"Making art and being an artist is a philosophical task than merely producing objects."
Mathieu Mercier in his studio in Paris. Photo : Selina Ting ©initiArt Magazine, 2012
Objects are at the core of the art of Mathieu Mercier (*1970, France). Fascinated by the utopian modernist project of Total Art which seeks to integrate art to our everyday life, and the opposite Duchampian gesture of Ready-Made which aims at transposing a common object into art, Mathieu Mercier redefines the position of the objects (often common household and industrial products) through a constant questioning of their symbolic and utilitarian values. Such an approach liberated the objects from all acquired knowledge; hence, allowing a perfect “fuse of supermarkets and museums”, to put it in the artist’s words, not without art historical references.
A “Mondrian” shelf made from DIY boards and primary-colored household objects such as blankets, plastic bins and stationary folders (Drum and Bass, 2002); a neon loop hanging on the wall like a rope (Untitled, 2004); an eye-test chart made of direct superimposition of a 1919 typeface designed by Theo van Doesburg and a 1979 curved font by Edward Benguiat (ZU, 2004); five black and grey Perspex circles of different sizes, each to represent one generation of recording disks, from LPs to digital media (Hi/Lo/No-Tech, 2002), etc. Mathieu Mercier proposes to us an archaeological account of forms, a dialogue between modern art and contemporary mass consumption, and an evolution of the meaning of “modernity” from its utopian dream to its commercial triumph.
The interview was conducted at the occasion of Mathieu Mercier’s two solo exhibitions this year, Sublimation in Le Crédac (Jan – March 2012) and Désillusions d'optique in Fri Art, Fribourg (May – August, 2012).
31 July 2012
MM – Mathieu Mercier
ST – Selina Ting for InitiArt Magazine
Confrontation and Interchangeability
ST: Let’s start with the idea of « Confrontation » in your work. One of your earliest pieces, Fils électriques (Electrical Wires, 1995), that I have seen several times in collectors’ houses, has the potential of evoking confusion between art in space and architectural elements.
MM: It’s an evoked image. However, if you look at it carefully, you would see that such a bunch of electrical wires couldn’t really lead to any confusion. I remember when Electrical Wires was first shown in a Parisian gallery in 1996, a visitor said us, “Be careful with this kind of things, people would mistake it for a work of art!” He thought it was a renovation work in progress in the gallery. However, given the plastic qualities and the environment in which the work is presented, he concluded that it could be considered a work of art. Artistically speaking, the piece is effectively dynamic and pictorial. It calls to mind a bouquet of “high-tech” flowers in a construction site.
Mathieu Mercier, Fils électriques (Electrical Wires), 1995, dimensions varied. Courtesy Mathieu Mercier.
ST: Has the idea of working with existing materials been present since the beginning of your career?
MM: Yes, the idea has always been there since the beginning of my work, and evidently, it’s a question related to the economy of production and the space of presentation. The reduced dimensions of Electrical Wires allowed me to carry it in my pocket for a project presentation, for example. Basically, the idea of working with everyday objects is more a determination to act on what was available. When I work in a new context without my tools or my archives, I tend to repeat the gesture of positioning myself as an observer of the immediate reality. In that, I would go to the nearby shops, list the objects and identify those that seem to be more significant than the others. Hence, I create the categories of objects and elaborate the collections. There is nothing extraordinary in it, many artists work in a similar way. It’s true that the relationships between objects interest me a lot, just like the very powerful signification that an object could embody beneath its apparent banality. My current exhibition in Fri Art (Zurich) is about the displacement and the confrontation that place the objects under a different perspective, at the same time introduce a sort of instability to the definition of the objects, as well as to the categories to which we normally attribute them.
(Left) Mathieu Mercier, Untitled, 2005, Neon tubes, painted metal hook, 65 x 35 x 25 cm. Photo : © Florian Kleinefenn. (Centre) Mathieu Mercier, Double-socket Lamp, 1999, 11 light bulbs, 10 double-sockets, dimensions varied. Photo : © Florian Kleinefenn. (Right) Mathieu Mercier, Two Chairs, 1998, plastic, wood, paint, 90 x 120 x 60 cm. Collection Clémence & Didier Krzentowski, Paris. Photo : © Florian Kleinefenn. Courtesy Mathieu Mercier.
ST: How do you translate our relationship with reality? Do you conceive it with a particular sensitivity in terms of the symbolic and abstract values of the objects?
MM: To answer the question, we need to, first of all, be able to share a common ground on the definition of “reality”. For me, the notion of “reality” encompasses both what could be acted upon and what acts on us.
There is still something elliptical in my relationship with reality. It’s more a sequence of different intensities, where reality shifts from a solid referent to an allusive system, then once again, to a clarity of signs. For example, in the Neon-loop series, I start off with some trivial materiality in order to bring it to a piece of artistic invention, thus, a significant variation in the intended or received relationship with reality. In any case, there is still some reality, but like any artist, I certainly try to provide it with a “variant”, if only by assembling some of its elements in a pertinent “gesture”, a gesture that excludes awkwardness, silliness, superficial provocation, the informative theme, the spectacular or the emotional.
