Thomas Demand & Ben Lerner - Demand’s work lures the viewer into a reality that is not what it appears to be. Carefully contrived from paper, these imaginary worlds are sculpted, photographed and destroyed. The traces which remain are events in which the protagonist is removed, scenes that are both familiar and out of reach

Thomas Demand & Ben Lerner, Blossom,  Mack Books, 2015.
The texts and images presented here are part of Blossom, a collaboration between the artist Thomas Demand and writer Ben Lerner. The images relate to a detail from a photograph of Katherine Russell, widow of Tamerlan Anzorovich Tsarnaev leaving her home in Boston, that first appeared in the New York Times on 4 May 2013.

Thomas Demand’s work lures the viewer into a reality that is not what it appears to be. Carefully contrived from paper, these imaginary worlds are sculpted, photographed and destroyed. The traces which remain are events in which the protagonist is removed, scenes that are both familiar and out of reach. Demand’s work has been shown extensively across the world and is included in most of the significant private and institutional collections. Recent books include The Dallies (MACK, 2012) and Model Studies (Ivory Press, 2011).

Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw and Mean Free Path, all published by Copper Canyon Press. He is the author of two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station, published by Coffee House Press, and 10:04, out this year from Faber / FSG. His recent writing on art and literature can be found in Art in America, Frieze, Harper’s, and The London Review of Books. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award and has received Fulbright, Howard, and Guggenheim Fellowships, among other honors.

Sample Trees
Traditionally, you drink plum wine
Deepening the evening, a length of cloud
Then confuse a falling blossom with
A butterfly / In the photograph
Of the tradition, flowers in small corymbs
Papery against electric light
Blossoming en masse, in time lapse
You refer to a place where water flows
Over a vertical drop in culture / Poems
Fail to mention fission or decay
In the traditional ways, focusing instead
Then renouncing focus, a shimmering effect
In the middle distance, there is a monk
Likening this world to an echo, smoke
Slowly rising from some pyre, another year
Gone, frostwork on the grass/glass
The nu suffix expresses completeness
The mu suffix indicates intention, I
Function to measure impermanence
“Like a passing dream on a night in spring”
The petals shed their details

I think what’s interesting about Thomas [Demand]’s photography is the way that it makes you feel presence and distance simultaneously. So, he does this weird thing—you probably know—where he works with a photograph, like he sees a photograph, and he reconstructs the scene or part of the scene in paper sculpture, and then he photographs that, and then he destroys the sculpture. So it’s at this very strange remove from reality; it’s a photograph of a sculpture of a photograph of a thing… You get this weird undecideable mix of feelings about its immediacy and its mediacy, and that’s how I tend to feel about photographs. - Ben Lerner

For centuries, the cherry blossom has been a lush symbol of the cyclical arrival of spring, and more generally, a representation of the ephemeral passing of time, where birth and death follow each other in the span of a few weeks. As seen and described by countless poets, authors, and visual artists across the ages, a grove of cherry (or plum) trees in blossom (particularly in Japan) has become the epitome of freshness and natural beauty, full of innocence and often the setting of budding romance. Wandering underneath the heavy boughs of flowers is an experience steeped in exciting immediacy, seemingly gone again in an instant and left to linger on in fading memory.
That German photographer Thomas Demand should explore the shifting moods and moments of cherry blossoms has an unexpected ring of daring genius to it. An expert in constructed mimicry, his cherry blossoms made of paper are plausibly real, each petal and branch painstaking crafted to replicate the actual. And yet, of course, his tree is undeniably fake, in a sense the conceptual antithesis of the coveted qualities of natural blossoms – his flowers and limbs are manmade, unnatural, and permanent, emphatic rule breakers each and every one.
While not alluded to overtly in this photobook, Demand’s Blossom project actually got its start as the backdrop of another constructed image. In his work Backyard, he recreated the home of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev as it was shown in countless news photos. While that image is dominated by a forgettable concrete stairway leading up to the house, a massive cherry tree in full bloom stands behind a wooden backyard fence in the background, a breath of life amid an otherwise dingy scene. So for those that know the backstory, the blossom studies shown here take on another layer of meaning, as the downstream relative of terror and destruction.
While Demand’s tree is a single massive paper construction, the photographer has deftly used changes in camera angle, distance, and lighting to create the striking appearance of diversity. He moves in and out, controlling the scale, taking in broad dense thickets of flowers from afar, and then closing in on clumps of individual blossoms (smartly blurred or placed outside the plane of focus), where each petal seems to have been shifted by an invisible (and nonexistent) wind. As the images are sequenced, Demand has created the feeling of the passing of an entire day, from the lifting blue light of dawn to the white brightness of midday, and from the softer afternoon glow of yellow to the arrival of purple twilight and the dark night dotted by sprays of moonlight. Each moment has its own atmosphere and temperament, as though the changing light could bring us from hearty optimism to deeper melancholy and back again.
The clever construction of the photobook itself supports this immersive experience. Up close images are repeatedly spread across both sides of a French fold, with additional images hiding (and not quite fully visible) inside – the effect is something akin to playful discovery, as if we were dancing in and out of the branches, brushing across the blossoms from all directions in bustling, disorienting twists and turns.
Ben Lerner’s dissolvingly expansive poem is a perfect inclusion, and a reminder that a text that keeps the viewer integrated into the imagery is nearly always more powerful than one that pulls us out to stand at a (disapproving) critical or analytical distance. His words beg to be read aloud, the cadence of his textual rhythms seeming to match a meandering path through the blossoms. The poem meditates on the interplay of real and unreal (especially in the case of photography), the nature of imitation, the time warp of memory, and the shifting depth of distance, following the patterns and cycles of Lerner’s thoughts as they react to and riff on Demand’s visual experience. References and reminiscences seem to evolve naturally, one from another, his poetry forcing us to reconsider our own iterative process of viewing. Most importantly, his words feel fully integrated with Demand’s images (on the same footing); not an afterthought or a bolt-on, but an equal contributor to an overall artistic sentiment (tellingly, both names appear on the spine of the book, Lerner’s first).
In the end, this is a successfully contemplative photobook – it’s a book to mull over and chew on, to allow to steep awhile, and to quietly ruminate over. Demand takes a well worn floral cliché and inverts it, forcing us to look more closely at why we have treasured it for so long, and to think harder about what it means when we dissect and reassemble it. His paper blossoms are cerebrally poetic, lovely in their unabashed mimicry and sharply incisive in their underlying worldview. -


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