Sunday, May 10, 2009

Now hanging in the National Gallery’s East Building is a series of photographs devoted to the Oval Office. The five large prints, simply titled “Presidency I-V,” are the first works by German photographer Thomas Demand to be added to the museum’s collection and a well-themed acquisition for this national institution.

They were donated by New York philanthropists Agnes Gund and Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder after being exhibited in London last year.

Mr. Demand, who lives in Berlin, was originally commissioned to create the suite for the New York Times Magazine’s cover story “After the Imperial White House” following the election of President Obama.

The Oval Office has been shown millions of times in print and television, so what’s the big deal with these photos? Turns out they don’t document the real presidential office, but a model of the room constructed of paper, cardboard and other inexpensive materials.

At first glance, the sequenced interiors appear convincing, but look closely and the chair and desk resemble something out of a cartoon. The rug seems to be made of confetti and the portraits on the table are faceless. Stars are missing from the American flag.

Mr. Demand intentionally omits such details in constructing and photographing his spatial facsimiles, which he bases on newspaper and magazine images. He wants to draw attention to the artifice of his scenes so as to challenge the conventional idea of a photograph as an accurate record of reality.

Instead of documenting the Oval Office, his pictures encourage the viewer to think about the manipulation of the truth through the stage set and the camera.

In representing a seat of power in such a seemingly real but fake manner, Mr. Demand’s series should strike a familiar chord in political Washington.

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