Often, I seek a particular form of precision, such that a tension between the elements and the pieces that follow from them persists, a tension that probably questions the reality of those other presences.
ST: On the contrary, in the exhibition, it seems that there is a free flow of symbolic meaning between the objects…
MM: Well, the objects used for the exhibition are the common daily objects without any stylistic quality. They are almost illustrative of our ideas of them. I am very interested in the avant-garde projects which believed that we could finally create a new society based on the project of Total Art through grouping artists from all domains to work on all human productions. The project of modernity was primarily a project of cultural production. At the same time, Marcel Duchamp did an opposite gesture of bringing into the context of art a banal object of industrial production, thus conferring to it a strong symbolic charge. At the intersection point of these opposite concepts, a very interesting question is posed on the way we categorize “things”. Such question reveals numerous paradoxes which allow me to play with the systems of codes, symbols and beliefs. The elements in my work are extremely synthetic, they are the signs employed for their immediate explicit meanings. My work draws on the affinity between the logic of abstract representation and the more pragmatic logic of usage and industrial production. But the association that I created between the objects and the prints implies an interchangeability of status.
Mathieu Mercier, Untitled (bananas/kodak), 2011, bananas, sublimation on Corian pedestal, 90 x 60 x 60 cm. Collection Centre National des Arts Plastiques. Photo : © Erling Lykke Jeppesen. Courtesy Mathieu Mercier.
ST: At the same time, isn’t there a process of mystification of reality?
MM: [Laughs] Yes, an appropriate reference would be Magritte’s «Ceci n’est pas une pipe ». For me, some signs can be easily mixed with informative, mystic or religious symbols.
ST: Is it possible, for example, to replace the bananas with another object without interrupting the interchangeability?
MM: I have certainly thought about the possibility, but the answer is “No”. Systematically, there is a confrontation between an object and a TV test pattern, a graphic chart or chromatic circles, etc., -- with or without distortions. But it requires a minimum of obvious analogies between the forms in order to engender a dialogue. The objective is to activate the imagination of the onlooker, but without arriving at a stable solution. Each piece is created in a unique way. For all the objects, it’s about conveying a sense of enigma, a sort of rebus, with an implied effect of illusion without prestidigitation.
Mathieu Mercier, Casque(Helmet), 1998, chrome plastic, 40 cm diameter. Photo : © Florian Kleinefenn. Courtesy Mathieu Mercier.
ST: I am thinking of the work Casque (Helmet, 1998) – a motorcycle helmet hanging at a corner of the wall like a surveillance device. Does it function on the same logic of interchangeability in terms of form, function and signification?
MM: I haven’t thought of this, but it’s true that this piece anticipates my new ideas. Helmet is a mirror, an object of reflection that plays on the double-meaning of protection – the protection of the body and the protection of the space when it is hung on the wall like a surveillance system. So, I think it means a “double-function” for a third status rather than a dialogue.
The strategy of abstraction
ST: Is the relationship between the objects that you have created in your work becoming more and more abstract?
MM: It has always been abstract. One of my earliest pieces, Mur de chevilles (Plastic Anchors Wall, 1994), consists of forming a motif of colorful dots on the whole surface of a wall with plastic anchors of different sizes and colors to create a sort of constellation. Before that, I have produced paintings from plates whose motif was repeated on the wall in a regular manner. By doing so, I liberated myself from the problems of choice to concentrate particularly on the occupation of the space. Such an act constitutes a return to paint abstract paintings from the real world. The back-and-forth between the abstraction and the real is therefore always present since the beginning [of my work]. I displace it intuitively according to the opportunities and the ideas that inspire me. Therefore, there is no intention for a programmed scheme, and probably because I have the feeling that the categories which we use to determine or to oppose the abstract from the concrete are particularly blur.
Installation view, Neugierig?, Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn - Mathieu Mercier, Plate and its concentric motif repeated on a wall, 1993, acrylic, on-site installation on a wall, dimensions varied. Collection Sammlung Paul Maenz, Berlin. Courtesy Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin.
ST: When you first showed the series of work in Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry (20 Jan - 25 March 2012) in France, you gave the exhibition the title “Sublimation”. Do you imply a sublimation process of the banal objects through abstraction?
MM: The sublimation is a hot technique that I used to print the drawings on the Corian pedestals. Naming an exhibition by the technique of its artistic creation resembles a painter’s desire to call his exhibition “Oil on Canvas”. [Laughs] In Physics, sublimation also refers to the transformation from a solid phase to a gaseous phase, which is a form of disappearance. The disappearance or the absence is a phenomenon that interests me a lot and it has always been a subject for my work. Lastly, sublimation is also a term employed in psychoanalysis to designate the displacement of sexual drive towards objects or activities that are less instinctual.
