Down the Rabbit Hole

Thomas Demand at Pier 24 is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: Thomas Demand digs deep into what's real and what isn't.

(Installation image courtesy Pier 24 Photography)

I saw Thomas Demand's 2006 "Grotto" the other day at Pier 24, the wonderful new(-ish) photo space in San Francisco. It's picture that repays long contemplation, and I spent ages in front of it with friends. (Click on my image to zoom in on a much larger version.)

Demand's inspiration was a postcard he was sent of a show cave in Spain. Following his standard method, he set out to reconstruct the postcard's original subject out of cardboard – which is the first of the conceptual twists in this piece, since making such a reconstruction is in fact an impossible and incoherent task, given that every 2D image could represent an infinite number of possible 3D realities. (Strange, I know, but true.) Demand built his "reconstruction" using almost a million sheets of computer-cut cardboard, stacked-up layer by layer almost exactly as a 3D printer would spew its resin – and in fact I assumed we were looking at a photo of such a 3D-printed object when I first saw Demand's piece. Yet it takes some work even to make that assumption, since your first impression when you're looking at Demand's wall-sized final photo of his model is that you're seeing a pixelated, faulty image of the actual cave. A minute later, you realize that in fact you're looking at a picture shot and printed at the very highest resolution, but showing us a relatively low-res 3D "printout" of its scene. (A million components may sound like a lot for cut cardboard, but it's a pretty low number in the digital world.)

One final thought I had: The subject in "Grotto" is the ideal one for Demand's project, since the stalactites and stalagmites in a cave seem almost digital in their natural state – they are built drop-by-drop, layer-by-layer, by nature's own 3D printer.

So, to recap, we've got a "digital" rock formation, then a (probably) analogue photo of it printed as an analogue postcard, which is then "translated" into a 3D digital file used to build a (real) analogue model that simulates 3D digital printing, said model then being photographed and stored as a massive digital file and then printed at very high res, to give us a final image that looks more than anything like a massive blow-up from a low-res digital image of the cave, like you'd take with the cheapest cell phone.

If this mise-en-abyme doesn't capture the confusion of the world we've now built for ourselves, I don't know what could.

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