A visit to Théo Mercier
If it wasn’t for the poverty that is almost tangible in places, even if it remains dignified and furtive, you could almost be fooled by the Haussmannian decorum oozing from the façades. Once past the porch, the staircase exudes a persistent odour of dust, with a dash of ginger or bird’s-eye chilli pepper. The crimson threadbare carpet somehow matches the green square of the rickety doorframes of the half-window landing doors. We are in the upper part of Faubourg Poissonnière that is also something of a non-quartier, and the parody of the “eternal Paris”. Even before we knock at the door, in our stasis, on the landing in front of the apartment, we can easily visualise the tall, supple silhouette of Théo Mercier, with his short sideburns and the sparse whiskers of his beard—the beard of a Titi Parisien, or street urchin, that seems to have sprung from this corner of Paris, but that could just as well be Buenos Aires or Odessa.
Every time I go have a look elsewhere to see if I’m there, I am there, he says.
He closes the door behind me.
He has just returned from a stay in Mexico, since his cycles of work or exhibitions are always based on his travels. Whatever the climate—extreme cold, searing heat wave, bustling Berlin streets or Baltic solitude—he makes use of all of it, just as long as it isn’t dull or lukewarm (with a pronounced preference for ports).
I go there without expectations, I am very malleable. I let myself get tricked. I let people take advantage of me just to see how it works. It’s good to see everything, he says.
Only then do I start to understand what kind of foreigner I am. Which Mexican I am, which Italian I’m going to be, he says.
Naturally, this metamorphosis is visual, first and foremostly: I force myself to be a chameleon. But I’m not that good at languages; I speak a bit of English and German, but this was the ends of the earth, he says.
Mercier, who knows how to play all the roles, from bad boy to Catholic chorister, without ever acting, changes his look. In Mexico, I discovered Brylcreem, and I only kept the moustache. I find little optical illusions… I was a fantastic Mexican, one of the best! An adventurer/rocker, quite a dangerous Mexican for the likes of me, he says.
A deviation that is both mental and physical is established, with the clear desire to confront this ‘elsewhere’ and take on its risks. To hang out in bad places, but do nothing wrong. To seek out misfortune without really looking for it: the places that attract me are not the safest. The most interesting places by night are also the most risky, he says.
Like a dreamlike vision, the gentle road movie of this epic tale by Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho in Spain springs to mind (Debord’s attraction for Spain grew stronger and stronger during the seventies, but from as early as The Society of the Spectacle, he praised the “infinity” of its anarchist insurrections…). The pair’s jaws dropped in front of a magnificent ruin, in a village, so they asked who owned it (a baker) and purchased it. They then continued their strange, melancholic trail, littered with wineries, yet remained incapable of remembering the name or location of the village, thus their refuge was doomed to remain permanently vacant.
I leave with the aim of bringing back proof, remains that I wanted only for myself, he says.
We’re not talking about one of these “residencies” that contemporary art is so crazy about. It’s almost an imaginary anthropological mission: I have people to meet, things to find. A fictive site, a fictive population, a community without a history, geography or language, but who would truly exist; a kind of lie that I start to believe in, a “mission”, yes, he says.
He adds: “Je suis les objets.” In French, the verb “suivre” can be translated as either “I follow” or “I am”. Here, the emphasis seems to be placed on the latter, ontological meaning. “Being the objects”, “The being and the objects”, “Objects or void”: I tracked down all the objects, but with genuine naivety. It is only afterwards, as a reward, that they prove to me—through their origin, their history—that I wasn’t wrong. I gathered up a supply of very rough puppet parts, fragments of faces, scattered trunks and so on, and I discovered in the end that they came from Diego Rivera’s house. Tatty puppets that had been in earthquakes and floods, that had never been finished, that no one had taken any time to paint, or very little. They have no arms, no legs. They are ghosts. I’m going to prolong their life, he says.