ST: In reality, such technique integrates the prints more deeply and solid inside the pedestals, so there is a rejection of the possibility of disappearance…
MM: The sublimation makes the printing possible on the material [Corian] of pedestal, like a tattoo.
Installation view, Désillusions d’optique, Fri Art, Fribourg, from 26 May to 19 August, 2012. Photo : © Julie Langenegger
ST: A word cleverly chosen to unify all the technical and symbolic meanings of the work – a nice demonstration of the power of abstract language. On the contrary, you almost systematically name your work either “Untitled” or by its constitutive materials, such as “Black Box in White Cube”, “Structure in Wood and Melamine”, etc. Is it difficult for you to talk about your work?
MM: The relationship to language is problematic for me, even in the titles. All that I could say about my work could only be expressed through a vocabulary of alibi. What I made intelligible in the form is far more complex that what I could share by words.
ST: Could the descriptive titles or notices provide room for interpretation to the spectators?
MM: The descriptive could be a method, but that’s not what I preferred. The interests of art go beyond comprehension. Feelings are extremely difficult to describe.
ST: You have a passion for organizing exhibitions as an artist-curator, and in your personal exhibitions, you often assume the role of the curator, hence the intermediate between the work and the viewers. In your conception of art, what kind of image do you give to the spectator?
MM: The famous image of the spectator depends enormously on the conception of the exhibition space, the scenography and the installation. All in all, everything that is involved, including the works as well as the spectators, has to be considered and organized with precautions. When I was working on my exhibition in Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2007, I was very attentive to all these aspects. I wished to present to the public something coherent and efficient. It was out of the question for me to put “Untitled” notices everywhere in the museum. That was why we worked very hard on the floor plan which was distributed to the visitors [as exhibition guide], and which I considered a real publication. Instead of opting for a very “museum” presentation, we were inspired by the language of architectural plans, the so called “blueprints”. The overall design was very graphic and visual – on the front, you have a lock-up of the museum’s logo and my name, specially created for the occasion. On one side of the leaflet are pictograms with captions of the works for visitors to have a first lecture, on the other side is a floor plan illustrating the placement of the works in the exhibition space. Each visitor could use the plan the way he desired; several itineraries were possible. The idea was not to be too intrusive or imposing on the public’s experience within the exhibition space. I consciously facilitated a circulation without constraint, so as to truly leave more space for the spectators’ intuition.
Modernism in Art Today
ST: Can we come back to the idea of Modernity?
MM: I don’t really know what it wants to say! [Laughs] It has almost become a commercial term that allows the same thing to be sold and resold ceaselessly. Modernity is to make us believe that progress is a continuous process.
ST: [Laughs] With the elapse of time, is modernism or the avant-grade project becoming materials that allow artists today to freely appropriate or make reference to?
Mathieu Mercier, Drum & Bass (Maison), 2003-2010, yellow bowl, blue oven gloves, red files, 122,5 x 150 cm, courtesy Mathieu Mercier.
MM: I take Mondrian’s work as a symbol of modernism for an observation of the end of the century. It’s neither paying homage nor a citation, but a convocation of an image integrated into the daily language. Therefore, I executed a reflection on the avant-gardes rather than a simple citation. In a certain manner, it’s a way for me to fuse supermarkets and museums.
ST: [Laughs]Thank you very much!
MM: With pleasure!
Installation view, Sublimations, Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry – le Crédac, from 20 January to 25 March 2012. Photo : © André Morin
Mathieu Mercier - Désillusions d'optique
May 2 - August 19, 2012
Fri Art, Centre d'art
CH-1701 Fribourg, Suisse
Born in 1970 in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (France), Mathieu Mercier lives and works in Paris.
Winner of Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2003, Mercier is featured in numerous solo exhibitions in France and abroad. In 2007, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris presented his first retrospective, Untitled 1993 – 2007, the exhibit then travelled to Kunsthalle de Nuremberg. His most recent solo exhibition, Désillusions d’optique, is currently visible in Fri Art de Fribourg (Switzerland). Mathieu Mercier is represented by Galerie Mehdi Chouakri (Berlin), Galleria Massimo Minini (Brescia) and Galerie Lange & Pult (Zürich).
Selected Personal Exhibitions (Since 2007)
Désillusions d'optique, Fri Art, Fribourg
Sublimations, Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry – le Crédac, Ivry-sur-Seine
A Quarter to Three, Skulpturi, Copenhagen
Frühe werke und etwas neues, Galerie Lange & Pult, Zürich
Des spectres et des automates, Le Dojo, Nice
Made in Japan by Mathieu Mercier, Super Window Project & Gallery, Kyoto
Mathieu Mercier, Galerie Lange & Pult, Zürich
Mathieu Mercier, Galerie Massimo Minini, Brescia
Mathieu Mercier, Ohne titel 1993-2007, Kunsthalle, Nuremberg *
T.A.G., Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin
Mathieu Mercier, Sans titres 1993-2007, ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris *
* with catalogue or publication