Book Memory

Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie, Paris January 2012

The Horror in the Museum

A horror story published in 1933 in the magazine Weird Tales under the name of Hazel Head but rewritten secretly by H.P. Lovecraft, The Horror in the Museum takes place in the spectacular lair of the dangerous Dr. Rogers. It is a personal museum, the museum of the strange and the macabre, in which wax figures embody the clichés of crime (Landru, the decapitation of Lady Jane Grey…), in which a little room reserved for adults exhibits anomalies of nature behind a curtain, teratological marvels and other unknown monstrosities, “hideous parodies on forms of organic life we know”. Finally, the narrator-spectator, Stephen Jones, “leisurely connoisseur of the bizarre in art”, will confront a hideous creature belonging to the savant fou, in the crypt of the Rogers Museum. Plunged into the obscurity of the exhibition room, lighting up with his torch “some morbid, grotesque object—a guillotine, a nameless hybrid monster, a pasty-bearded face crafty with evil, a body with red torrents streaming from a severed throat”, Jones soon becomes sensitive to the mouldy odours of the wax figures, that “was more like the faint smell of specimens in a natural-history museum”.

Two globulous eyes in plastic stuck to the cover of the French edition of Lovecraft’s tale: a simple, playful gesture, borrowed from the world of tricks and dares. Artist Théo Mercier turns the book into a fairground monster, a Z-rated object, displacing the novella of the master of horror towards a more comical register. Incidentally, however, nothing prevents us from considering this book as an emblematic work, its title as a manifesto, and the Rogers Museum as an image, as a possible model for Théo Mercier’s “imaginary museum”. This almost parodic jumble, partway between a fairground spectacle and a museum of natural history, filled with objects that hesitate between the fake and the authentic, offers us an introduction into his highly unique art of exposure. Or even over-exposure: note the particular care taken with the bases of his sculptures, that are an integral part of his works, which the artist treats like furniture, to give the sculptures object status (“objects speak to me more than artworks do”). Recently, Théo Mercier composes windows set into the wall, in which he draws together authentic objects and other entirely artificial ones, bearing witness to unique rituals. But he also introduces special effects into these display cases (smoke, lighting) that make the whole evolve towards a zoological vivarium. That we think again of the boxed-frames of his images, with their recesses that once again provide multiple photographs with the character of a unique object, pinned up like a rare species of butterfly in a natural history museum: thus Théo Mercier never ceases to increase the “exhibition” coefficient of his works. He thus sources from the world of decoration, theatre, but also the commercial world of shops and antique shops, through to the art of floral arrangements, which also intensifies the display element: exuberant pots, turning podiums, boxed-frames, pedestals in faux marble, of the kind that one finds in the halls of hotels rather than in contemporary art museums.

Théo Mercier’s work is ultimately composed of a vast and delirious fictive anthropology, made up of imaginary tribes, grotesque bestiaries, big-bottomed totems, plant/animals, natural flowers, a solitary Spaghetti-man, and “female ejaculators” with long hair pouring from an upturned vase. Even if they are also overtaken by a proliferating fantasy, bases and display cases also serve to objectify, legitimate, or at least render the specimens and remains of these peoples and “post-exotic” civilisations credible, which are from nowhere and no time. Since they constantly combine real, fake and cheap, Théo Mercier’s compositions, collages or still lifes are comprised of all the artefacts that contemporary society and popular culture present in their stores, in the show windows of opticians or orthopaedists, in record stores, in which pearls of musical subcultures accumulate, or on the shelves of flea markets, but also in all of the museums that proliferate in cities: doll museums, museums of torture of the Guinness Records, rock museums (from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the USA, to the guitars and costumes hung on the walls of the Hard Rock Cafés), industrial, ecological or craft museums, not forgetting the terrible wax museums installed in the supermarkets of Moscow or Kiev, the downgraded and overly kitsch version of Grévin or Tussauds. Hence Théo Mercier’s idea of a “museum of secondary arts”: it was under this name that the artist devised a solo exhibition at the Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie in September 2011, repeating the form of the Musée de L’Homme, filling the space with sculptures that parodied the objects of American Indian or African peoples and civilisations. But the expression “museum of secondary arts” is also reminiscent of an art of recycling, of deviated ready-mades, made of an assemblage of parts found by the artist during his travels in the auction rooms or flea markets of Brussels, Mexico or elsewhere, on the “seconds markets” of the contemporary economy. From this point of view, his work reworks all the possible forms of the display, whether it be museum-based or commercial, forming a strange cabinet of curiosities, animated by a delirious, compulsive collector: which reminds us of the comic if someone pertinent concept of “Head Heritage”, “crazy heritage”, produced by rocker and archivist Julian Cope, who took it upon himself in the 1990s to preserve the monumental culture of psychedelics, of freak-folk or kosmic Germanic rock. Except that at the archive, Théo Mercier prefers the inventive reformation of rejects, their return to circulation with a stroke of imagination and “fantasy”, recreating a freakish world and a monstrous folk, the degenerate version of the “anarchive”. The form of the collection per se is not so much preserved in his work, involving living matter subjected to a certain number of combinations and hybridizations—it may just as easily be likened to a workshop or laboratory of forms.

The ultimate secondary effect: the over-exposure practised by Théo Mercier results in surcharging the gaze, or the different types of gaze of the spectator-visitor, who is invited to become this “leisurely connoisseur of the bizarre in art” who wanders about Dr Rogers’ crypt. We touch on the idea of the museum as a site of curiosity: in the light of these exhibition devices in which works are meant to be contemplated like a collection of rare objects, the eye is called to scrutinise, detail, focus and choose. It allows an intimate, close-up view of things— in short, the visual mode of the collector fascinated by curiosities. This also explains a common game on the part of Théo Mercier regarding the lighting of his works, the half-light: unlike very well-lit modern art museums, in which works are clearly visible, placed under the Apollonian sun of the obviousness of art - Théo Mercier also practices spectacular under-exposure: low lighting, luminescent special effects, artificial smoke, tromboscopic lights. Finally, at the Musée de la Chasse in Paris, he plunged the space into darkness with an “environmental freak-show”—all means are good means if they disrupt the gaze and powerfully promote vision. Darkness is thus favourable to vision. It is itself an operative and hallucinogenic mode of the gaze: “Indeed,” comments the spectator of the Rogers Museum in Lovecraft’s story, “the darkness had the effect of adding to the remembered images certain very disturbing imaginative overtones. […] In spite of himself his memory began reconstructing the utterly non-human blasphemies that lurked in the obscurer corners, and these lumpish hybrid growths oozed and wriggled toward him as though hunting him down in a circle.”

Jean-Max Collard

photo: Marc Dommage

affraid of books, sculpture, 30x30x160cm