Tunisian-born couturier Azzedine Alaïa, these images take on a new life as abstract art works.
Demand has been fully involved in the Toronto iteration of his earlier “House of Card” exhibition and was eager to ensure it sits sympathetically within MOCA’s voluminous, massively pillared exhibition spaces in what was, until the museum moved to the Lower Junction in 2018, the former, long-abandoned Tower Automotive Building.
In an arresting stroke of genius, visually and conceptually, the first thing that greets visitors as they enter the museum is Tiravanija’s “untitled 2013 (thomas demand’s here).” It is a to-scale reconstruction of Black Label, a karaoke bar in Japan that Demand discovered in 2008 while on a residency at the Center for Contemporary Art Kitakyushu in Kokura.
Demand, typically, took a series of photographs and made a model — on view on the museum’s third floor — that inspired Tiravanija’s reconstruction, itself first shown at the centre in Japan. Meanwhile, as Demand explained, the actual bar has been shunted around amid waves of urban redevelopment, much as the urban context of MOCA’s home, a century ago among the tallest buildings in Toronto, is being reframed by all the construction that noisily surrounds it.
Tiravanija’s bar is no Potemkin facade. It will be fully functional, hosting karaoke and “other artistic and social interventions” — art-speak for fun things — in collaboration with local artists, musicians and bars.
On a more chilling note, the exhibition features the first North American showing of Demand’s 2021 installation “Refuge.” Demand became fascinated with what must have been the experience of Edward Snowden — still high up the U.S. government’s “most wanted” list — after he sought asylum in Russia in 2013.
Landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, Snowden was initially confined by Russian authorities to a stark, windowless room in an unfinished airport hotel where the famous whistle-blower was left to ponder his future. Through persistence and an element of albeit legal subterfuge, Demand gathered fairly accurate information about the room’s size and general appearance, right down to the simple bedding. He then made a cardboard and paper model, which Demand subsequently photographed. In a way, the fact that these are photographs of a model rather than the room itself make them more discomforting.
“Imagine what it must have been like,” said Demand, as he elaborated on the way he’d managed to glean information on what looks like a cell in a medium-security jail for white-collar felons.
“He had no contact with the outside world. He could not tell if he was being spied on or not. It must have been terrible.”
Sometimes the “not real” can appear more real than “reality.”

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