SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF: FROM SIMULACRUM TO CRITICAL FICTION IN THE WORK OF THOMAS DEMAND AND PIERRE HUYGHE

by Dana Liljegren*

The term simulacrum reemerged in the development of postmodern theory, mobilized by key theorists Fredric Jameson, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean Baudrillard. According to Plato’s conception, a simulacrum is a copy without a true original—an imitation that may bear the appearance, but not the essence, of the model. Deleuze refines this definition by distinguishing between copies and simulacra: “Copies are secondhand possessors, well-grounded claimants, authorized by resemblance. Simulacra are like false claimants, built on a dissimilitude, implying a perversion, an essential turning away.”[1] In poststructural art historical analysis, simulacra are perhaps most readily identifiable in the work of Andy Warhol,[2] whose 1960s Pop replicas of consumer goods consecrate spectacular society—characterized by the increasing mediation of experience by images—and the mass production of consumerism. As Hal Foster argues, “Pop art might appear less as a return to representation after abstract expressionism than as a turn to simulation—to the serial production of images whose connection to originals, let alone resemblance to referents, is often attenuated.”[3] Arthur Danto writes, “Nothing need mark the difference, outwardly, between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and the Brillo boxes in the supermarket… as far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was, you had to turn from sense experience to thought.”[4] The postmodern simulacrum thus emerges in visual art somewhere between the reproduction and the readymade. Warhol’s work provoked philosophical questions about the very nature of art, while declaring its own superficiality: it offered no narrative, little to visually interpret, and no solicitation of participation from the viewer.

Today, artists like Thomas Demand and Pierre Huyghe are reactivating the simulacrum as an artistic strategy and remodeling it into a kind of critical fiction. According to Baudrillard, simulacra—referent-less signs—diminish the distinction between reality and reproduction as they produce a simulated experience of the contemporary world. Using a Borgesian fable as the basis for analogy, Baudrillard describes a map that precedes its depicted terrain: the map no longer accurately reflects the landscape but prefigures it, thereby altering the lay of the land itself.[5] Similarly, in our contemporary commodified world of mass marketing, images have come to govern our experience of reality. The development of postmodern heterotopias[6] such as the Internet and virtual reality as well as the rise in popularity of science fiction provide the framework within which the artistic practices of Demand and Huyghe operate. Their work visually, and often phenomenologically, explores the space between fictional narratives and simulation. Rather than activate the superficial, flat repetition of the Warholian simulacrum, Demand and Huyghe strive to blur the line between the real and the fictional by engaging the viewer through the use of narrative elements.

Thomas Demand, Office / Büro, 1995 C-Print / Diasec,  183.5 x 240 cm (www.blueprintmagazine.co.uk)

Thomas Demand, Office/Büro, 1995. C-Print/Diasec, 183.5 x 240 cm.
 (www.blueprintmagazine.co.uk)

Demand, born in Germany in 1964, was originally trained as a sculptor, but is best known for his photographs of meticulously crafted, full-scale replicas of real-world interiors—offices, domestic rooms, warehouses—made of paper and cardboard.[7] He constructs recognizable three-dimensional scenes that resemble real places but are, in fact, imaginary; he flattens the spaces by photographically reproducing them; and then he destroys the set. The viewer is presented with a photograph: a reproduction of a set—itself a copy with no real original—that has often ceased to exist by the time the photograph is printed. Demand’s work thus arguably takes Jameson’s conception of photorealism as the epitomical simulacrum[8] one step further. While a photorealist painting may be rendered from a photograph—itself a copy of some real object, place, or person—Demand’s photographs are reproductions of constructed spaces with no real-world referent. Rosalind Krauss writes of the relationship between photography and simulacrum: “By exposing the multiplicity, the facticity, the repetition and stereotype at the heart of every aesthetic gesture, photography deconstructs the possibility of differentiating between the original and the copy… The practice of the multiple… has been understood by certain artists as not just a degraded or bad form of the aesthetic original. It has been taken to undermine the very distinction between original and copy.”[9] Demand’s conjugation of photography and sculpture—his images of diorama-like structures—compounds the operation outlined by Krauss. His photographs of fabricated spaces elaborate the process of multiplication, further complicating the relationship between the photograph and the real world.

