“The future is but the obsolete in reverse.” (Vladimir NABOKOV)
For Panorama Zéro, his first personal exhibition at the gallery, THÉO MERCIER presents a collection of sculptures and photographs, which are means of questioning the making of history, as a construction as well as a deconstruction. By placing traces of the recent or distant past and traces of the present side by side, he questions the phenomena of ruin and obsolescence. Without lapsing into romanticism, which he rejects unless it is subverted, THÉO MERCIER creates an environment in which objects become harbingers of a disaster to come. He accomplishes a form of backwards archaeology that tends to reveal the beauty of destruction processes.
At the centre of the exhibition space, an installation unfolds as a landscape of sculptures consisting in unstable combinations of heterogeneous objects – ancient objects and contemporary objects, originals and reproductions: an antique amphora, imposing 18th-century ceramic jars, a Mesopotamian vase, stone cannonballs, spheres, a column capital, a tyre, etc. The compositions themselves rest on bases resembling architectural elements – arches, stairs, columns, tiers... – that seem to be falling in ruins, and on which discreetly painted surfaces render shadows in trompe l’oeil.
THÉO MERCIER is a virtuoso for creating precarious balances and paradoxical relationships of scale. The bases, whose usual function is to support and protect sculptures, now seem to threaten them – a new answer to the central question of the relationship between a sculpture and its base. Contradicting the idea that sculpture is a perennial medium, THÉO MERCIER creates unstable, fragile, dystopian works, mostly doomed to disappear, like so many monuments to the glory of collapsing: “time-dismantling machines”, in his own words. THÉO MERCIER questions the verticality of sculpture and its symbolic pedestal as a way of giving a personal take on an archetypal back-and-forth movement: the rise/fall pair. Based on disequilibrium, the monumental works in Panorama Zéro inherently contain their erection as well as their fall, their ruin. Through aesthetic echoes, they emphasize the etymological filiation between the last two – “ruina” in Latin meaning “fall”, among other things.
Theo Mercier creates a “Babylonian and organized mise en scène of disaster” and constructs “an urban landscape from which humans have disappeared, a sacked city where a civilization is ending.” Although several artistic and historical references are interwoven, from the Mosul Museum to the temples of Palmyra, none of them are clearly mentioned in this collection, which is actually a fantasy landscape evoking the precarious fate of mankind and the history of the world through material traces of various civilizations, which the artist enjoys subverting and reinventing.
Overlooking this collection of objects, the mobiles Désastre I and Désastre II embody another threat, coming from the sky this time. Rocks sculpted by the artist and fragments of brick walls spiked with broken glass hang in the air, suspended from chains, as if assaulting a landscape in which the future is discredited and the past abandoned. Providing a counterpoint to the upward motion of the central installation, the free fall of the mobiles perfects this panorama of disaster – another meaning of the Latin “ruina” – and of unavoidable disappearance created by THÉO MERCIER, on which the jaws of time seem to snap shut.
Le Sens de l’histoire ou la Grande Réduction is a collection of six reproductions of the head of Hygeia, an ancient Greece masterpiece from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens representing the Greek goddess of health. The six casts of this female marble face replicate it on various scales. They are arranged on a shelf in order of size, which emphasizes their differences. The biggest of these heads, from the museum shop in Athens, is probably closest to the original, while the others are scaled-down copies, replicating the model less and less precisely and less and less closely as their size diminishes. Reproduced over and over again to stock the souvenir shops of Athens, the serene and harmonious face of the goddess becomes tangibly distorted with the repeated duplications, suggesting a “distortography” of the divine, according to the artist, the same way that time kicks history around.
Like a collector, THÉO MERCIER has collected these objects and given them a base; by gathering them, he places these disparate objects on a path going from the sacred to the profane, and traces a great journey through history, going from a pantheon to a contemporary museum of Athens, from archaeology to souvenir shops.
Five photographic diptychs and one photograph from the series Chefs-d’œuvre de l’art combine iconic objects that seem to be remnants of lost civilizations, as in a collage. The title of this series of works is a direct reference to the covers of a magazine published by Hachette in the 1960s, whose ambition was to inventory and popularize 40,000 years of human production. The greatest “chefs d’œuvre” which the publisher chose to feature on the covers were placed over red, green, yellow or blue backgrounds, compositions reminiscent of pop art. The aspiration to offering a scientific inventory gave way to graphically attractive images transforming artefacts of ancient or lost civilizations into true media icons, “like a Pop Art piece featuring a Callipygian Venus instead of Jackie Kennedy”, as THÉO MERCIER suggests.
By applying the same principle and reactivating the same aesthetically-charged gaze on distant or lost civilizations, he shows how the past is constructed and deconstructed according to unpredictable historical events and to selections made by one civilization after another. Sculptures, masks and artefacts, most of them anthropomorphic, are displayed side by side on the exhibition walls, evoking “a great gallery of ancestors where Men face other Men in their deadly humanity”, according to the artist. While the sculptures in the centre of the exhibition are ready to fade into the depths of history, the ghosts in the photographic diptychs seem to be witnesses to their own disappearance.
Like small pebbles on a path allowing us to reach some of these civilizations, climbing holds – imitations of nature for artificial walls – metaphorically encourage visitors to attempt a dangerous climb.
With Panorama Zéro, in a way, THÉO MERCIER revives the oracular function of artists and poets by mapping the buildings and the ruins of past, present and future civilizations, without naming them. He thereby suggests that they are what makes humankind unique.