I still have a lot of trouble with the fact of being an artist. It’s not my fault; it’s what other people call “art”. But I don’t care. On the other hand, I find artisans completely fascinating. In Mexico, of course, I showed them all my past work: they felt as though they were dealing with a kind of European counterpart, he says.
Somewhere above our heads, from the apartment above, or perhaps the one arranged in a quincunx, emanates a repetitive scraping, becoming insistent—a sound that was partway between a discreet knock and an intermittent creaking, like the to-and-fro of a busted rocking chair.
Beyond Oaxaca, I left for the mountains to make pottery. In a potters’ village, I met the son of a woman who was quite famous, who had been making pottery for 70 years. In fact, she was the first activist lesbian. She was modelling pottery—vases with ample bosoms—in the 1930s! She was despised. Others were ashamed of her, but she was also very productive. People have only recently recognised her technical and artistic contribution, so now, in all of the surrounding villages, all of the potters make pottery with big breasts! While I was there I made a series of ritual objects, large vases and a kind of earthenware incense holder, fired underground. They are ‘swept’ with smoke and black streaks. I let them form the shapes that they usually make, and just before they started to dry, I pressed them; I cut out openings with a knife. I obtained mouth-like, gaping, twisted, grimacing forms, to which I inlaid real dogs’ teeth. These censers spat out nopal smoke, a kind of natural incense obtained from a cactus that is also called a prickly pear tree, he says.
I am more attracted to sects, ones that have never really worked, than I am to religions. I like cults when they’re personal, or shared by very few people, he says.
On the gable of the building, just to the right of the carriage entrance, a plaque indicates: DEMONIAK. One finds oneself musing in front of the interphone BLACK BYZANCE that must be pressed in order to be admitted into Théo Mercier’s studio, Rue du Chemin-Vert. However, you learn later that neither of these names were given by him. They were already there. But they were made to be found, weren’t they?
Since the first works that he presented, in 2009, from Tapis violents to Fast and Gorgeous, Théo Mercier likes to create a post-Metal world, with very first-degree satanistic references. This world is akin to the tattoo that adorns his abdomen, to the right of his navel: a sailor’s melodramatic imaginary world, with an anchor adorned with ribbons, crowned by a bird that seems to serve as a lookout.
In fact, the inchoate work of Théo Mercier suddenly strikes me as a solidification of all of the ‘elsewheres’ that have put art in motion for centuries… From the end of the 17th century, exoticism arrived—the fascination for the “outside”. Then in the 19th century came Orientalism (“the Orient has become a general concern,” noted Victor Hugo in his preface to Orientales), then Spiritism, Japanism, Primitivism, Science Fiction, Art Brut, Rasta… and so on, and so on… There is Rimbaud’s version: “I is an other”; or Flaubert’s “I am Madame Bovary”. There is also the one that students plastered all over the walls in the midst of May 1968, in support of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was prohibited from returning to France during the “events”: “We are all German Jews”. As for Théo Mercier, he could state: “I am everything, all the time and anywhere.”
In my sculptures, I realise that there are always hidden elements that are dissimulated by sheets, fur, spaghetti… And then there’s a protruding element—hands, eyes that are literally coming out of the head… It’s always a body part: the human part of the beast. Whether it is its eyes, tongue or hands, it’s always deep in the guts—this human element that is always slightly hidden in even the most insignificant of objects, in a flowerpot. The creature, the phantom of the object that is trying to get out, he says.
Perhaps it’s the missing link between life and death: the écorché, situated between the living and a corpse. It is something that is able to adapt, a hybrid creature. Humans that become skeletons, or skeletons that become humans, he says.
At this point in the conversation, the bottle of wine from Marches, from Lacrima di Morro d’Alba with its heady rose aroma (enough to crucify your heart) is running dry. The layout of the book, entitled All you can eat (a regurgitating best-of, he says), loops on the screen of the iMac, with pounding elevator music to accompany the slideshow.
I want to get there: less folklore, less decor, he says, curiously.