Like many contemporary German artists, Demand references German history in much of his work. Office (1995), for example, is an imagined portrait of the Stasi Central Office after a raid by East Berliners.[10] The image depicts an ordinary workspace—a central table surrounded by chairs, a small standing lamp near the back of the room, a row of windows on the far wall—in violent disarray: blank pieces of paper litter the scene, cabinets have been emptied and drawers removed. The viewer finds herself wondering what happened here, as the narrative pull of the scene arranged by the artist takes hold. Demand’s images of nearly life-sized constructions are meticulously composed. He notes that determining which imperfections to leave in sight—a telltale crinkle in the paper, or even a small tear here or there—is a significant part of his artistic process: “At every stage I can choose whether or not to leave these visible flaws. Over time I have developed a more acute sense of this kind of subtlety… Each detail is important.”[11] It is this subtlety that paradoxically pulls the viewer into the illusive world and bars her from entering it. Demand’s images call to mind Clement Greenberg’s discussion of the “optical third dimension” in his infamous essay “Modernist Painting.” He writes, “The Old Masters created an illusion of space in depth that one could imagine oneself walking into, but the analogous illusion created by the Modernist painter can only be seen into; can be traveled through, literally or figuratively, only with the eye.”[12] Though Greenberg’s argument pertains to painting rather than photography, the concept of a space that is exclusively visually navigable is applicable to Demand’s photographs. His images depict apparently physically accessible spaces; yet, as the viewer surveys the scene, the awareness of an uncanny sterility and fragility amid the chaotic mess creeps into her consciousness. With this realization comes the understanding that the photograph depicts a space with which one cannot interact physically: the viewer may explore the scene visually, but doing so only illuminates its artificiality. 

Thomas Demand, Bathroom, 1997. C-Print Diasec, 160 x 122 cm / 63 x 48”. (www.arttattler.com)

Thomas Demand, Bathroom, 1997. C-Print/Diasec, 160 x 122 cm.
(www.arttattler.com) 

Bathroom (1997) appears, at first, even more strikingly real than Demand’s other paper constructions. Once again, the unshakable eeriness of the scene draws in the viewer; one seeks the story just beneath the surface of this image of an ordinary yet ominous tiled bathroom. For German viewers this scene might call to mind the published photograph taken of German politician Uwe Barschel after he was discovered dead in a hotel bathroom in 1987.[13] It is Demand’s visual cues, however, that signal foul play: the door ajar; a rumpled bathmat; and a partially drawn shower curtain, revealing one corner of a filled bathtub. Recalling scenes from horror films and murder-mystery television series, the viewer begins to construct a narrative. In reference to Cindy Sherman’s photographic practice, Krauss notes, “the images reproduce what is already a reproduction”[14]—an observation equally applicable to Demand’s work. Like Sherman, Demand employs the tropes of Hollywood cinema and advertising to create a “concatenation of stereotypes.”[15]

In an interview published in 2000, Demand described his process and his work: “I make a sculpture, then it becomes a photograph. At this point, the sculpture is no longer that important, but nor is the photograph. The work is in two dimensions, but the memory of the shape that it describes remains present. It’s hybrid work, in between painting and sculpture, using different media in conjunction with a narrative element.”[16] It is this narrative strategy that signals the evolution in contemporary artistic practice from simulacrum to critical fiction. Demand’s images do not immediately reveal their construction, an illusion enabled by the photographic medium. Despite registering the emptiness of the space, the viewer is drawn in by the complex layering of familiar places and specific moments contained within the image. Demand toys with the viewer’s perceptions, memories, and projections, prompting reconsideration of the limits of fiction and reality. 

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003. Digital video projection from film and video transfers, color, sound, 26 minutes. Images via BOMB Magazine Issue 89/Fall 2004 interview by Doug Aitken (http://bombsite.com/)

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003. Digital video projection from film and video transfers (26 min., color, sound).
(BOMB Magazine, Issue 89/Fall 2004)

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003. Digital video projection from film and video transfers, color, sound, 26 minutes Photo: Guilherme Young (www.diaart.org)

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003. Digital video projection from film and video transfers (26 min., color, sound).
Photo: Guilherme Young (www.diaart.org)

Like Demand, French artist Pierre Huyghe draws upon diverse cultural sources in order to construct narratives that disrupt the viewer’s understanding of fiction and reality. While Demand’s narratives are contained within still images, many of Huyghe’s projects combine performance, installation, sculpture, and animation, and are often ultimately presented as elaborate film productions. Central to Huyghe’s practice is the privileging of chance occurrences and multiple temporalities over the relative permanence of the art object—a strategy enabled by film—in order to destabilize our sense of what is and is not real. Huyghe’s 2003 film Streamside Day Follies centers on the development of a community in the Hudson Valley. Huyghe filmed the short fictional documentary in the nascent residential community of Streamside Knolls in Fishkill, New York, for whom he organized a celebration that included a costume parade, activities, music, and fireworks. The film juxtaposes Disney-like pastoral themes and twenty-first-century suburbia: the opening sequence, for example, depicts a fawn wandering against a backdrop of prefabricated houses. The documentary was exhibited within a shifting constructed space: five temporary walls moved slowly together to form a makeshift theater for each screening; once the film ended, the walls returned to their original locations, at which point the cycle began once again.

