The White House: A cardboard cutout

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's the Oval Office, but not as we know it. Artist Thomas Demand built a life-sized replica – and then destroyed it. Rob Sharp finds out why

The famous carved wooden desk, the American flag, a round rug in the foreground: it could be any photograph of the Oval Office. Take a closer look, and this perception is torn up. For a start, the desk seems to have the wrong lustre. The tufts of wool on the rug resemble confetti. That is because the image is not a genuine photo of the world's most famous seat of power. It is of a life-size replica, constructed by one of the hottest contemporary artists working today. Berlin-based art photographer Thomas Demand built the scene to mark the US presidential elections last November. After the shoot, Demand destroyed the model, which wasn't hard: the office and its contents – from the pen on the desk to the ivy above the fireplace – were made from card and paper.

"Card is a material everyone knows," explains Demand. "It has a classic geometry that people know. And it's temporary – people can throw it away and as long as they recycle they don't have to feel bad about it. It can be remade into something else then can be used for something different. It's a contemporary material."

To recreate the Oval Office, Demand sifted through hundreds of vintage photographs, studying how recent US leaders furnished the room. "I saw all sorts of iconic pictures, with so many well-known figures. But it was more about the space than the person," he says of his research. "Newsprint images are often misleading, and everyone photographs using wide-angle lenses in there. The Oval Office is tinier than you might think. I couldn't get the actual dimensions of the room, so I had to work it out roughly. But the size of the desk, and even the plug sockets, are well known, so I could extrapolate other measurements from those. In the end, I melded several versions of the office – which changed every time a new president took over – into one. I wanted to create the idea of the office. What you had in your mind when you thought of it, rather than something exact."

Demand, 44, is at the top of the league of art photographers, and one of the few to have enjoyed a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (in 2005). His installations usually recreate empty spaces; sources of power are a theme of his works. In 2007, he rebuilt and photographed a three-dimensional card model of the Niger embassy in Rome. It was in this office that controversial forged documents – claiming Iraq had purchased nuclear material from Niger – were created, later to be leaked to the Americans. An unknown and anonymous space, it couldn't be further away from the Oval office. "The Oval Office is like the Pope's chair was in the 16th century," says Demand. "It is a place of supreme power. This change was interesting for me. You go from oblivion in the Niger project to super-exposure. It was like making a painting of the Eiffel Tower."

The construction process was painstaking, taking Demand two weeks of research and two weeks of building time. He worked with a team of 18 assistants to complete it in his Berlin studio. When complete, the life-sized reconstruction was photographed from seven different angles. The pictures vary in their conventionality. One shows the office in the most traditional way, facing the presidential desk (it was from this vantage point that the world's media recently saw George W Bush welcome all the living ex-presidents to lunch). But a shot of the presidential chair veers into more surreal territory. It tackles themes such as power; by looking upwards from the floor, it makes the seat seem supremely big.

The works were commissioned by the New York Times Magazine at the time of the presidential race, then exhibited at Spruth Magers gallery in Mayfair, west London, and will soon move to a Hamburg venue; several of the prints have already been sold to private collectors. But Demand doesn't think politics will ever be his speciality, and he won't comment on what he makes of the incoming president. "The amount of wisdom I can spread on this is the same as any bus driver," he says. "Say you're watching a talk show, and there is an actor who plays a policeman on a cop show and he starts talking about security and crime. You realise he knows nothing. I feel like that. I work with pictures."

Thomas Demand’s series was exhibited at Sprüth Magers London

News
people
Life and Style
healthMovember isn't about a moustache trend, it saves lives
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Extras
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities