Pierre Mercier

Galerie Laage-Salomon

Pierre Mercier became known in the early ’80s through his remarkable “Portraits de travailleurs dans la rue” (Portraits of street workers, 1978–80) and “Statues du mineur” (Statues of the miner, 1981), works that analyzed, through photographs, the formal vocabulary and limitations of sculpture. Mercier continued to explore this theme in works such as Epreuve de lecture (Reading lesson, 1982), for which he photographed a model who stood on a pedestal, with book in hand in a pose characteristic of traditional sculpture, while the pedestal rotated. The work consisted of nine of these photographs, which fictitiously referred to as many points of view—or almost as many, since the last photograph was nearly identical to the first. Standing before this display, the viewer internalized an imagined movement: the circulation of his or her own body around the object, or, less likely, the rotation of the object itself. The photographs were shown in the space in which they had been taken, intensifying the disjunction between objective space and the viewer’s mental reconstruction of it. Mercier’s most recent exhibition, entitled “N.E.W.S.” (referring to the four cardinal points of the compass), represents a significant development in the artist’s work. Having mastered a process by which the viewer internalizes sculptural space, he has now turned his attention to objective space and how we orient ourselves within it through the concept of “direction.” But rather than create objects that relate to a classically centered perception of reality, with this new work Mercier pushes traditional perception to its limits. Eliminating the figures of the earlier works, he has based these pieces on the general subdivisions of space (top, bottom, horizon line, cardinal points, etc.) and has created metaphors for the idea of direction through pure sculpture and through a synthesis of sculpture and photography.

Deux colonnes (Two columns, 1988) is an autonomous, freestanding work on the theme of geographical direction, using spatial parameters that articulate the four cardinal points. It consists of two tall square columns, approximately 10 feet high, with narrow doors in all four sides of each column. In one column the doors open from the left, and in the other from the right, suggesting the reversal of direction of wind and water in the northern and southern hemispheres (i.e., clockwise and counterclockwise).

In the other works in this show, photographs still play a determining role. Here, however, they function within the context of wall sculptures that imply a framing of matter or space: sky, in the four photographs in N.E.W.S., 1987; earth, horizon, and sky, in the three photographs in L’Année nouvelle (The new year, 1988); and the deep space of our galaxy, in La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1988). The photographs of the sky in N.E.W.S. are literal representations of our use of direction to orient ourselves in space. Mercier photographed the same section of sky four times, facing a different direction each time. Each photo thus shifts 90° in relation to its neighbor, corresponding precisely with the four positions of the body and the four directions of the compass. But the photographs are virtually identical, save for a tiny quarter-moon and a few clouds. Although these reflect the changes in direction, there is only enough information in the four views of the sky to provide a sense of orientation relative to themselves, not to the earth. Beneath each framed photograph, however, is a semicircular iron shelf, a disjunctive “pedestal” that serves as a sort of horizon line and inscribes the photograph in sculptural space. The work in effect becomes the dynamic of movements suggested by the photographs: rising above for a look down; back to earth for a gaze out to the horizon or up to the sky; turning in circles for a view from each of the four cardinal points, etc. And thus Mercier’s new kind of sculpture shares with traditional sculpture the capacity to induce in the viewer an experience of space. But Mercier’s purely subjective space has nothing to do with its predecessor, for it exists, like the universe described by Nicholas of Cusa, with its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.