Take the spectator along for the ride, stay accessible, even from a distance: I don’t want to take anyone to the Moon. No abstraction of meaning, not even in formal terms. The cobblestone path is always there, he says.
His gaze rises to a level a bit over my head. His scansion becomes jerkier, his breathing shorter, but very slightly, very gently. A slight whistle is emitted from his nostrils, continually.
Through encounters and places, he says.
There are several triggers, he says.
In the North of Mexico: a landscape of dunes and mountains almost completely made of salt, legendary stories, a form of torture that has been perpetuated for centuries—burying one’s enemies in the salt. A fantastic element in this salty, boiling, immaculate, blinding and corrosive land. There would have been people living there half naked: what would their skin or their clothes have been like? he says.
Ah, also a goat, an ancient figure of evil, he says.
A horse measuring almost three metres, a very big horse, eaten by acid, he says.
The leader mounts it. In his hand, he holds a large, sharp wooden lance. A wood, with a palm tree, with palm fronds in sharp, cutting white steel, spanning 1.5 metres in diameter. A kind of encounter between a weapon and a plant, he says.
One hundred and twenty masks speckled with horse and goat bone powder, and volcanic ash, mixed into the ceramic itself, he says.
One hundred and twenty skeletons dug out of horse bone. Usually, they are filled with marrow: soft, spongy matter, full of blood… he says.
Then he looks me straight in the eyes, really deep in the eyes, and adds: I would like us to be somewhere else.
I press garnet-coloured radishes into the cupel of the salt flower, a grain of which enters a notch on the side of my second to last digit. I wince.
His gaze gets a bit lost in the void. Around us, I now perceive elements that I had never seen before: a spiky palm tree, an image of the Milky Way that truly seems infinite, a piece of skin hanging down. On the table lies a human skeleton. Cut out of a mare’s tibia, with its torso all stiff, with bars and legs grotesquely articulated, like a somewhat devilish puppet.
I sculpt pieces out of bone. Horses made of human bone, human skeletons in horse bone: all of this dialogue that brings a certain coherency. All of the materials merge and combine and when they don’t, they pretend to, he says.
I work with a bone seller that I met at the Sorcerers’ Market. Usually, he sculpts knives in human bones, for sorcerers, who make signs in the ground with them. Every other day, for two months, I passed him in this market, half devoted to black magic, and half to white. You can buy all sorts of things there: animals’ teeth, bags of human hair, peyote (devil’s root), crowns of thorns, leopard’s claws, rattlesnake tails… he says.
They are pieces from elsewhere: they are inspired here by what I saw over there, and over there by what I do here. They are imaginary ritual objects that might have real credibility. They are imaginary objects, but their element of invention is quite discreet, he says.
A primitive civilisation, but one with a real sense of ritual. Family drama comes up often: the site of the most hidden things possible, but also where things are openly presented. I’d like to hold an exhibition that would be exclusively in white and red—flayed flesh with a bit of white fat thrown in. From the gut: the most organic matter there is. A dirty red, the red of the body. The only characters are sculptures that wander in the space, simply covered in sheets, in parade outfits, like a cross between a ghost, the Ku Klux Klan and the old piece of furniture in a haunted house that has been covered over for 40 years, because everyone in the house has died. Only the hands appear, he says.
I pick up a round slice of dried coppa meat, hesitate, then put it back down.
I grab the bone skeleton and stuff it in my pants pocket, which protrudes in a weird lump. I think of Guy Debord visiting Yves Klein’s studio. The player of the game of Go who wove the web of the International Situationists in the lair of the mystical master of pure pigment. Klein gave him a monochrome, asking him to choose among the myriad works all around them, in all formats, all of them, naturally, in an identical blue. Debord asked for the smallest one, smaller even than a postcard. Klein, surprised, requested an explanation for this decisive choice. “It’s the only one that fits into the pocket of my duffle-coat.” Infinity contained within a quadrilateral, in a thick fabric of waterproof wool.
Seeing doesn’t amount to much in the end, he says.
photo: Aurelien Mole
Collection 1, detail