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Going off the grid: Thomas Demand on working with Caruso St John

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Artist Thomas Demand reflects on his collaborations with Caruso St John for his shows at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin and the Fondation Cartier

I like Caruso St John’s details, the irritation in the corner, the idea that arises a few moments later than one’s understanding of its general scheme.

When I worked with the practice on the show at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie in 2006, the least prominent feature of its proposal turned out to be the most important. As an aside, Adam Caruso told me that the symmetry of the Mies van der Rohe-designed building needed to be addressed, and I suddenly realised that obeying (or fighting against) the rigid symmetry of the floor plan had dominated most of the previous shows in the large gallery - especially the ones I didn’t find so successful.

Therefore, much of our effort went into making one of the two wooden boxes disappear- these are usually understood as the gate into the show. No one caught it, but it shifted the ratio that one would have to subordinate to the left, which then allowed me to have a narrative of the images on their own, not according to Mies’ spatial concept of eternity.

They declared independence, but didn’t ruin the building’s best feature

In a similar fashion we made ourselves independent from the grid in Jean Nouvel’s Fondation Cartier in Paris, even if it wasn’t necessary to place all the works I planned to show. In the exhibition architecture of that show in 1998, the nine walls were placed parallel at the short end of this massive vitrine of good taste, but purposely didn’t match the squares in the ceiling and the floor. They declared independence, but they didn’t ruin the best feature of the building either: its transparency.

However, the most effective but fiercely disputed features were the grey curtains, which no one in the institution could quite understand. Caruso St John just claimed they would soften the walls, best made from the mesh you’d find on the kitchen window of a chain smoker in a banlieue housing project, which was a subtle critique of the pathos of Nouvel’s architecture, I guess.

Even if the reference understandably met with an underwhelmed host - the luxury goods manufacturer Cartier - it turned our scheme into a space, not a display feature (and it was the last show for that curator).

I am aware that this insistence on specificity, which Caruso St John often discursively links to its respect for the craft of a carpenter, a stone mason or another handwerk, may raise an eyebrow at times, but it gives biography to the designs, a weight and a level of consideration which I can best describe as intelligence in form.

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