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003. Digital video projection from film and video transfers, color, sound, 26 minutes Images via BOMB Magazine Issue 89/Fall 2004 Interview by Doug Aitken (http://bombsite.com/)

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003. Digital video projection from film and video transfers (26 min., color, sound).
(BOMB Magazine, Issue 89/Fall 2004) 

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003 digital video projection from film and video transfers, color, sound, 26 minutes Photo: Ken Tannenbaum (Dia Art Foundation installation view)

Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, 2003. Installation view. 
Photo: Ken Tannenbaum (Dia Art Foundation)

During a 2004 conversation with art historian George Baker, Huyghe explained the central idea behind Streamside Day Follies: “What interested me was to investigate how a fiction… could in fact produce a certain kind of reality.”[17] Huyghe’s fictional documentary effectively enacts Baudrillard’s prognosis: “It is no longer possible to fabricate the unreal from the real, the imaginary from the givens of the real. The process will, rather, be the opposite; it will be to put decentered situations, models of simulation in place and to contrive to give them the feeling of the real, of the banal, of lived experience, to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because it has disappeared from our life.”[18] 

Pierre Huyghe, A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005. Super 16mm film transferred to HD video, 21 minutes 41 seconds, color, sound. (photo by Pierre Huyghe) © Pierre Huyghe, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. (http://www.pbs.org/art21/images/pierre-huyghe/a-journey-that-wasn%E2%80%99t-2005)

Pierre Huyghe, A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005.
Super 16mm film transferred to HD video (21 min. 41 sec., color, sound).
Photo: Pierre Huyghe
© Pierre Huyghe, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York
(http://www.pbs.org/art21/images/pierre-huyghe/a-journey-that-wasn%E2%80%99t-2005)

In Huyghe’s 2005 project A Journey That Wasn’t, film once again allows for the   integration of multiple times and locations, and the fusion of actual events and their fictionalization. In February of 2005, Huyghe spent one month on a nautical expedition in the Antarctic with seven other artists and ten additional crewmembers. The group documented their experiences in search of an uncharted island and a “unique solitary creature”: the albino penguin.[19] Huyghe explains:

We just invent fiction and we give ourselves the real means to discover it… We travel for a month through frozen Antarctica to find this territory and this creature. It’s just a process of finding something and bringing it to light. The important thing is the movement. It’s not so much what you find as whether the movement exposes something… it’s a collective expedition toward elsewhere. And once everybody comes back from this collective experience, each person does something with the experience.[20]

The following October, Huyghe staged a musical reenactment of the voyage that was performed by an orchestra on the skating rink in New York City’s Central Park, transformed by lighting and atmospheric effects. Using recorded footage from both the “real” excursion and the staged one, Huyghe assembled the film A Journey That Wasn’t.

Though narrative is central to the reformulation of simulacrum into critical fiction demonstrated in the work of Demand and Huyghe, this artistic strategy is unconcerned with storyline; rather, it is employed as a means to investigate the relationship between media and reality. Demand’s paper constructions are perceived to be real, if only for a moment or two, because they are presented in photographic form. Despite the viewer’s recognition of the scene’s artificiality, she is pulled in by the visual cues, carefully composed to suggest possible narratives. Similarly, Huyghe’s constructed narratives draw in the viewer. Film enables the combination of multiple spatiotemporal landscapes and the confusion of real and fictionalized events. By illuminating their own construction—combining fictional referents and the indexicality traditionally ascribed to photography and film—the work of Demand and Huyghe critically engages viewers with our simulacral reality.

*Dana Liljegren received her MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University in May 2013. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in art history at CUNY’s Graduate Center.   


[1] Gilles Deleuze and Rosalind Krauss, “Plato and the Simulacrum,” October, Vol. 27 (Winter, 1983): 47.

[2] See Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), 128. Foster describes the simulacral as “crucial to the poststructuralist critique of representation.”

[3] Ibid., 104.

[4] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 13.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1.

[6] Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec. “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

[7] Francesco Bonami, Régis Durand, and François Quintin, Thomas Demand (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001).

[8] See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 30. Jameson argues that photorealism “looked like a return to representation and figuration after the long hegemony of the aesthetics of abstraction until it became clear that their objects were not to be found in the ‘real world’ either but were themselves photographs of that real world, this last now transformed into images, of which the ‘realism’ of the photorealist painting is now the simulacrum.”

[9] Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October, Vol. 31 (Winter, 1984), 59.

[10] Peter Kelly, “Thomas Demand’s Paper Architecture,” Blueprint Magazine, September 28, 2009. http://www.blueprintmagazine.co.uk/index.php/architecture/thomas-demands-paper-architecture/.

[11] Bonami, Durand, and Quintin, Thomas Demand, 52.

[12] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 90.

[13] Andreas Ruby, “Thomas Demand: Memoryscapes,” Parkett, Vol. 62 (2001): 5.

[14] Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” 59.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Francesco Bonami, Régis Durand, and François Quintin, Thomas Demand (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001), 46.

[17] George Baker and Pierre Huyghe, “An Interview with Pierre Huyghe,” October, Vol. 110 (Autumn, 2004): 84.

[18] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 124.

[19] Public Art Fund and the Whitney Museum of American Art, “A Journey That Wasn’t: A Central Park Musical Based on an Adventure in Antarctica,” press release, October, 2005, http://www.publicartfund.org/pafweb/projects/05/huyghe/huyghe-05.html.

[20] “‘A Journey That Wasn’t’ (2005),” Art21 / PBS.org, accessed December 11, 2011, http://www.pbs.org/art21/images/pierre-huyghe/a-journey-that-wasn%E2%80%99t-2005.